It’s not every day that an actor lets her male co-star wipe his runny nose on her T-shirt. Or gets him in the zone for a scene by bouncing him up and down on her hip. But that’s what Jodie Comer was dealing with while making her new film, the climate disaster drama The End We Start From. Playing a mother whose waters break just as catastrophic floods hit London, forced into a battle of survival with her newborn son, Zeb, Comer acted opposite a total of 15 babies in the movie, all playing various versions of her child. One of those was River, who portrayed Zeb at six months old – and had a bad case of the nerves on his first day of filming. “He vomited over me about four times,” says his mum, Amanda Kearney. “I thought, please don’t vomit on Jodie. Please. He didn’t, but as soon as she handed him back to me, he was sick all over me.”
Comer has said she did not take to acting with babies naturally, telling The Times it was “such a lesson”. “At first my hands were visibly shaking,” she said. “It felt like a huge responsibility. I thought, ‘Wow, they’re so fragile.’ But I became more comfortable… I was kind of falling in love with them.”
Working with babies is unpredictable, and no one knows that better than Bonnie Lia, whose London-based talent agency Bonnie & Betty has been going for 15 years. In that time, the agency has provided babies for projects as diverse as EastEnders, The Crown, Bridgerton, House of the Dragon and Wonka. And their tots have played the children of megawatt Hollywood stars, from Angelina Jolie and Benedict Cumberbatch to Anne Hathaway and Brad Pitt. “It definitely keeps you on your toes,” says Lia. “You never know what’s going to happen from one moment to the next. It’s typical that, as soon as the baby goes on set, that’s when they poop. They could be in a trailer for four hours and suddenly, as they go on, all hell breaks loose.”
Even with one baby, this would be stressful. But in all film and TV productions where there are kids under the age of four, it’s against the law for them to perform for more than 30 minutes at a time, meaning multiple babies are needed. This means that from scene to scene, they are constantly being swapped in and out. It’s also a legal requirement for them to have hour-and-a-half breaks between each continuous performance, and they can only be physically on set for five hours per day. When River was filming The End We Start From in Loch Lomond, in the Scottish wilderness, he and mum Kearney stayed in a hotel with a whole gang of other mothers and babies.
“Obviously, the parents themselves will be able to spot their own child,” says Lia, “but hopefully anybody else watching wouldn’t notice that they were all different.” Twins and triplets, she adds, are hot property on film sets for this reason. And while a casting agent always strives to match the race of the baby with the parent characters, gender doesn’t matter. “No one can tell, so productions will alternate girls and boys quite often,” she says.
It’s very hard to tell newborns apart, but as the babies get a few months older, they start to diverge in their appearance – and grow hair. If the sprogs start to look too different, production will start “dropping certain babies out”, says Lia. Tinseltown can be brutal.
One trick for babies of a few months old is to put them in little hats to disguise their hair colour or head shape. In The End We Start From, even while society is breaking down, little Zeb is wearing a neat, sky-blue cotton hat. It’s a handy ploy. (An added bonus is that hats on babies are very cute.)
So how young can a baby actually be when they start working? Technically, just a day old. “The only thing that stops them from literally working from day dot is that we have to get a child performance licence from their local council,” says Lia. The licences typically take about a week to process, and you need a birth certificate first to apply for them. “The youngest newborn we’ve had working was one to two weeks old,” she says.
Lia is often approached by pregnant mums wanting to sign their unborn children up for roles. “While they can’t actually sign them up at that stage, we tell them that if any requests come up for newborns in the meantime, we’ve got their details on file. We’ll then get a request come in from a casting director saying they need newborns in, say, a month’s time, and then we put a casting call on our socials and start collating information, ready for when the baby’s born, for the client to make a decision.”
Many parents sign their children up purely out of intrigue. This was part of Kearney’s reasoning. “I was on maternity leave and River was such a charming baby who I thought would be very chilled and happy in front of a camera,” she says. “My niece has been with Bonnie & Betty for some years and has had lots of jobs… I thought it would be a great opportunity for River, some exposure to the world, and just a fun experience.”
Jodie was blowing raspberries all the time at River, just to try to keep him happy
However, like anyone else, babies have to audition. For an adult actor to nail one, they ideally need a strong sense of empathy, good (or at least interesting) looks, and great comic timing, perhaps. But for a baby to nail it, they just need to be a total chiller. “Every client will always use the same words in terms of what they’re looking for: calm, content disposition, chilled,” says Lia. That said, the biggest thing impacting the baby’s chances of getting cast is usually the parents. “If you do have a parent that’s a little bit nervous or highly strung, sometimes that can impact the whole shoot and the child as well,” says Lia. “A lot of the time it is down to the parents having that laid-back vibe.”
The parents need to be comfortable, too, she says. “Often the people who put their babies forward are not first-time parents, because first-timers are generally more wary. They haven’t done it before and they don’t know how they’re going to feel. And then the baby’s born and the last thing they want to do is to put them in someone else’s arms.”
For Kearney, it was also about being flexible. She was on maternity leave when production began on The End We Start From, so she was able to go to Scotland for 10 days, and film in High Wycombe and Oxford on other dates. “It took over my life for quite a bit, and my eldest son had just started school so I was trying to manage that, too. You get the call time [telling you when to be on set] literally the night before,” she recalls. “Sometimes as late as 11pm and then you’re being picked up at 7am. That’s the part I found difficult. It was a great experience but I’m a stickler for routine and bedtimes – then you find yourself on a film set and all routine is out the window.”
There’s no polite way to say it – babies can be total divas. When their beauty sleep is interrupted, they are prone to roaring tantrums. Their rider is a long list of demands – milk, nappies, dummies, squeaky toys, personal lullaby singers. The whole production essentially revolves around them and their mood. “Jodie was blowing raspberries all the time at River, just to try to keep him happy,” says Kearney. “Everyone was giving all the babies cuddles. The runners really became quite attached to them.”
Given that the film’s plot is full of danger – from rushing floods to hungry, violent mobs – sometimes dolls were swapped in for babies. In theatre, given its live nature, dolls are the go-to (though some productions, such as The Ferryman, have been brave enough to use real babies). But there are always people on set to make sure that when youngsters are involved, they’re safe. “You have the chaperone there, counting the minutes to make sure the babies don’t go over the allotted time that they’re allowed to perform,” says Kearney. “Lots of productions will nowadays actually also employ child wranglers and children’s entertainers,” adds Lia. “So that in between takes, they have people keeping them busy because there is a lot of waiting around.”
Because of all the people and paraphernalia that come with babies, it’s expensive to have them on set. And that’s before their pay is even taken into account. “In TV and film, our rate for a baby is normally around £200 a day,” says Lia. While in the US, there’s a law that states that 15 per cent of child actor earnings have to be placed in a trust fund, in the UK, there’s no such requirement. Lia is working with the Agents of Young Performers Association to change this, and stop parents from being able to spend all the money themselves.
Kearney’s plan is to save all of River’s earnings for him to do what he wants with them when he’s 18; he’s now one-and-a-half and still on Bonnie & Betty’s books. Would Kearney encourage him to try some proper acting as he gets older? The US superstar twins Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen were only months old in their first-ever screen appearance, after all. “If that’s what he wanted to do, definitely,” she says. “I’d support him in whatever he wants to do.” Lia says her agency has lots of kids who joined as newborns and are still with them now at the age of 13 or 14. “They’ve done the fun baby stuff then gone on to do drama classes and get into acting, and now are actually sort of child actors,” she says.
Where could we see River in 10 or 20 years – could he be a future soap star, a Marvel hero or even leading the cast of his own apocalyptic drama, with a little baby wiping their nose on his top? Only time will tell.
‘The End We Start From’ is out now in cinemas