Hallie Todd, Teaching the Next Generation of Hollywood.

by Kees Boer

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I really enjoyed my interview with Hallie Todd. She is one of the nicest and most relatable people you could ever meet. She is perhaps best known for her role as Mrs. Jo McGuire, the mother of Lizzie McGuire on the award winning Lizzie McGuire show.

Hallie Todd was born in Los Angeles in an acting family. You might remember her mother, Ann Guilbert for having played Millie on the old Dick van Dyke Show. Her father, George Eckstein was a writer/producer, who was very prominent in television during the Seventies. Both her parents are still involved in entertainment. Her husband is Glenn Withrow, a well established actor in Hollywood.

It was no wonder that Hallie’s dream was always to become an actress. She studied acting at every opportunity and went to training programs. She recalls “When I graduated High School, I apprenticed with a regional repertoire company called ‘The Pacific Conservatory of Performing Arts’ … I spent two years there doing the grunt work and doing some plays. I knew that I would be busy if I came home and didn’t go to College and so that choice was made, which had a reverberating effect on me ever since, but it was a choice I made. I did work and it was a good move professionally to do it. I ended up doing some movies of the week and really shortly after that decision, I got cast in a show called Brothers for showtime cable… That was a big career milestone, because it lasted so long and it was so critically acclaimed. I got married toward the end of Brothers with Glenn Withrow, who had been an actor for many years.”

We started talking about her role on Lizzie McGuire. “When I read the script of Lizzie McGuire, I knew it was a really cute show and I wanted to be part of it, because I really liked the pilot script. When it got picked up and we kind of knew it would because Disney Channel didn’t have enough programming at that time. If they made a pilot they took it to series. So, it was sort of like a good bet that we would be on the air. When it was well received, I felt sort of validated, like: ‘yeah, I thought this was a cute show,’ but then when it went to that place in where it got so intensely popular, I’ve never been a part of that commercial success level. I never saw that happen, because I didn’t have any frame of reference for something like that happening, but I believed the show merited being very successful, because I always felt that that show set a mark for itself every week and hit the mark. I’ve been on a lot of shows, where I felt that they set a mark and they would miss the mark. And it was not as good as it could have been or should have been. On Lizzie with the budget and the audience that they were targeting, I always felt that it went past it. I could have settled for lesser writing and lesser performances and lesser everything and still stayed on the air and done okay. I liked that Stan Rogow really produces a nice product and I really was proud to be a part of it and it was sweet and it was well done and I understood why it was well received, but when it went into that other level with merchandising and everything, I'd never seen anything like that before. It was just amazing. If you know Hilary, you can understand why she is so popular. She is very dear. She’s really good with people and she is so cute. The character was such a character that people can relate to that that didn’t surprise me. I never seen anything like that kind hype of something. So, the whole thing just sort of floored me!

Hallie was also committed to have her character Jo create a proper role model as a mother in a family. “I was really happy to be able to play that character. The only thing that sometimes would come up on the set or rehearsal was that Hilary used a tone of voice in a line to me or to Bobby (Robert Carradine, the actor, who played her stage husband Sam McGuire) that was using an attitude that was not respectful. If I or Bobby didn’t have a line that was able to respond appropriately, we would speak up, because we are both parents. I really didn’t want to be part of that television trap, where parents are made to look like the kids can just work them, where the kids are the smart ones and they don’t treat the parents with respect. So that was something that we always would speak up and that we were always able to make it work so that the parents were definitely the authority figures and the kids were respectful even if they lost their cool for a minute, they would be reminded. I don’t think Disney wanted to set another example actually. They essentially supported that.”

Recently, Hallie and her husband Glenn Withrow have started a full service visual and audio production company serving the large and growing market of corporate, commercial and independent film production called In House Media. In House Media not only provides facilities, where producers can create their projects, but it also contains a huge training facility, where a staff trains younger upcoming actors the skills of making it in the entertainment business. Their website is http://www.inhousemedia.com.

Hallie is really excited about this new endeavor. “We now have a Media Studio in Burbank that has actually opened a conservatory for young actors in the last three months and it has been so busy that I haven’t been able to do anything, but concentrate on that. We partnered up with one of my colleagues from Disney Channel, who was one of the executives in charge of casting there and it has become a very special little place and I’m very proud of it. We were building it for a long time to have our own little studio facilities that we would do productions out of and rent out. He’s a photographer as well. We were going to definitely have it as our studio, but also have these other capabilities, because we have audio and editing and sound and we ended up on top of all of that going on building this acting conservatory, which has gotten to be very busy, very fast. Cynthia McFadden and Primetime Life came and filmed it and interviewed us for a primetime life show. The entertainment industry is so unpredictable, but this has been a labor of love, building this workshop, because it really is a callback to all of the experiences I had as a teenager and a kid, but oddly enough I did those in an environment, where people, were really theater art students and they were really into an end-game that took them into adulthood. These kids are pursuing it now to become a star as a kid, which is just so different from where I was coming from at that same age, but there is so much more opportunity for young people now as far as what is being made and what is being produced for young people. It’s really interesting. It’s really neat to have the kids in there.”

I spoke with Hallie about whether anyone can become an actor. She had some great insight. “I think that not everybody can. I don’t think that it’s something that has to do with age. You can be taught skills, but some people are born with just an innate understanding of story telling on that level and I think children can study acting and some can study it’s still not going to be something that they grasp, because of what just their imagination and their makeup is. They are not into putting it out there in a public way. They are going to resist it. They may not be any less creative, but they are not exhibitionists, which you have to be to a large extent to be an actor, so I think, the skills like the voice and the movement and the actual technique; all that can be studied, but I think the love of being part of a piece and being in front of people, letting it all hang out. I don’t think that that can really be taught after a certain point. I think you either have it or you don’t. Everything else can be finessed. For instance, if a kid is gravitating toward a technique that might be over the top, they are not terribly believable, but they obviously have a lot of joy in it. I think all the subtlety and nuance can be taught, if they love it enough to get better. I don’t think you can teach that love of doing it from someone, who just doesn’t. That’s my feeling right now, like Jake Thomas (the young actor, who played Matt McGuire, Lizzie’s little brother) obviously just comes alive on screen and he’s got just an understanding, what he is supposed to do to move a story along and do his part in the whole of the piece and he doesn’t back away from it, but I don’t know how his parents feel about him studying, because they are actors themselves and I think a lot of parents feel that kids shouldn’t study acting, but I just think it is different for everybody. I think that if Jake continues to do it when he’s older, I think he might also move into doing the directing thing as well and producing, because he’s very smart. I would hope that he would, because he did have a lot of fun doing that. I don’t know if he’s going to do that as an adult. He’s just such an interesting young man. I have so much respect for him as an actor.”

We spoke about what she would do if she felt that her student wasn’t gifted in acting. “I don’t think that I’m the one, who is going to be able to make that call. If they are enjoying it and if they are young, you never know where someone is going to end up a year later or two years later as far as that ability to click into doing something well that they were struggling with. I happened to go my way, but I could have been anything else, I just didn’t think about anything else. That’s all that I wanted to be. Had I done something else with my life, all those years and all those hours and all of those classes, the impact that those classes had and all of the things that I learned in all of those classes would have been valuable to me in all of those other situations, because of the use of imagination and communication, and being able to put yourself in the shoes of someone else as far as role playing and all of those tools. I can’t think of any other sport or art that teaches that. All of those things in one setting, I think acting classes are really valuable for anyone, even if that’s not going to be their thing. I don’t tell anybody: ‘You’re never going to make it.’ I have no idea. There are people who’ve made it, whom I’ve never would have guessed, or who haven’t that ought to have and it seems so arbitrary and unfair. I would never tell someone that. I would tell them that maybe their chances are less because of some behavior on their part, but not because of some talent issue, because talent is in the eye of the beholder. There’s maybe somebody, that’s exactly what they are looking for. So my criteria isn’t so much whether they are gifted on not. There are people who come across as so gifted and some who are still trying to find it in themselves and you just don’t know, because I’ve seen people, who I never thought were going to be good actors turn into amazing actors, just because they kept at it and all of a sudden hit that breakthrough point, so it’s really hard to say. And also commercially people look so many different ways now that there is no way to look or not to look as far as making it in this industry. The world has gotten a lot more open-minded as far as what they want to see as far as real looking people on television. And sometimes, you don’t see that in all of the shows you watch, but it’s out there. If you take a show like ‘Lost,’ it takes all kinds to put that show together. There are all kinds of characters.”

The vast majority of actors never become superstars. “I mean Hilary Duff’s career is so unusual. You can’t use that as a measuring stick for whether you are doing well or not, because it’s just out of control success. It is unimaginable what she is doing right now. It’s skyrocketed to this point so quickly. But people see that and they think, ‘oh, I want that to happen to my kid’ and it’s like: ‘hey, man, that happens to not even one in a million, it is one in a gazillion, that that happens to!’ I’m trying to be supportive of everybody, because they are very vulnerable. It’s so delicate, because they are all so wrapped up in this big dream. I try to be realistic with people. I’m not a counselor, or an agent or a manager, I’m just an actress, who is trying to share some cool stuff, that I’ve been exposed to. I can’t judge someone else’s choices, but it’s hard not to sometimes, it really is.”

“So, what whether you’re a success as a child or a success as an adult, the dream is still the dream. I don’t know why it matters that people are big stars when they are kids. That’s something that my mother never put a value on, ever, so I guess I don’t. I understand with certain families, it’s a perfect match. With the Thomases it’s a perfect match. They are actors. Jake’s so tight with them. He gets it. He enjoys it. They know exactly how to navigate in this city, with him and making him come first. The job is secondary. They’ve done a really good job in my opinion from what I’ve seen. I’ve spend quite a bit of time with them. It has to work for the whole family. It can’t just be because the girl’s got promise. Family is first.”

Family is indeed first. Her daughter is actually Hallie’s delight. “My daughter is not an actor, but she is sort of the ambassador of the place. She is a fiddler; she plays the violin. I’m Suzuki mom too as opposed to being a soccer mom. It’s very cool! She’s been doing it for seven years and she goes to the Colburn school downtown by Disney Concert Hall and it is a very special place to study music, so that’s been a cool part of all of our lives.”

“I don’t see myself as an entrepreneur but I ended up with this other business that has become real successful really quickly. That’s my life in a nutshell. I have an 11 and ½ year old daughter, who is just the delight of my life and my husband. It’s the three of us and we are a cozy little family in Studio City.”

For more information on Hallie Todd, be sure to visit her Studio's Website. This is also where you could order her books on the business of Hollywood for your actors, which I highly recommend.