As ''Modern Family'''s first Baby Lily proved, finding the right tot for your TV show is never as easy as A-B-C. EW goes inside the complicated world of kiddie casting

By Lynette Rice
October 21, 2011 at 12:00 PM EDT

At the end of season 2, it was clear that the cutest thing about Modern Family was shaping up to be its biggest problem. Baby Lily, as played by Jaden and Ella Hiller, had one expression — and, depending on who you were, it read as either hilariously deadpan or distressingly miserable. So the producers of the hit ABC comedy decided it was time for Baby Lily to drop the silent act and turn into the playful, giggly daughter of Cameron (Eric Stonestreet) and Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) — which unfortunately meant dropping the Hillers. ”It was becoming very clear to everyone that they really weren’t feeling the Hollywood scene,” says Ferguson. ”Apparently you can’t force children to do things, which I did not know.”

Thanks to TV’s recent bumper crop of family shows, many crews are learning that wrangling tiny stars isn’t easy. But finding the right baby can mean the difference between a good show and a great one. Take Fox’s underdog comedy Raising Hope: Baylie and Rylie Cregut — the 20-month-old twins who play the titular baby girl — are responsible for some of the funniest moments on the series. Meanwhile, Carly and Delaney Prince, the 11-month-old twins on NBC’s new-parent sitcom Up All Night, are quietly waging a war with Maya Rudolph over who will earn the title of breakout star. ”They deserve baby Oscars,” says Night exec producer Emily Spivey. ”They are so chill and beautiful.”

Maybe that’s because they work only two hours a day. Union rules are strict when it comes to kiddie thespians: Twins are preferable to singletons, since infants can work no more than 20 minutes a day, while kids 6 months to 2 years old are allowed to work up to two hours. Even though wee ones require a full entourage (a parent, a studio teacher, and a nurse for infants) and are sometimes the central focus of scenes, babies are still considered mere ”background extras” in TV — unless they have a really good agent. The Creguts, for example, negotiated a credit on Hope this season as costars (their character’s name is in the title, after all). Most children under the age of 2 earn $150 to $300 a day, though some lucky tots — particularly if they have lines — can earn anywhere from $2,000 to $3,000 a week. ”I think the general public thinks babies on TV are making a lot more money than they really are,” says agent Kathy Bolde, who runs one of the industry’s few baby divisions at the Zuri talent agency in L.A. ”And yet what’s unique right now is that babies are gaining popularity because of these shows. People are getting to know them because they play pretty big roles.”

Getting those young actors to actually act, however, takes a certain amount of serendipity. ”You luck into stuff,” admits Hope exec producer Greg Garcia. ”Even last season, all of a sudden we’d get a look from the baby, and we’d look at the mom and go, ‘Wow…how did you know she would do that?”’ It helps that most parents know how to get a rise out of their children. ”This is going to sound awful, but parents have tricks with them, like dogs,” explains Garcia. ”If we know in the script that we want one to crane their neck around in the high chair and look at someone who is leaving, the mom will practice with them at home.”

Now, about those moms (and dads): Some people think there’s a special place in hell for parents who put their kids on TV. But Ann Ollivier, the remarkably grounded mother of 17-month-old twins Grant and Wyatt, who played darling baby Mikey on True Blood last season, says sets are actually safe places for tots. ”I know people look at parents like me and say, ‘How can you put your kid in that situation?”’ says Ollivier, who has since booked gigs for her sons on Showtime’s Shameless and FX’s American Horror Story. ”But the cast and crew do such a good job to make sure the kids are not exposed to anything. They even whisper around the babies. It’s kind of overkill, but they do protect the kids.”

That’s what the producers of Modern Family wanted to do for the Hillers when they decided to replace them this season with Aubrey Anderson-Emmons, 4. In case you were wondering — and many of you are — Jaden and Ella are just fine, as evidenced by the ”Where Are They Now?” video their parents posted on YouTube, which shows them happily playing hopscotch and picking flowers. And their replacement appears to be having a ball too. (See: the now-verbal toddler Lily exclaiming, ”My daddy!” while pushing an interloper off her father’s lap.) But even Anderson-Emmons had a hard time separating truth from fiction. ”The first thing she said to me and Eric when she was on set was ‘Are you real people? Because you live in a fake house,”’ Ferguson recalls. ”And at the end of that day, she said, ‘I think I saw you guys on Modern Family once.’ So she has no idea that she’s actually in Modern Family. She’s still figuring out that she’s the new Lily. She’s so cute.” Cute and happy — a producer’s dream.