By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Debbie‘s contribution to the system was to assume financial control. She named herself president of Jena’s production company, set up to allay the heavy taxation to which child actors are subject (though other than loaning out Jena for projects and acting as a clearing-house for checks, the company did nothing, for which Debbie earned between $20,000 and $60,000 per year). She signed Jena‘s contracts. She opened bank accounts. For the first time in her life, she had power.
But not everyone recognized it. As Jena moved further into the limelight, Debbie essentially became invisible. Her obsolescence was showcased during Jena’s first big premiere, for Bastard, in New York City.
“When we got there,” Debbie says, “the press came down and ushered Jena out of the limo quickly, didn‘t even say boo to me . . . I proceeded to go upstairs, ’cause I saw them whisk her up there, and there was a chain, of course, and a guard standing at the top of the steps, and he said, ‘This is a closed event, you can’t come in.‘ And I said, ’Excuse me? That‘s my daughter in there.’ And I could see her in a mesh of press, on the red carpet with Anjelica . . . Most of the night, I was pretty much kept away from her. She didn‘t even sit with me during the movie . . . They just want the child. ’Give us the child! Now you, yeah, just go over there, thank you, ssshhh!‘ That’s how a parent is treated.”
Debbie says the mistreatment was endemic; she does a pretty good imitation of a producer sweet-talking her on the first day of shooting: “‘Hi!!! You look so great. Thank you for being here, you are so wonderful, you have an incredible child, how is everything, do you need anything, do you want us to get groceries for you, is your driver okay, do you want any extra time, what do you want to do this weekend, we can get you tickets to whatever you want.’ And you stand in that and you go, ‘Wow, they must really like me.’ They don‘t care about you at all. All they want is the performance out of the child, and they’ll do whatever it takes to get it.”
With Jena working steadily, Debbie wanted to downsize her support team. Why did Jena need a manager? Why did she need a lawyer? All these people were doing was taking bread out of their mouths, a hyperbolic claim that is actually true: The industry that enables child actors -- agents, managers, producers, studios, acting coaches, the owners of the Oakwood Apartments, which accommodates many child actors and their families and charges $2,000 for a utilitarian one-bedroom -- has no compunction about buttering its own bread thickly and leaving the child the crumbs. Ergo, while on paper Jena was earning what looked like sizable sums, the reality of what she kept was stark: 25 percent off the top to agent, manager and business manager, then 30 percent to blocked trusts, leaving her with 45 percent, which was taxed at up to 45 percent. While Jena‘s business manager was able to find a few tax loopholes, and Beverly Strong eventually agreed to work on a sliding scale, according to Debbie, Jena never saw more than 7 percent of her earnings. In other words, everyone was making a very nice living off 12-year-old Jena but Jena.
If Debbie had been working, it might not have mattered -- the 7 percent would have been gravy. But Debbie was not working. More important, her lack of business acumen rendered her unable to budget what was left. (“I had run businesses before, but they were small businesses,” she says, mentioning that at age 8 she “sold costume jewelry to secretaries, and in high school I sold cleaner door to door.”) This, combined with never knowing when Jena would work, made Debbie nervous, and increasingly suspicious of all the fees to handlers, which she chose to see not as necessary business expenses, but as burdens perpetrated on her personally. The reasons for her anxiety may have been partially hormonal: Debbie was pregnant.
“She so much wanted a little sister,” says Debbie, who, though she’d been dating the father for several years, decided just weeks before finding out she was pregnant not to marry him. “I‘m not saying I got pregnant for Jena, but I think subconsciously -- you know what I’m saying? Since I was not doing anything to make money, I was trying to make Jena happy . . . When I first told her, she jumped up and down for joy and danced around me while I cried. It was a terrible scene. Because I knew that this was going to just throw a huge wrench into something that was already a problem. How do I travel with her? I‘m pregnant. A new baby? How do I keep up with her?”
This feeling of losing control contributed to a growing paranoia that others were trying to fill the gap Debbie sensed was growing between her and Jena.
“Her manager, she’d say things like, ‘Jena doesn’t like the fact that she has to be responsible for you.‘ I mean, stupid little things like that, or, ’Jena wonders when you‘re gonna get your own life.’ She just would drop these little hints, like little stabs.”