Mad Men’s Casting Directors Select the Best Child Actor of the Year

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Photo: Maya Robinson and Photo by FX, Showtime, AMC and ABC
Announcing...The Best Child Actor
Photo-illustrations by Maya Robinson

All this week, the Vulture TV Awards honor the best television from the past year. Mad Men casting directors Laura Schiff and Carrie Audino explain their choice for best child actor of the year.

The nominees are:

Holly Taylor, The Americans
Forrest Wheeler and Ian Chen, Fresh Off the Boat
Emma Kenney
, Shameless
Ursula Parker, Louie
Kiernan Shipka, Mad Men*

And the winner is ...

Holly Taylor, The Americans

You know a child actor is good when they get to play real scenes, not just moments. These scenes are usually with their parents. You know a child actor is great when they get to play scenes with anybody else. But you know that kid is really something special when they get to play a scene by themselves, talking into a phone, and we don’t even get to see the other side of the call. That’s how season three of The Americans ends, with Paige, played by Holly Taylor, telling Pastor Tim over the phone that her parents are spies. It’s the closest thing television has to a soliloquy, and the fact that the writers of The Americans entrusted this cliff-hanger to Taylor shows how much confidence they have in this 17-year-old actress. She is masterful in this moment: wounded, vulnerable, and sad. The thing that really sells it is the fact that Paige has tried to keep the secret — but she just can’t keep it bottled up inside any longer. In the hands of a lesser actor, it might have seemed moody or even selfish, since she is likely putting her confidante in grave danger, but in Holly’s hands, it feels wrenching and entirely earned.  

The Americans has always been a show about the consequences of leading a hidden life, though in previous seasons those consequences were mostly borne by extraordinary leads Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys, or by the people they killed. But in Holly’s performance, we get to see the fallout of these secrets affect someone who’s an innocent victim, who never signed up for the spy game. Holly is grounded and nuanced and allows us to feel the horror of her parents’ bad choices.

The truth is, when you’re casting kids, you can’t know that someone is great. A child actor doesn’t arrive fully formed. They grow into the part, and if they continue to stretch and thrive as an actor, smart writers and producers can’t help but take advantage of it. When we cast the incredible Kiernan Shipka on Mad Men, we knew she was smart, poised, precocious, and, yes, talented, but we could not have known what a phenomenal talent she was to become. It was a leap of faith. I’m sure it was the same for Cami Patton and Christal Karge when they were casting the pilot of The Americans. They had to go with their gut and hope to get lucky. Boy, did they.

*Note: When choosing a winner, Laura and Carrie were asked to select an actor other than Kiernan Shipka, as they cast her in her role on Mad Men.