How Child Stars Use Kids’ TV to Fast-track Their Careers

Lily Pavlovic
26 Feb 2019

From OzKidsTV to the Silver Screen

You could be forgiven for thinking Australia’s biggest export is iron ore, wheat or meat – and in dollar terms, you’d be right. But how do you put a price cultural exports? Particularly, our nation’s stunning wealth of local talent.

Children’s TV is just the beginning for many of our leading lights.

Hollywood heavyweight Margot Robbie (Mary Queen of Scots, I, Tonya, The Wolf of Wall Street, Suicide Squad) is just one of Australia’s biggest exports – beginning her career as a teen starring in the Australian children’s series, The Elephant Princess.

Margot Robbie began in OzKidsTV. Image: Scribol | IMDB

“Funnily enough, I was doing [The Elephant Princess] with Liam Hemsworth before he was known and before I was known,” Robbie told Vanity Fair.

Hemsworth also used his background in The Elephant Princess as a springboard to launch his career in the U.S. Since his time playing ‘Marcus’, Hemsworth has starred in the juggernaut Hunger Games franchise overseas, represented Australia in international hit The Dressmaker, and starred in a series of tourism campaigns, encouraging U.S. travellers to visit Oz.

Another Australian mega-star is Nicole Kidman. Kidman began acting as a teenager in the early 1980s, starring in BMX Bandits and children’s television series, Winners. It was only a few years after Kidman featured in the Winners episode ‘Room to Move’, that she began her long and illustrious acting career overseas.

Nicole Kidman in Winners – Room to Move

Alongside the U.S., local film and television places a spotlight on a wide range of Australian children’s television talent. Recently, Blue Water High’s Ryan Corr worked alongside Russel Crowe in feature film, The Water Diviner, while Ready For ThisMadeleine Madden starred in the TV mini-series re-make of Australian cult classic, Picnic at Hanging Rock. Aaron McGrath (Levi in teen series Ready For This) has recently appeared in Australian hits Doctor Doctor, Glitch, Jasper Jones and Mystery Road; Bushwhacked!’s Kamil Ellis in Australian series Cleverman, and Home and Away’s Raffy is none other than Olivia Deeble from Little Lunch.

Australian actors who began their careers in kids’ TV also include Prank Patrol and WAC (World Animal Championship)’s Scott Tweedie, who now hosts Channel 10’s I’m A Celebrity and The Loop. Sean Keenan, best known as Lockie Leonard, has stepped into leading roles in Puberty Blues, Wake in Fright and Glitch. Meanwhile, Crash Zone’s Damien Bodie (Who also starred in kid favourites, Ocean Girl and The Elephant Princess) made the transition to act in drama series, Winners and Losers.

The rising stars of Dance Academy are in high demand both at home and overseas. Many of the cast, now based in the U.S., returned home to feature in 2017’s Dance Academy movie (with cinematic releases in Australia, the U.S. and the Netherlands), before returning to work on projects across the globe. Jordan Rodrigues (Christian Reed), recently featured in a major role in Golden Globe winning film, Ladybird, while co-star Keiynan Lonsdale (Ollie) is known for his roles in Love, Simon, the Divergent series and as CW’s The Flash.

Jordan Rodrigues in Ladybird and Dance Academy. Image: Fortemag

In a report prepared for Screen Australia by Olsberg SPA, researchers noted:

Dance Academy has been a particular success in recent years, both in terms of its impact as a program, and for the way in which it has helped the development of its actors. Set in an iconic Sydney Harbour setting, the program addresses a range of key issues of significant importance to the target group, such as eating disorders, bullying, and sexuality. The series has proved highly successful in domestic and international markets as a result of this and its engaging content. Partially as a consequence of this, the young Australian stars of the program have been picked up for Hollywood productions like The Flash and Point Break, introducing a new generation of Australian actors to the wider world,”.

In a recent interview with the ACTF, Nikolai Nikolaeff, who played Mike in children’s sci-fi Crash Zone (and now stars in U.S. hits such as Daredevil, The OA and Mile 88), says the Australian film and TV industry nurtures young talent, and positively reinforces a ‘can-do’ attitude when it comes to finding new roles.

“Having the Australian sensibility is really important. What I learned from [shows like] Crash Zone and Round The Twist is the mentality to ‘roll your sleeves up, get in and let’s do it’,” he said.

Nikolai Nikolaeff, 21 years on from Crash Zone

Australian Children’s Television, and Beyond

Sometimes, children’s television doesn’t lead to a traditional screen role at all. Instead, it might provide a platform to launch out in a different direction.

In Tamsin West’s case, one particular song immortalised her foray into a singing career – the theme song to Round The Twist.

This iconic tune was performed by West, who played the original Linda Twist on series one of the memorable Australian children’s program. After Round The Twist, West continued to act, before moving to London to pursue a career in London as a jazz singer.

Like West, Dance Academy’s Dena Kaplan is also pursuing roles in music and the arts. Since her time playing Abigail Armstrong on the hit teen series, Kaplan has transitioned to DJ-ing at festivals like Your Paradise and Coachella.

In interviews, Kaplan says that she considers Dance Academy a ‘dream job’, which combines her passions of acting, theatre, music and dance in one.

“I’ve always had a background as a performer/artist. I’ve been music obsessed from a young age… and I realised there was nothing I dreamt of more than making music my life and profession,” she says.

Another performer embarking on a new stage (literally) is William McKenna. With a background in acting, McKenna performed as part of the lead cast in the third series of ABC ME’s You’re Skitting Me. He continued on to star as Ben in Nowhere Boys: Two Moons Rising. Now taking to the stage in 2019, McKenna will make his professional theatre debut in a lead role in the Australian production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. He will star alongside lead actor Sean Rees-Wemyss, also from ABC TV’s Nowhere Boys and Nowhere Boys: The Book of Shadows.

Australian children’s television actor alumni, Jeffrey Walker’s passion led him to a role behind the camera. At only 36 years old, the actor-turned-director has won two AACTA/AFIs and been nominated for another three. He has won three Australian Directors Guild Awards and sat at the helm of some of Australia’s most celebrated television including Chris Lilley’s Angry Boys, the Guy Pearce mini-series Jack Irish and the popular ABC legal drama Rake.

Jeffrey Walker in Round The Twist. Image: IMDB

He has made the often-impossible leap to establish himself overseas. In the U.S., he has directed episodes of the comedy sensations Modern Family and Difficult People and the crime drama Bones. For the UK, he directed episodes of the acclaimed BBC history drama Banished. He’s no stranger to the big screen either.

After directing the first five episodes of Dance Academy in 2009, Jeffrey returned to Australia to direct 2017’s Dance Academy Movie. In the same year, Jeffrey’s other feature, Ali’s Wedding, was released.

If you’re wondering how such a young talent has become one of the most in-demand directors in the country you’d need to look at his training – in children’s TV. Most of us grew up engrossed in local TV but Jeffrey really grew up in it. He was only 10 years old when he was cast as the beloved Bronson in Round The Twist.

Jeffrey Walker in Round The Twist. 

In the eight years following his start on Twist in 1992, Jeffrey starred in 217 episodes of children’s television, cast in leading roles on cherished series such as the ABC’s The Wayne Manifesto and the international sensation Ocean Girl.

Talking to the ACTF, Jeffrey says his time as a television actor equipped him with industry knowledge and a love of film.

“I used a lot of my time on set as an education. While some people came in to learn their lines, I was more interested in how the camera and the lighting worked. I was just fascinated. I did see my time on set as a long apprenticeship – I could study all the different jobs and how everything was made.”

“Without a doubt, the cornerstone of my entire career as both an actor and a director is due to Australian children’s television shows. As a child, I was in them, and as an adult director, I directed them. Australians who have come through that way of storytelling, through children’s television, have gone on to make some of the biggest projects around the world,” he says.

Whether it’s in front of or behind the camera, on the decks or on the stage, it’s impressive to see the diverse breadth of career journeys these child stars have undertaken. There is immense young talent in our country, and we can’t wait to see what comes next.



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