Emerson students former stars of Nickelodeon and Disney shows

by Rebecca Szkutak / Beacon Staff • February 11, 2015

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David Levi

Without realizing it, Emerson students might have grown up watching young actors and actresses—performing as rockstars, comedians, or the voices of beloved animated characters—who would later become their fellow classmates.

However these child stars found their way to acting—by chance or through family connections—they agreed the intense but rewarding experience ultimately influenced their decisions to come to Emerson and pursue careers in the entertainment industry.

Christina Kirkman, a senior journalism major, said that an acting career was not her original plan. She landed her first role on the kid’s sketch comedy show All That through a nationwide competition, R U All That?, held by Nickelodeon in 2003. The winner of the contest, which sought to discover “the funniest kid in America,” would be cast on season nine of All That.

Kirkman, who was 10 at the time, said that her dad thought it would be fun and encouraged her to enter. She sent in her audition tape and, to her surprise, was named one of the five finalists, who were all flown out Los Angeles for the last round of judgement—performing a comedy skit with a current cast member of the show. Kirkman eventually won, becoming the show’s youngest-ever cast member.

“I never knew I wanted to do acting—all I knew as a kid was that I liked to entertain people and make them laugh,” said Kirkman. “I accidently found my passion.”

David Levi, a sophomore marketing communication major, also had an unexpected journey to acting. He said his role on the musical comedy series The Naked Brothers Band organically emerged from playing in a band with his best friends.

Levi joined the musical group at a young age with his best friends Alex and Nat Wolff, who went on to play the main characters in the TV show. The show was written and produced by the Wolff brothers’ mother, Polly Draper, already a well known writer, actress and producer, who wanted to create a mockumentary that followed her kids’ childhood band as though the members were famous rockstars.

Levi starred as himself, starting around the age of 12.

“I don’t think there has been a TV show like [The Naked Brothers Band],” Levi said. “The relationship between the characters, playing ourselves, all of the love was real.”

Jillian Henry, a freshman visual and media arts major, said she grew up with parents and siblings in the entertainment field. By age 2, she had begun acting and doing voiceovers for Nickelodeon, Disney, and other networks on shows like Avatar the Last Airbender, Lilo and Stitch 2, and Leroy and Stitch.

She also appeared as a guest star in shows like What I Like About You and My Wife and Kids when she was nine. In The Benchwarmers, a 2006 movie co-produced by Adam Sandler about a group of men who create a three-person baseball team, Henry had a starring role as Gretchen.

“I loved acting and it never really felt like work,” Henry said. “Although when I was little, I was much more excited about the food on set than the actual acting.”

Though the work was strenuous, Levi and Kirkman—who said she worked long hours for six days a week—agreed it was a worthwhile, gratifying experience. Since Levi’s co-workers were, first and foremost, his friends, he said it didn’t even seem like work.

“It was one long playdate, essentially,” Levi said. “We were so young, we would get into fights. We would have to go film a scene and we would still be arguing over if somebody cheated in ping pong or something.”

Child stars must straddle dual worlds of acting and real life—a contrast that could be significant.

When All That was canceled after its 10th season, in 2005, Kirkman had to return to a regular life and school. She said the outcasting and bullying she endured after her return to the sixth grade caused her to temporarily give up acting.

“It was not until I came to Emerson that I wanted to act again,” Kirkman said. “Everyone here is trying to break into the same industry; they are very accepting. Now I’m starting over—I’m 21 and taking my first acting classes.”

Henry said she currently has two high school diplomas, receiving her first diploma at age 13 so she could be considered an adult at work. She said she still went to a high school later on, so she wouldn’t miss the experience.

All three said their past careers contributed to their decisions to attend Emerson. Kirkman and Levi said the college’s comfortable and creative environment persuaded them to enroll.

After college, they said they share a common goal of getting back into the industry.

“I thought about how I’ve been acting for my entire life and I love it,” Henry said. “Why would I leave it?”