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Nickelodeon’s former child actors advocate for change after “Quiet on Set” release

Nickelodeon’s former child actors reveal industry challenges in docuseries, advocating for better protections and representation for Black talent.

As the audience who grew up watching Nickelodeon has gotten older, some people are taking a closer look at the channel’s misconduct following the docuseries “Quiet on Set.” (Photo courtesy of Wiki Commons)

For many years, Nickelodeon has been regarded as a popular family-friendly channel for children. However, a recent documentary series exposed the “toxic world” that existed behind the scenes of Nickelodeon sets. 

The docuseries, “Quiet on Set: The Dark Side of Kids TV,” appeared on streaming channels such as Max and Discovery+ in mid-March.

“I think everyone deserves the chance to be heard and to be seen, especially when they haven’t been heard or seen for so long,” Grant Fortune, sophomore economics major and professional television actor, said. 

“I’m happy they got a chance to come forward and tell their story,” he added. 

The five-part docuseries features testimonies from many former child actors, such as Drake Bell and Alexa Nichols, who acted in “Drake & Josh” and “Zoey 101,” respectively. 

Additionally, some Black former child actors also navigated through unique hurdles during their time working at Nickelodeon. 

Giovonnie Samuels, CEO of GS Acting Workshops, Leon Frierson, musician and podcast host, Bryan Hearne, co-CEO of Urban Poets Society and Raquel Lee, CEO of metisse natura and Bolleau, shared their experiences as former Nickelodeon employees in the documentary.

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Even before the former child actors set out to Hollywood to pursue their dreams, they said, there was a common feeling that acting and performing were a part of their destiny.

“As far as representation, I had no idea that was what we were doing, especially as a kid. It was just that I loved theater, dancing and singing, and that was my motivation and drive,” Samuels told The Hilltop.

Hearne mentioned his inspiration for performing came about not only because of an inkling to be in the arts but also because of the inspiration that Black Hollywood greats in his childhood provided for him.

“As a child, you feel like this is something that you’re supposed to do. You see Denzel Washington, or Will Smith, or Martin Lawrence on screen and you feel like, ‘man I can do that,’” Hearne said.

According to SetHero, an organization created in 2016 for film producers who share a passion for efficiency, excellence and improving the conditions of filming for all participants, there are rules that dictate how long a child actor can work and they vary widely from state to state.

The U.S. Department of Labor recently updated its laws and regulations around child labor as of Jan. 1, however, while children typically can be on set for longer periods, there are strict limitations around the number of hours they can work.

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The actors said that their dreams came true as they all gained their roles on popular Nickelodeon shows that aired during the early 2000s, yet they soon realized that they would experience hurdles that would impact not only their careers but their sense of self.

“I wish I knew more about my self-worth back then,” Bolleau said. “When you’re young and your job is to perform for a bunch of different people, you can lose sight of who you are as a person, and you start to connect your value to your ability to play a role or to book a part.” 

The actors recalled that they were often cast as the “Black friends,” the “sidekicks” or the bad kids, even when all of those roles were in direct contrast with their personalities.

“I was often typecast in the roles I played,” Frierson said. “My character on ‘All That,’ Leroy, was kind of the ‘bad kid’ and the one who didn’t listen to his mom, who wasn’t listening in school.” 

Samuels recalls that during her experience with Nickelodeon, she felt as though her ability to be in the spotlight only extended as far as her ability to support the main, non-Black, characters.

“I was the ‘friend’ or ‘sidekick,’” Samuels said. “So, I was downplayed a lot. I was just there.”

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In addition to the actors saying that they felt a sense of dehumanization while on set, various processes and actions augmented the actors’ feelings once the curtains closed.

“The way that a lot of us were fired,” Hearne said. “Being thirteen years old and easily replaceable is something that really messes with you.”

The experiences impacted the actors during their time with the network, as well as their careers and self-images for years to come, they said.

“This business will make you a commodity and a product. It took me a second to hit the reset button,” Samuels said.

On May 1, the PR team of Dan Schneider, a former producer for Tollin/Robbins Productions which produced shows on Nickelodeon, informed The Hilltop that he filed a lawsuit in Los Angeles Superior Court.

“There is no doubt that I was sometimes a bad leader. I am sincerely apologetic and regretful for that behavior, and I will continue to take accountability for it. However, after seeing ‘Quiet on Set’ and its trailer, and the reactions to them, I sadly have no choice but to take legal action against the people behind it,” Schneider’s team said via statement. 

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Twenty years later, the actors’ said their main priority is to ensure that upcoming Black actors are protected in ways that they weren’t and to also heal the past versions of themselves so they can continue down their individual paths of self-discovery.

While it may be a long time coming, the actors’ said they hope their display of vulnerability helps inform the public of what needs to be done to protect the next generation of Black actors and actresses.

“Change can’t come without the exposure of something needing to be changed,” Bolleau said.  “I’d share my story again if I thought that I could help make a change.”

Copy edited by Alana Matthew

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