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Sweet success: Seventh grader lands role on HBO series

by John DiBattista

Emma Kenney is a normal 12-year-old girl. She is an animal lover and an honor-roll student at Park Middle School. She is just a normal girl, except that she is a normal girl who is also a national television actress and award-winning filmmaker.

Even in early childhood, Kenney displayed a knack for theater. She would construct scenes with her stuffed animals, creating voices for each one. “I never wanted to be an actress or anything. But I do like being other characters. To me, it is kind of like playing,” said Kenney.

Acting lessons followed, and when Kenney was seven, an agent who visited her acting school offered her a contract. She booked three national commercials in her first year alone.

“That is unusual. The norm is 90 percent rejection for each audition. I guess she was at the right place at the right time,” said Kenney’s mother Gillian, a defense attorney in New York City.

Some of Kenney’s early gigs led to parts in New York University students’ films, where she could observe the filmmaking process. Since then, Kenney has written more than 50 scripts of her own and has directed 20 of them. One short was a finalist at the 2009 New Jersey International Film Festival at Rutgers University, making Kenney the youngest filmmaker ever to earn that recognition. “It was a vampire movie, but it was about kids having a sleepover,” said Kenney. “I used my friends as the actors. I think we all had fun making it.”

Kenney’s career took a giant leap in 2009 when her manager suggested her for the role of Debbie Gallagher in Showtime’s Emmy-nominated series Shameless. Kenney flew out to Los Angeles for an audition with other potential cast members.

The Kenneys were told the studio would make a decision on their last night in California. The family spent a night of anticipation in their hotel room waiting for the call, and when the phone rang, it was the head of wardrobe.

“She wanted to know Emma’s size and I asked why. She said because she was Debbie Gallagher. That was one of the best phone calls we had ever received,” said Gillian Kenney.

A show about a dysfunctional family with an alcoholic father, played by William H. Macy, inevitably deals with some adult themes. “John Well’s production company and Showtime are very sensitive to what Emma is and is not exposed to. They’ve never put Emma in any scene that she, or we, are uncomfortable with,” said Kenney’s father Kevin, an editor for Fox Sports.

Kenney has acted in two seasons of Shameless and views the cast as a second family. “I absolutely adore my cast mates. Emmy Rossum and Bill Macy are so down to earth and fun. The crew is amazing, as well. John Wells makes us all feel really comfortable and respects all the actors, even the kids!” she said.

A month before shooting her second season of Shameless, Kenney auditioned for HBO’s Boardwalk Empire. To prepare for her first audition, in which she had to say a Gaelic phrase, Kenney went with her father to an NYU Gaelic institute to research. After multiple callbacks, HBO gave Kenney the role and filming began in downtown Manhattan. Her wardrobe for the series, a 1920’s period piece about bootlegging in Atlantic City, is all vintage clothing.

Kenney has auditioned for several upcoming feature films and will be reprising her role on Shameless. She is adamant about continuing to pursue her passions for acting and filmmaking.

“I love acting and hope it will be my future,” said Kenney.

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