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Child actors, young and all grown up

August 21, 2010 | 12:59 pm

ThomasOn the large billboards plastered all over town promoting this weekend's release of "The Switch," A-listers Jennifer Aniston and Jason Bateman are touted as the film's main attraction.

But according to many critics, the real star of the romantic comedy is Thomas Robinson, an 8-year-old Valley Village resident who plays Jennifer Aniston's precocious and endearingly neurotic son.

In her review of the film this week, Times critic Betsy Sharkey praised the actor's "excellent job" in the movie, calling him "talented and adorably soulful."

After spending a night observing Thomas during his first big Hollywood movie premiere earlier this week, we can vouch for that. Thomas -- who was only 6 when he filmed "The Switch" -- is about as un-Hollywood as it gets. Too shy to speak to reporters on the red carpet, he timidly posed for pictures and attended the premiere's swanky after-party, where he sat with his family for about an hour before asking his mom if they could go home. (Check out this photo diary of his big night.) What struck us most about him is how much he truly seemed to embody the character he plays in the movie: honest and even a little sad.

Bateman echoed that sentiment: "I don't want to take anything away from his acting talent, but he was similar to that part in his sweetness and kindness and his accessibility," the actor told us in an interview earlier this year.

Of course, Thomas is only one of the young actors who has popped up on the big screen this summer, when it seems there have been a wave of strikingly naturalistic and evocative performances from kids in films like "Ramona and Beezus" and "Flipped."

But just how do casting directors track down the perfect child actor, who is not only cute and talented, but capable of handling the pressure? That's one of the questions we explore in our Sunday Calendar story, in which casting directors, filmmakers and former child stars weigh in on the challenges of working in Hollywood as a youngster. Douglas Aibel, the casting director who found Thomas for "The Switch," said he could sense early on that the young boy was overwhelmed by the audition process.

"My Los Angeles casting associate did a callback session with him, and I was watching them do a scene a couple of times when his eyes began to glaze over a little bit," Aibel recalled. "And she said, 'You don't really want to be doing this anymore, do you?' He shook his head 'No,' she said 'OK, let's play,' and they stopped. We really try to make the process as painless as possible."

Of course, growing up in Hollywood can be notoriously challenging -- something that was evidenced by Anna Chlumsky, arguably best known for her role in 1991's "My Girl," who told us she has mixed feelings about her first starring role at age 10.

When parents ask her if they should let their kids get into acting, she usually says no, said Chlumsky, now 29. "When you make your child a professional, it unwittingly kind of shifts the hierarchy in the household. It's probably more Dickensian than anything else we do these days," she said.

If you're wondering what some of the other child stars of Gen X and Gen Y have been up to lately, check out the photo gallery we've put together that includes updates on former kid actors such as "The Sixth Sense's" Haley Joel Osment and star of "E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial, Henry Thomas.

We were most amused by -- er, interested in -- the whereabouts of Jonathan Lipnicki, the spiky-haired child who once asked Tom Cruise in "Jerry Maguire:" "Do you know that the human head weighs eight pounds?"

Where is he now? At 19, Lipnicki surfaced this summer with a role in the Mark Taper Forum production of "The Lieutenant of Inishmore." But he's also been busy working on his fitness, sharing shirtless pictures of himself with his approximately 700 Twitter followers.

-- Amy Kaufman


Photo: Thomas Robinson, center, poses with co-stars, from left, Juliette Lewis, Jennifer Aniston, Jason Bateman and Patrick Wilson at the premiere of "The Switch" in Hollywood on Aug. 16. Credit:  Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times


Child star in the making

Child actors: Thomas Robinson's red-carpet night

The child stars of Gen X and Y: Where are they now?

Movie review: 'The Switch'

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