If there ever was a Harvard for Hollywood, it would probably be the Oakwood Apartments. A sprawling complex of more than 1,000 units in Los Angeles, it's where would-be child actors come to live, act, study -- and be discovered during pilot season.
Oakwood owes its reputation to its location -- just down the road from many of the major studios.
Hilary Duff and Jennifer Love Hewitt are among the many stars who were discovered at Oakwood. The complex is now a destination for kids from every corner of the country, who arrive with the hope they will be able to join that list of distinguished alums.
But Oakwood is not cheap. Rent alone costs $3,000 a month -- everything else is extra: headshots for $500; private acting coaches for $100 an hour; private singing coaches for up to $150 an hour -- and agents and managers each take 15 percent.
Five Aspiring Stars
"Primetime Live" recently spent three months at the Oakwood Apartments, following the paths of five kids chasing the Hollywood dream -- as well as the parents who came with them.
Taylor Bright, 11, came from Chicago with her mother, Shane, leaving her dad to run the auto repair shop back home. Taylor had already appeared in commercials and was paying for the trip herself.
Diandra Newlin, 13, from Richmond, Va., had already been living at the Oakwood on and off for a year and a half when "Primetime" arrived. She was there with her mother, Donna, and already had a manager, two agents and a résumé that included victories at Junior Miss beauty pageants and a Faith Hill video.
"I just have this passion of being on the set," she told "Primetime Live" co-anchor Cynthia McFadden.
Zach Green, 11, arrived with his mother from Madison, Wis., leaving his dad at home. His idol is the comic Gene Wilder.
Chase Edwards, 10, arrived from Flint, Mich., where he performed in school plays and local theater. His mother, Corinne, arranged to take a two-month leave of absence from her job, but his father remained at home.
And finally, there was 14-year-old Derek Jinks, who said "a lot of people tell me I look like Brad Pitt." After three years of small parts at home in Fenton, Mich., he got an agent, and a call to come to Hollywood. He and his mom lived down the road from Oakwood, but visited often.
"It's a field trip," said Sandy Jinks. "No matter what field they ever decide to be in, you know I wanted to just give them that chance."
Whose Career Is It Anyway?
One of the perennial questions when it comes to child actors is "whose career is it anyway?" Do the dreams of stardom belong to the kids or the parents?
Diandra Newlin was quick to assert, "I've totally wanted to do this myself." Shane Bright told McFadden: "I ask her all the time if she could just quit now, and she says, 'Oh, I have to do this.'"
However, there's no question that the showbiz life requires sacrifice from nearly everyone in the family. Not just a financial toll, but an emotional one too. In many cases, child actors arrived at Oakwood with only one parent, leaving the rest of the family behind.
Hallie Todd, who played Hilary Duff's mother on the show "Lizzie McGuire" and now gives acting lessons at her acting school, "In-house Media," said the perfect family to do this "is extremely wealthy where both parents can relocate -- and they can devote every minute of the day to helping them pursue their dream."
But in all of "Primetime Live's" visits to Oakwood, not a single family appeared to meet this model.
Big Pressures on Small Shoulders
Todd said she always worries about the children that come into the business. "You're putting a little innocent heart in this very adult situation," she said.
For example, during his stay at Oakwood, Zach Green said he really missed his dad, and because his family had made such sacrifices for him, he felt a responsibility to do the best he could.
"They're spending a whole ton of money to be out here and I'm thinking, 'They're doing all this for me,'" he said. "I really hope I can somehow pay them back."
Taylor Bright said she could sense the high levels of competition at Oakwood, but she said it wasn't in her nature to be so.
"If like one of my friends got a job, I'd be really, really happy for them," she told McFadden. "But like I'm not so sure they think the same as I do."
And of all the anxious moments in an aspiring child actor's life, perhaps the peak is the audition -- a process Todd likened to playing roulette without any rules.
"You don't know if it's their decision is based on what they had for breakfast or if they're mad at their whoever, what their day has been about. It's so arbitrary," she said. "The other side of it is that when it clicks, and it happens, it is a thrill. And it's an addiction."
Her fellow acting coach Matt Jackson, a former casting director for Disney, said the kids only have a moment to make their mark.
"It's a couple of seconds" before you know if it's an up or down, he said. "You don't spend an afternoon chit-chatting. You don't have that kind of time."
Disney is the parent company of ABC News.
Some Fail, One Stays
Zach Green ultimately got an audition for the lead role in a Universal movie called "Whisper." He didn't get the part, but he was coping: "If I did do my best then I know that I just wasn't what they were looking for. Or that they've got bad taste," he said.
Chase Edwards also got an audition for an independent movie -- which was all the more significant because it came at the 11th hour, as his mother was preparing to get back to her job, and bring him with her.
But Chase never got a call back. "He knows life is life and sometimes we have to roll with it," said Corinne Edwards.
Meanwhile, Diandra Newlin auditioned for a TV series with Fox studios and a car commercial. She didn't get the commercial, but her mother says it's far from time to pull the plug.
"If certainly Hollywood doesn't like her, I think we're going to have to have a reality check here. But that's going to take a little time," said Donna Newlin.
Later, Diandra cut a demo CD and landed a role in an independent movie.
Hoping to Be Back
Derek Jinks and Taylor Bright both say they had a positive experience in spite of the fact that they didn't land a role.
Derek is acting in a local prodction in his hometown. Chase is happy to be at home with his family. He also hopes to continue to pursue his dreams of acting.
Zack went home for a while, but he is heading back to Los Angeles because he was cast in a play, "The Ghost of Mrs. Muir."
Today, Taylor is busy pursuing opportunities in her hometown of Chicago and she says she can't wait to return. "I love it," she told McFadden.
And that's the right attitude to have, said Todd. "If you don't thrive in it -- if you wither in it, then you shouldn't be in it. And if the family withers, then they shouldn't be in it. … because life is not this business."
For more information on the Oakwood Child Actor Program log on to www.oakwood.com/childactors.