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The Kids' Table: Chatting with 5 child stars

”Modern Family” star Rico Rodriguez, Kiernan Shipka of ”Mad Men,” and more of Hollywood’s brightest — and youngest — talents

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Child actors have a bad name. Pushed too hard too soon. Ruined at a young age by pressure and excess, their depressing flameouts the stuff of tabloid heaven. But the story doesn’t have to end that way, at least according to the five extraordinarily promising young stars EW gathered together at a Los Angeles hotel last month.

All five are enjoying a professional moment that actors dream of their whole careers. Rico Rodriguez, 12, plays suave, espresso-sipping Manny on ABC’s Emmy-winning Modern Family. Noah Ringer, 13, booked his first job as the titular star of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender. Kiernan Shipka, the youngest of the group at almost 11, is fresh off a miraculous season as Don Draper’s unruly daughter on AMC’s Mad Men. Lovely newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, 13, beat out 15,000 young actresses for the pivotal role in the Coen brothers’ upcoming True Grit. And Chloë Grace Moretz, the riveting 13-year-old star of this year’s Kick-Ass and Let Me In, was due back on the London set of Martin Scorsese’s Hugo Cabret by the end of the week. So what’s it like to be in the driver’s seat in Hollywood when your feet can’t even touch the pedals?

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY Kiernan, you’re the youngest of the group. How old were you when you went on your first audition?
Kiernan Shipka I did a commercial when I was 5 months old for Gerber baby food.
Hailee Steinfeld No way!
Shipka Once I got out to California, my first audition was when I was 6½. One of my first auditions was for Mad Men.

EW Chloë, what was your big break?
Chloë Grace Moretz My first [major] movie was The Amityville Horror. The audition process was insane. They had me cry about 20 times for [producer] Michael Bay. At the last audition they were like, ”If you can do this one more time, we’ll book you.” And I was like, ”I can’t cry anymore.” But Kick-Ass… [Everyone giggles] I’m sorry, Kick-Butt would definitely be the biggest breakout for me.

EW Do any of you have a ritual for celebrating when you get a role?
Moretz Well, in the beginning, my mom would give me a dog per film.
Steinfeld Oh my gosh, you’re going to have to start asking for a pony per film.
Moretz [Laughs] Each time I was like, ”Mom, I worked really hard. Can I have a dog?” And now I have four dogs and my mom is like, ”I can’t take any more.”

EW Noah, your big break was obviously last summer’s The Last Airbender.
Noah Ringer There was this cartoon Avatar: The Last Airbender and I loved it. I dressed for Halloween as the character. My tae kwon do instructor found the casting call from Paramount, so I did the audition in my Halloween costume.

EW Did anybody have to fight to get their parents to make the move to Hollywood?
Rico Rodriguez It was my sister who wanted to be an actor. I didn’t want to do nothing with California, nothing with acting. I was the shiest boy ever.
Moretz Liar. [Everyone laughs]
Rodriguez It’s true! If you talked to me, I would go the other way.

EW A lot of creative people are shy in person. Would anybody here describe themselves as an introvert?
Ringer I would literally be in line at McDonald’s and my mom would go, ”Why don’t you order your food?” Then I wouldn’t eat. I was too shy.
Steinfeld In some ways I am, but this is my comfort zone, talking with kids who know what I go through every day. I’ve been homeschooled for two years.

EW Are all of you homeschooled? [Everyone nods]
Ringer Oh, wow, that’s awesome.
Moretz Since the third grade.
Shipka I started homeschool about three years ago.

EW It’s funny that your images of high school will in some way just be from the movies, but you’ll probably all play high schoolers on screen one day.
Moretz High school is brutal.
Steinfeld I went to school my whole life before that, so I know what it’s like to go to school every day and have a social life. But I feel like with kids now they can’t always understand. They don’t get it.
Moretz They’re like, ”Why can’t you hang out today?”
Steinfeld Yeah! It’s like, ”I have an audition.” ”Well, what’s that?”

The Downsides of Fame
Paparazzi, hackers, and short-lived friendships

EW Have any of you lost friendships?
Moretz It’s hard to find real friends when you’re in the business like this. Just because either people want to be famous or they’re jealous of you.
Steinfeld Exactly, she’s right! Seriously, keep talking.
Rodriguez You should have your own talk show.
Ringer Being in the movie industry, you actually get a lot more friends. But you get to be really close friends with adults. It’s not the same thing, but…

EW Not in the way you can invite one of them to hang out?
Moretz No, no. I don’t think I’d call Nicolas Cage [who played her father in Kick-Ass] up and say, ”So, you wanna go see a movie together?” [Everyone laughs]

EW That sounds a little lonely.
Moretz I definitely think the worst part of acting is paparazzi. The paparazzi shove you, they shove you into the street. I just got my e-mail hacked recently. They stole all my pictures, my Twitter, my Facebook.
Steinfeld Your personal Facebook? Oh my God.
Moretz We got broken into, and I got my computer stolen and my iPad. So I have fake everything now.

EW Do you find yourself being on guard now as a public person?
Moretz I do. You know, you walk around with more of a knowing instinct. I got this weird stalker person in France, and he followed me into the hotel and said all this stuff to me. I was really freaked out and I didn’t go out of the house for two days. It just gets a lot more heightened when you get more press.

EW Oh, no, Hailee, your face! You’re the greenest of the group, so how do you feel listening to Chloë?
Steinfeld [Laughs] After hearing this, maybe I’m not so ready! No, I’m kidding. I’ve never experienced any of this before, so — I’ve got to be honest — I don’t know how I feel. But I’m enjoying the last, um, well, I know it’s exactly 88 days until True Grit comes out. [Everyone laughs]

Moretz It’s cool. It’s fun. Just be on guard. Don’t put pictures out there that you don’t want to be seen, whether it’s on your phone or whatever. You can always get hacked.

EW Have you all given yourself permission to stop acting if it stops being fun?
Rodriguez My parents say, ”If you want to quit acting and become a hot-dog vendor, we’ll support you 100 percent.”
Shipka Right now, it doesn’t feel like work. It may feel like soccer or ballet for other kids.

How to stay grounded
Get your own glass of milk!

EW Rico, you must get noticed a lot.
Rodriguez Yeah, mostly by older women. [The girls all start giggling]
Ringer Give that a second to sink in.

EW Rico, you and your Modern Family costar Nolan Gould had a hilarious Hollywood Reporter ad during Emmy season…
Rodriguez ”Give us an Emmy and we stay out of the tabloids!”

EW Right! A child actor’s career is often three acts: obscurity, fame, crash and burn. How will you not let that be your story, too?
Shipka It all comes down to your family.
Rodriguez I have five nieces and they always watch me, they always get excited for me. If they saw me doing drugs all the time, I’d disappoint them.
Ringer For me it’s just morals. One of the things we like to do is whenever we have a cab or something like that, when our driver comes out, I say, ”No, no, no. I’ll get the door.”
Moretz Yeah, everyone is always getting you drinks or whatever on set. And my mom is always like, ”No, if she wants a drink, she’ll get it herself.”
Rodriguez Yeah, I always do that on set. Every day someone is like, ”Rico, you want me to fetch you a latte?” And I tell them, ”No, I’m fine with a glass of milk.” [Everyone laughs]
Moretz ”But still get it for me.”

EW You all brought up the importance of family. There’s a stereotype of stage parents, whether from shows like Toddlers & Tiaras
Moretz My favorite show ever! They’re like little porcelain freaky dolls.
Steinfeld I want to know what those kids are like when they’re our age. Rodriguez No offense to them, but the moms on there are really weird. One episode, they gave a 5-year-old girl a spray tan.
Shipka They give kids flippers!

EW Yikes, what are flippers?
Shipka Fake teeth.
Rodriguez One mom made her kid starve for, like, a whole five hours.

Kid actors, grown-up projects
Why can’t I watch my own show?

EW When actors first move to Los Angeles, often they’ll take whatever role they can get. Yet each of you has worked on high-caliber projects that adults love. Was that an active choice you each made, or luck?
Moretz There are different roads you can take. You can take more of a — I hate to say it — Disney-type route, which is easy and quick and fast and famous.

EW Were you ever on that route?
Moretz No, I always had in my mind that I wanted to be more of an actor’s actor. My favorite actors are Natalie Portman and Audrey Hepburn.
Shipka I love Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
Moretz It’s my favorite film.

EW Is it odd to any of you that your own fans aren’t kids?
Rodriguez It’s more like 18 and up. The only kids that watch Modern Family
Shipka Me!
Steinfeld And me!
Rodriguez Well, thank you. My sister is on Disney and Nickelodeon [Raini, 17, has guested on shows like I’m in the Band and True Jackson, VP]. So she gets recognized by the kids and I get recognized by the adults. It’s weird.

EW Besides Modern Family, I bet most of you have never seen one another’s work. I can’t imagine any of your parents would let you watch something as sophisticated as Mad Men.
Rodriguez If it’s sophisticated, I can’t watch it.
Steinfeld I’ve seen a little bit of one after Kiernan and I met at a photo shoot because I just had to see you.
Shipka My parents don’t even let me watch it. I go to the table reads and everything, but I can’t watch it on television.

EW You all spend so much time with adults. Do you ever wish you could just be around kids more?
Ringer That would be really fun to do a whole movie just about kids.
Steinfeld We should just write a movie right now and make parts for all of us.
Rodriguez Luckily, I brought my notepad!
Ringer I brought a pen.
Shipka I’ll be the producer.
Moretz And we’ll all be the stars.

Meet these child actors

Chloë Grace Moretz
Hometown Atlanta
Dream role ”Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind or Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”
Next Martin Scorsese’s Hugo Cabret, due in December 2011

Noah Ringer
Hometown Dallas
Never leaves home without… His briefcase of magic tricks
Next Cowboys & Aliens, a sci-fi action film with Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig, due in July 2011

Rico Rodriguez
Hometown Bryan, Tex.
Secret talent ”I’m really good at the drums on Guitar Hero World Tour.”
Backup plan Chef
Next The rest of season 2 of Modern Family

Kiernan Shipka
Hometown Chicago
On her Mad Men mom ‘[Actress] January Jones is amazing. But I hate Betty as a person, and sometimes I just want to punch her in the face.”
Next Seeking film roles

Hailee Steinfeld
Hometown Los Angeles
People tell her she looks like A young Diane Lane
Next The Coen brothers’ True Grit, opposite Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon, opening Dec. 25

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