She wants to be famous like the kids on Glee. So, along with hundreds of other child actors staying at the Oakwood Toluca Hills apartment complex, Isabella Balbi — a 12-year-old girl from Miami with enormous brown eyes — has left her life behind to come out to Hollywood for TV-pilot season. Before she arrived in L.A., an agent told her she’d never work in this town with braces. So those had to come off early. And her father, Roger, lost his job in the mortgage industry and had to tap into his retirement funds to pay for the trip. On their second day in California, the Balbis’ house in Florida was burglarized and they lost everything from the plasma TV to Mom’s wedding ring. ”But we’re on a mission,” says Roger. Isabella smiles nervously next to him. During their first week at Oakwood, she signed with Coast to Coast, an agency that has represented Hailee Steinfeld and Abigail Breslin.
If Hollywood is the city of dreams, then Oakwood is the school-cafeteria heart of all that energy and yearning. Pick any former child star — Kirsten Dunst, Michelle Williams, or Miley Cyrus, say — and it’s a safe bet that they spent some of their formative years living in one of Oakwood’s clean and blandly furnished month-to-month rentals. It’s February when I visit — the peak month of casting for new television shows — and two current residents, both teenagers with guest-starring roles on Disney Channel shows on their résumé speak of it as hallowed ground. ”All I know is Zac Efron stayed here,” says one girl. (He didn’t, but he did film a pilot here.) ”And the fact that Kurt Cobain stayed here is kind of a plus too.” Her friend nods her doll-like head: ”They stayed here when they recorded Nevermind. It was on their E! True Hollywood Story and everything. Everybody starts out at Oakwood.” Nobody brings up tragic Corey Haim, who was driven out of Oakwood in an ambulance in 2010.
Oakwood Worldwide is a corporate housing giant with 25,000 temporary-living locations throughout the world. The Toluca Hills outpost, perched on a hill between Hollywood and Burbank, was never intended to be a destination for aspiring child stars. When Oakwood’s activities director, Rosie Forti — a 64-year-old former seamstress with bad knees and a dramatic swoosh of white across her short black hair — first joined the company back in 1973, her job was to amuse a population of swinging singles. ”It was just a free-for-all,” recalls senior property manager Brett Hughett. That changed in 1988, when the Fair Housing Act added an amendment that made it illegal to deny housing to families with children.
Presented with a sudden opportunity to drum up new business, Oakwood started sending out letters to talent managers and agents, encouraging them to funnel young talent its way. The apartment complex sits less than a mile up the hill from major networks and studios such as Universal and Warner Bros. When not venturing out to meetings or auditions, overwhelmed families new to Los Angeles could comfortably nest behind Oakwood’s security gates, availing themselves of the many on-site conveniences: a store; a hair salon; a dance floor; a dry cleaner; two pools; two gyms with private trainers; basketball, tennis, and volleyball courts; and a rental-car service. ”Plus,” says Hughett of the company’s pitch, ”we had Rosie.”
Forti helped create the Child Actor Program in 1991, after she threw a piñata party for some of Oakwood’s early younger guests. She hired professional tutoring services to assist kids with their online schoolwork, and instituted weekly karaoke nights and hip-hop classes and annual talent shows. And, in perhaps her shrewdest move, she invited industry professionals — casting directors, acting coaches, head-shot photographers, agents, and managers whose reputations she trusted — to meet with families after the weekly Sunday continental brunch and provide free seminars. ”I never had any kids of my own,” says Forti, who lives alone in a two-bedroom apartment on the premises. ”Now I have 150 new ones every pilot season.”
Today child actors — who must have a legal guardian staying with them — make up about one-third of the Oakwood population during pilot season. ”It’s a weird dichotomy,” says The Hunger Games star Josh Hutcherson, who spent five years living there. ”It’s young kids running around, their moms, and then, like, divorced fathers who need a place to stay because their wives kicked them out of the house.” A furnished studio at Oakwood costs between $2,000 and $3,000 a month, even with the child-actor discount. That doesn’t include a parent’s sacrificed income, to say nothing of the lost time with a spouse or children back home. ”It’s hard,” one weary mother tells me. ”Hard on your finances, hard on your family, hard on your marriage. I’ve seen my husband twice in seven months.”
There’s an outsider temptation to approach Oakwood with a sneer or a wincing sigh. But something kinder-hearted takes over once you’re deep inside those gates, where kids skateboard in parking garages while waiting to hear from their agents, and strapped parents carry their children’s head shots in their purses. If only all of Isabella’s dreams really could come true.
Not every child at Oakwood sings, but they all love an audience. ”Quiet on the set, everybody!” Forti hollers at families gathered for karaoke night in the North clubhouse. ”It’s important that we celebrate each other.” Forti turns to a 10-year-old girl in a white tunic and black leggings. ”Madison,” she says, ”tell us what you’ve been working on.” In a monotone, Madison shares that she recently booked a public service announcement for vegetarians and that tonight she’ll be singing in honor of Whitney Houston.
While Madison soldiers through the higher notes of ”I Will Always Love You,” Forti introduces me to a 4-year-old boy named Hayden with ridiculously round cheeks and a mohawk. It took one phone call from Forti — an influence she almost never wields, she says — to get him an audition with agent Cindy Osbrink, who shepherded Dakota Fanning and Raven-Symoné early on. And just like that, Hayden landed one of the most powerful youth agents in town. His parents urge him to perform a song. ”Are you ready for this?!” Hayden growls into the microphone. His sunburned father looks around, laughing loudly. Then he starts feeding his boy some lines. ”Let’s rock and roll!” he whispers a few times. ”Let’s rock and roll!” says Hayden. The crowd swoons.
Justin Bieber’s ”Never Say Never” kicks in. Four girls sing backup while Hayden stares blankly at the lyrics, humming and spinning the microphone on its stand. His mother bounces a baby on her hip and tells me that she has a 22-year-old daughter back home in Cincinnati whom she brought to Oakwood a decade ago. Her daughter, who no longer acts, didn’t become famous, but she did book a recurring role on The Young and the Restless.
In the clubhouse lobby outside karaoke, a couple of old men slump on the sofa like Statler and Waldorf from The Muppet Show. Andy and Arnold are two of Oakwood’s long-term residents, and they meet in the lobby every night, while kids run and yap around them. Andy, who has lived here for more than 30 years, smokes his electronic cigarette and sighs.
Next to the computer room where kids print out lines for auditions — and the screening room where people gather when a resident’s guest-star appearance airs — there’s a conference room where a 9-year-old in a fedora is struggling with a scene. She keeps fumbling with a phone number in the dialogue despite the suggestion of her coach, Adrian R’mante, that she just make it up if she goes blank.
Four years ago, R’mante, 34 — who had a recurring role on Disney Channel’s The Suite Life of Zack & Cody — founded the Celebrity Actors Camp, traveling across the country introducing kids to the possibilities of a career in show business. ”The way I market it is I basically say we’ll have Disney and Nickelodeon celebrities working with kids who want to be on TV,” he tells me. At the end of each camp he invites industry professionals from Los Angeles and the local market he’s in to a performance showcase. R’mante had recruited everyone in the room to come out to Los Angeles for his pilot camp, which costs $1,750, a fee that doesn’t include Oakwood’s rent.
R’mante asks one of his students, a 17-year-old girl from Atlanta named Bex Taylor-Klaus, to show off a scene they’ve been working on all week. Bex has short dark hair and pale skin, and wears a leather jacket and metal bracelets on both wrists. Even the younger, wriggly kids go still during her monologue about a girl who turns to cutting herself as a way of coping with her mother’s cancer diagnosis. ”You know how they say someone has ‘it’?” says Forti. ”Bex has it.”
During the Celebrity Actors Camp, Bex impressed R’mante’s agent, Thomas Richards of the Corsa Agency, who eventually signed her and introduced her to the manager Susan Curtis, who handles the careers of Mila Kunis and Hilary Duff. Since arriving at Oakwood in January, Bex has gotten three callbacks for a recurring role on the Disney Channel pilot Madison High, a spin-off of High School Musical. Now the casting director wants her to come in for a chemistry read with the lead actors. Bex has also gone in for the role of a crackhead on Golden Boy, a cop-drama pilot for CBS starring Downton Abbey‘s Theo James. ”I walked into the room for the audition, and Gwyneth Paltrow is sitting at this desk,” she says. ”I got so distracted I had to start over. Afterwards I turned to the people and asked, ‘Is it normal to have Gwyneth Paltrow sitting in on auditions?”’ (It is not.) A rotating cast of relatives — parents, three grandparents, two aunts, and a godfather — has been staying with Bex at Oakwood throughout pilot season.
Journee Brown has been at Oakwood for just four days. She’s a polite 10-year-old girl with easy charisma who sat patiently by herself last night at karaoke before treating the audience to a genuinely charming version of Cee Lo Green’s ”Forget You.” Before karaoke, Journee’s manager (who also handles Hilary Swank and James Franco) persuaded Cindy Osbrink to spend just 10 minutes with the girl. Osbrink signed Journee on the spot, and then immediately got her on tape and submitted her for a voice-over role on the Nick Jr. cartoon Bubble Guppies.
Everything is happening so fast that Journee’s parents, Rohan and Sophia — a Jamaican-born psychotherapist and dentist, respectively, with two younger sons back home in West Hartford, Conn. — don’t know what to think. ”We’re cautiously optimistic and taking it day by day,” says Rohan. Last winter Journee had played Little Inez in a local theater production of Hairspray. One of Sophia’s colleagues heard an advertisement on the radio for an intensive child-actor program, and on a lark Sophia encouraged Journee to try out. At the closing showcase, representatives from iPOP!, the large youth-talent expo, singled out Journee and invited her to Los Angeles to perform in front of a crowd of 3,000 people. She won four prizes, including Best Actor of the Year, and got 38 callbacks from the assembled agents.
Journee’s mom, Sophia, is leaving in the morning — she has to get back to her boys and her dental practice. So Rohan will be charged with doing Journee’s hair for the first time. And he’ll be helping her with her schoolwork, which comes in packets from her private school in Connecticut, though Sophia will Skype with her daughter every night to help with the math. ”My biggest thing is education,” says Sophia. ”Is this going to rob it from her?” She looks worriedly at Rohan and squeezes Journee’s hand. ”But this is her dream. And if she can do this and send herself to college, that’s phenomenal.”
Sophia confesses that agents and casting directors shudder when she tells them that the family is staying at Oakwood. ”Everyone we’ve met has told us, ‘Oh my God, the moms — they’re crazy over there. They will follow you to auditions and crash your child’s audition.”’
Oakwood is home to the Mommy Mafia, and every pilot season brings in a distinctive new syndicate. ”One time I got cornered by these moms,” Josh Hutcherson remembers. ”They all wanted me to read my lines for my next audition. So I did because I didn’t know any better — and when moms tell you to do something you do it. They were like, ‘Okay, that’s amazing, we’re going to get our sons so you can show them!’ and as soon as they left me I took off running.”
A couple of older kids break down the stage-mom underworld for me. ”There’s a known clan, and then there’s, like, knockoff clans,” says Shea Jones, an 18-year-old blonde from Georgia, wearing a fedora and a drapey silk blouse. She and her best friend, Harrison Moulton — 17, a tall, lanky Colorado boy with Justin Bieber’s haircut — are lounging on the clubhouse sofas. They describe the Mommy Mafia as overly animated women who snap around in their flip-flops with a cell phone to one ear and a Bluetooth in the other, always clutching a stack of their child’s head shots and résumé. The moms needle their wincing children to be charismatic, and corner others with intrusive questions about agents and auditions and money. ”You just don’t talk about that stuff,” says Harrison. Later, Forti tells me that she has little patience for the Mafia. ”I tell them I don’t want to hear it,” she says. ”If you make trouble, your child will not work in this industry. Nobody will hire a child whose parent is difficult.”
Shea has appeared in several national commercials, including one for Jack in the Box in which she uttered the line ”Jumbaco!” Harrison spent a year and a half performing with Kidz Bop, on behalf of their popular Top 40 compilation albums. Both kids recently auditioned for roles on the new Reba McEntire pilot Malibu Country — if they book the jobs, they’ll play twins. They’ve both been ”legal 18” for more than a year, which enables them to work a full day on set and travel without a guardian. It makes a young person much more attractive to casting directors.
Shea and her mother, along with their 3-month-old Yorkie, which her mother dresses in Build-A-Bear outfits, moved to Los Angeles in 2010 during the late-summer episodic season (the second annual period of high casting, particularly for guest or recurring roles on Disney and Nickelodeon shows). After the cross-country drive, they finally reached what they thought was going to be their new home in Hollywood. ”Online it had looked like the Ritz-Carlton,” Shea says of their former apartment building. But when they arrived, there was a drug bust going down on the front porch, and the hallways were stained and littered with abandoned refrigerators. ”My mom was like, ‘My puppy cannot stay here,”’ she says with a laugh. At home, her worried father did some research and suggested they check out Oakwood. Forti invited Shea and her mother to come to Sunday brunch and lounge by the pool for the afternoon. They never left.
This afternoon Shea and Harrison drop by the Oakwood’s elaborate Oscar viewing party. (Forti likes it when Oakwood’s older kids attend her functions, thinking they set a nice example for the little ones.) They’ve warned me that the Mommy Mafia will be out in full force at the event. And there are some hovering adults, who initiate tinny conversations about their child’s remarkable gifts and passion. But for the most part, kids sprint around the room, hysterical and uncombed as children on a Sunday afternoon should be, and their rumpled parents, clustered in patches, strike me as vulnerable rather than menacing.
There are several TVs scattered throughout the clubhouse room, and placards of the Jonas Brothers and Vanessa Hudgens loom by the long line of people waiting to serve themselves a pasta or hot dog supper. During the red-carpet arrivals, Shea and Harrison stare blankly at the ballot for the Oakwood Oscar pool. ”If The Artist wins everything, I’m going to be really mad,” says Shea. Harrison groans. ”Everyone’s going to be like, ‘Uh, I never saw this movie,”’ he says.
Looking around the room, at once chaotic and weirdly cozy, I mention that life at Oakwood is like a movie. ”Okay, seriously, the OW could be a TV show,” Shea tells Harrison. ”We should totally write that.”
By the end of March, Bex still hasn’t booked a job. She’s come heartbreakingly close a few times. The Madison High pilot was scrapped in the final stages of casting. Phill Lewis, a director on the Disney Channel show Jessie, asked her personally to audition for a guest part. But before she went in they changed the age of the role. ”As hard as I try, I just can’t play 12,” she says, laughing grimly at the notion of being over-the-hill at 17. An acting coach she’d worked with briefly thought she would be right for a new Scott Baio comedy on Nick at Nite. So he put her on tape and sent it directly to Baio. ”He said he was very intrigued and he liked my style,” says Bex. ”He just needed a different look.”
All around her, Bex’s friends were auditioning for commercials, the real moneymaker in Hollywood. Isabella had been sent out on seven national commercial auditions and gotten callbacks for three of them, going so far as to have her head shot ”pinned” for a Spanish T-Mobile ad. ”But no one will send me on commercials,” says Bex. Her agent, Thomas Richards, explains the tricky business of selling Bex. ”She has a unique look and it’s not mainstream,” he says. ”I told the parents from the beginning, she’s very talented, but it’s going to be tough because of her look. We’ve just got to break through it. Ellen Page’s look didn’t book roles until she became ‘Ellen Page.’ The perfect role needs to come along, a Hard Candy type of role,” he says, referring to Page’s breakout 2005 film. ”Until then I know that most of the time she goes out and doesn’t have a chance.” He pauses. ”Please say that in the nicest way.”
Bex dreads returning to Atlanta in a couple of weeks without anything tangible to show for her first pilot season. It would give too much ammunition to the mean girls back home who like to torment her, she says bitterly. In high school, where she describes herself as both a theater nerd and a softball jock — and thus acceptable to neither clique — Bex feels like an outcast. But here at Oakwood she’s found herself surrounded by similarly odd and impassioned kids who feel most alive, most authentically themselves, when they are pretending to be someone else.
At night, when Bex and her friends are bored, which is often, they hit the building hallways or the parking lot, wandering around. They go up the hill to the basketball courts to play Truth or Dare or sit in cross-legged circles in elevators, going nowhere.
In early April, Bex moves out of Oakwood. Before she leaves, a more pragmatic friend offers her some blunt career advice: ”You’ve got to give yourself a deadline. Like, if you haven’t booked anything in six months, nine months, a year, you’ll stop. Because if you haven’t booked anything by then, God doesn’t want it to be so.” But Bex begs to differ. ”It’s not God’s decision,” she says over the phone not long after returning to Atlanta. ”This entire industry is built on human decisions. People won’t cast you because they think you’re not the right fit. So you just have to find where you do fit.” She sounds very young and very old at the same time. ”It was really, really hard to be rejected every time. But that’s how it works, and I guess I’m willing to do it.”
She is determined not to return to her high school for senior year. Instead she is looking into summer acting programs that would have her back at Oakwood by August, the start of episodic season. I ask her if either she or her parents — whose good-humored sacrifice and support overwhelm her with guilt every time she lets herself think about it — have brought up the possibility of giving her dreams a deadline. ”I want to give myself a life,” she says. ”I don’t know if that’s reasonable, but I don’t care.”
Journee and her father return to Connecticut in the middle of April. She’s gone on more than a dozen auditions, most notably for the role of the president’s daughter in Byron Allen’s The First Family, a sitcom pilot about a dysfunctional White House brood. But all she booked was an unpaid two-line part in a Web movie. Regardless, the family considers pilot season a success. ”She’s still innocent and she’s still 10,” says Rohan. They arrive home on a Thursday night and Journee is back in her fifth-grade classroom Friday morning.
The still-unfolding plan is for Rohan and Journee to return to California, likely to a less expensive apartment than the one at Oakwood, in the late summer. ”Every day we check in with her,” says Sophia. ”Is she staying humble? Is this what she really wants? When we see a change we’ll say, ‘Okay, we gave you the chance,’ and then we’ll move on.”
Shea has landed a national MSN commercial, but neither she nor Harrison booked the Reba pilot. Shea and her mother moved out of Oakwood and drove home to Georgia so Shea could celebrate her graduation from high school, even though she’d spent the last two years of it online. Her plan is to return to Los Angeles after the summer, find an apartment with a friend (a model and former Miss Teen Arizona), and take classes at Pasadena City College between auditions. Harrison will be going to UC Riverside.
By the end of pilot season, most of the energy and noise has drained out of the Oakwood gates. The pool water is still, and the clubhouse is quiet once more. Isabella’s father, Roger, says they mostly just hang around the apartment doing online schoolwork, waiting for the phone to ring. He wants to talk to management about downsizing to a studio for May. In June they’ll go home to Miami to discuss the wisdom of putting their house up for rent and moving the entire family out to Los Angeles for a trial year.
Isabella has auditioned for roles in two pilots: the sullen daughter on NBC’s Roseanne Barr trailer-park sitcom Downwardly Mobile, and two separate parts on Fox’s John Wells-produced comedy Prodigy Bully (the Caucasian friend and — hey, it’s Hollywood! — the Indian friend). In the end, she booked only unpaid supporting roles in two student films that Roger himself submitted her for. ”We read an article where they said that typically a kid will go on 75 auditions before booking her first job,” he says. ”Since being out here, Isabella’s been on about 30 auditions.” If they come out again, Roger thinks they’ll search for an unfurnished apartment and bring their own linens and buy some pots and a futon.
Everyone leaves. Everyone except Forti, forever the good shepherd of a shifting flock. She sits in a windowless office, every inch of wall space plastered with head shots of 2012’s hopefuls. ”The saddest part of my job is knowing how many people I have said goodbye to in the 39-year run that I’ve had here. A lot of people have passed through my life. Only 1 percent of the families you see will even be here next year.” She gives an undramatic sigh. ”Of course they leave disappointed, but that’s life. Somebody else fills in that space so quickly, I can’t think about that. There’s a constant filling of the empty space.”
”What is luck?” Forti asked everyone that first night at karaoke. ”Luck is being prepared when opportunity knocks.” The parents listened and nodded vigorously, reassured if just for a moment that they had done the right thing by taking their children out of their lives and routines in pursuit of an elusive dream.
Then Forti introduced Kayla, a young girl from Atlanta in skinny jeans with bouncy light-brown hair pulled back with a sparkly headband. ”Quiet on the set!” Forti called out, with her arm around Kayla. ”Now sing into the mic and give it all you got,” she told the serious-looking girl. Kayla nodded for the DJ to cue up Adele’s ballad ”Someone Like You.” ”Amaze us!” a brassy 10-year-old sitting cross-legged on the floor next to me demanded loudly through a mouthful of popcorn.
Halfway through Kayla’s performance, parents returned to their anxious buzz of industry conversation, a sleepy baby started squalling in his stroller, and Forti told me that the 10-year-old beside me had a supporting role in the Footloose remake. Oblivious to the drifting room, Kayla sang loudly with her fingers splayed into jazz hands, an eager smile stretched stubbornly across her pretty face. Nothing compares, no worries or cares
Regrets and mistakes, they’re memories made
Who would have known how bittersweet this would taste? Oakwood Alumni
Before they were famous, these stars stayed at the Toluca Hills apartment complex. Here’s a look at their humble beginnings.
First Roles: A Pringles commercial at 12, followed by TV’s 7th Heaven and the film Ulee’s Gold.
First Role: A guest appearance on dad Billy Ray Cyrus’ PAX TV series, Doc, at 8.
First Role: The 1997 miniseries True Women, starring Dana Delany and Angelina Jolie.
First Roles: Commercials; an uncredited part in Woody Allen’s segment of New York Stories (1989).
First Roles: The 2002 TV movie House Blend, plus an episode of ER that same year.
Jennifer Love Hewitt
First Roles: Numerous commercials between 1989 and 1991; Disney Channel’s Kids Incorporated.
First Roles: Commercials, as well as ABC’s sitcom Sister Sister in 1996.
First Roles: Commercials; two 1997 TV movies: To Dance With Olivia and What the Deaf Man Heard.
First Roles: Commercials, followed by a three-year run as Olivia on The Cosby Show (1989–92).
First Roles: A guest appearance on Baywatch in 1993. Her first major part was in 1994’s Lassie.
The Callback Kids
Nothing comes easy in Hollywood. Not even for kids. ”Let’s put it this way,” says aspiring actor Harrison Moulton. ”I have a friend on Shake It Up, a huge Disney show right now. Her process to get there was audition, callback, then another callback. [”Meet”] with producers, chemistry read, screen test. Then she books the pilot, films the pilot, waits six months to find out if the pilot gets picked up.” These five would kill for such a ride.
Age: 10; Hometown: West Hartford, Conn.
Her special talents include playing the piano, tennis, and singing her favorite Michael Jackson songs.
Age: 12; Hometown: Miami
Made her local theater debut in The Jungle Book: ”I was a plant in the background.”
Age: 17; Hometown: Superior, Colo.
Booked the first commercial he was ever sent to audition for — for Disney’s Earth.
Age: 18; Hometown: Peachtree City, Ga.
A Disney Channel casting director declared her a ”young Chelsea Handler.”
Age: 17; Hometown: Atlanta
Refuses to shorten her name to Bex Taylor, despite outside pressure.</p