Despite a magic touch, actor's just a regular kid

LONDON — London -- So you're a 10-year-old kid, starring in a $45 million movie playing on 1,700 screens in America. Your face is on posters and books. Producers are sending you scripts like you're Robert DeNiro.

But you've got a problem.


Your parents are sending you to camp up by the North Sea and you don't want to go.

What do you do? Hey, you may be a movie star, but you're 10. You go to your room and pack your suitcase.


Meet Hal Scardino, the kid next door who could be the child-actor of the summer.

Hal is the star of "The Indian In the Cupboard," a film based on the novel by Lynne Reid Banks. It's directed by Frank Oz, who cut his creative teeth with Jim Henson's Muppets.

In the film, Hal plays the role of Omri, the boy who turns a magic key and brings a miniature plastic Indian to life. The film strikes all the right chords about family and friendship.

Hal, born in America, remains unaffected by coming stardom. He lives with his family in an apartment in the fashionable London neighborhood of Knightsbridge, three blocks from Harrods and a blissful eight time zones away from Hollywood.

The movie doesn't even open here until December.

The kid is still just like any other 10-year-old. Give Hal a remote-control car, and he can be happy, oh, for about a month. His room is littered with posters of his favorite soccer team, Manchester United. He despises the uniform he has to wear each school day. Hey, gray wool itches. He fences -- OK, so not every 10-year-old can handle a foil.

And when he is just hanging around, Hal likes to wear his Los Angeles Kings cap, tugged way down low so that the bill almost touches his wire-frame glasses.

But take off the hat and glasses, puff up his hair, and he looks, at leastaccording to one waiter who happens to glance at a publicity photo, "like a young Kenneth Branagh -- with lips."


"I don't know if I want to act when I grow up," Hal says. "I don't know what I want to do."

Behold: a child star who isn't talking about percentages or doing lunch.

The kid is basically the accidental actor -- without the stage parents from hell.

Hal's parents have real lives. And real jobs.

Marjorie Scardino, 48, is the chief executive of the Economist Newspaper Group, whose best-known publication is the Economist. Albert Scardino, a 46-year-old Baltimore native, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who once served as a spokesman for former New York Mayor David Dinkins. He did a stint as an intern on The Baltimore Evening Sun in 1968.

If the Scardinos can't help Hal navigate through the wilds of childhood and Hollywood, it might be time to place a ban on all cute kid actors.


"The thing that is so seductive about the movie business is the amount of money involved and ego," Albert Scardino says. "And for someone in a parental position, it's also about pride of child. The money doesn't really exist. There are stories like the Culkin family where he [Macaulay] went from earning $50,000 to $5 million from his first to his second picture. The truth is, that doesn't happen 99.5 percent of the time."

As for his son's take in the multimillion-dollar production, Albert Scardino says, "By the time you take in all the deductions, it's not enough to go to college."

So if it's not the money, then what is it?

"For Hal, it's a one-step-at-a-time thing," Albert Scardino says. "As long as he can learn a lot, do this and his schoolwork, and as long as this is a different kind of education and not just a distraction, it's fine."

The shy one

The father says it's not difficult keeping a family's priorities in order. He says his older children -- Adelaide, 17, and Will, 15 -- receive just as much attention and encouragement as Hal. And Hal says his older siblings treat him as always.


"They beat me up," he says, sounding just like any other youngest child.

The truth is, if you were to pick out one Scardino and say, this kid is in movies, it would be Adelaide, who when she was 2 could work a room like Sinatra.

Hal's the shy one.

"The kid in the Christmas play who is looking for the curtains when everyone else is singing 'Jingle Bells,' " says Albert Scardino of his youngest child.

So how did a shy kid end up in the movies? Luck.

A casting director was trolling the privileged schools of the Upper West Side of New York looking for kids to star in the chess film "Searching for Bobby Fischer." Hal went with his friends to an interview, and when he was called in for a chat, he tried to back out. The casting director said she simply wanted to play chess with him. Hal played. Eventually, he got the supporting role of Morgan.


The movie opened and vanished nearly without a trace. It was wonderful, but it was about two things that make most families really uncomfortable -- chess and parents who act like a bunch of jerks. The Scardinos figured their kid had had his movie moment.

The family moved from New York to London in the summer of 1993, but kept their place in New York. The following April, a casting director tried to contact the Scardinos at their New York number about "The Indian in the Cupboard."

'I got frustrated'

The calls started in April. Albert Scardino didn't get around to returning them until August: "I thought 'The Indian in the Cupboard' was a mail-order house."

Twice, Hal flew from a family vacation in the South of France to America for screen tests. He got the part, then last October flew to the United States for an 84-day shooting schedule spread across six months in New York and Hollywood.

Acting in this movie was often about as much fun as undergoing a CAT scan. Hal endured endless close-ups. And he never actually got to act with the miniature heroes who make up the heart of the film. He did his scenes on a set. They did their scenes with a blue backdrop. The special-effects wizards did the rest.


"I got frustrated a lot," Hal says. "I felt like I was stuck at times. When I was really frustrated, I left to see my dad."

Albert Scardino says the movie brought him closer to his son. He also says he watched his son mature before his eyes.

"When we started the movie, Hal was a relatively immature 9-year-old," Albert Scardino says. "When we finished, he was a strong and self-confident 10-year-old."

But does Hal have the strength to sustain a movie career? The family will keep looking for good scripts, like the upcoming project, "Marvin's Room," an ensemble piece with a cast that may include Meryl Streep and Diane Keaton.

If Hal likes acting, he'll continue to act. If he doesn't, he'll go in-line skating.

But if he really had his way, Hal would go back to New York, where there is a video arcade on every corner and where the bagels don't taste like white-bread doughnuts.


"I miss my friends," he says. "I miss my house."

Then, looking at his father, he says, "I'm going to buy that house off you."

The kid could sure get used to this movie star stuff in a hurry.