L.A. studio teacher advocates child labor laws while tutoring young actors
By Jackie Mitchell ’14
Tom O’Flaherty ’07, ’08G isn’t your typical teacher. As a studio teacher tutoring child stars in Los Angeles, O’Flaherty keeps young actors out of harm’s way and ensures the enforcement of child labor laws on production sets.
“I was on a film set last year, and the first day, the assistant director said, ‘We’re going to fire an AK-47 behind the kid, if that’s OK.’ It wasn’t,” he says. “You can’t fire a live weapon behind or near any child.”
O’Flaherty had to have a quick safety meeting with the assistant director and director to review what they couldn’t do. They had to set up differently to have them shoot the scene without using the child and having the weapon on a separate soundstage so the loud bang wouldn’t affect anybody.
“I had to do that because if I wasn’t there, there’d be nobody to do that,” he says. “They’d get away with it.”
The former member of the JCU swimming and diving team first heard the term studio teacher when he was exploring different job options and his brother mentioned the profession to him.
“It’s a hybrid teacher, lawyer, and social worker in the entertainment industry,” he says. “I do the legal, education, and social sides, making sure kids are taken care of on a film or production set.”
After graduating from JCU with a bachelor’s degree in history and a master’s degree in education, the Chicago native moved to Arizona to become a high school teacher. The inner-city public school classroom where he taught was filled with students who struggled because of troubled backgrounds and learning disabilities.
“I had kids who were reading at a third-grade level as a sophomore in high school,” he says. “I helped them achieve a little bit of the education they needed and tried to push them to get to where they needed to be.”
To make things more difficult, the class size ranged from 35 to 40 students.
“I was working with 160 kids a day, five days a week,” he says. “It’s difficult to keep track of everything that everyone’s doing, so it was stressful,” he says.
After about three years of teaching in Arizona, O’Flaherty explored other career options.
“I thought about expanding my career because after doing the same thing every day at the same school, I wanted a change,” he says.
At first, O’Flaherty considered applying for a teaching position at another school or pursuing an administrative position. In August 2011, he made the switch to studio teacher.
“I took classes to become certified in California, multiple subject and single subject, as well as taking legal classes,” he says.
Now, O’Flaherty’s classroom resides on production sets where he tutors no more than 10 actors at a time. He has worked on the sets of films, webisodes, and television shows, including “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,” “Good Luck Charlie,” and National Geographic’s “Are You Tougher Than A Boy Scout?”
“It’s one-on-one work, and you know they’re actually learning, getting work done, and getting the help they need,” he says. “And it’s so much easier to work with somebody one on one than to work with kids like I used to in a classroom of 30.”
When he first arrives on set, O’Flaherty checks the actors’ work permits to ensure they’re current. They have to be renewed every six months, so he makes sure they’ve been renewed through the state and legal department.
O’Flaherty tutors child actors of varying grade levels for three hours a day in a classroom setting in different locations on set. Sometimes the classroom is in a trailer, other times it’s on a studio soundstage, back lot, or tent when the actors are filming outdoors. He also works directly with producers, making safety a priority for the actors he tutors.
When school isn’t in session, he’s on set making sure the kids are fed and aren’t overworked or doing something dangerous – basically providing a safe environment.
Usually, a few days before a shoot, O’Flaherty will discuss the aspects of the film or television show with an agent from the production company and review a copy of the script, checking to make sure nothing will put child actors in danger.
“Child actors are the most abused in the entertainment industry,” he says. “They’ll work them like they’re adults, doing any type of stunts, and work them hours without any break, unless we’re there to regulate it.”
For O’Flaherty, one of the biggest perks of the job is traveling, whether on a beach or in the mountains. He spent most of this past January in Aspen, Colo.
O’Flaherty, whose current favorite television show is “Game of Thrones,” would love to work on the set of that show or another one of that caliber.
“I could live in Ireland for six months of the year,” he says.
O’Flaherty is happy with the direction his career is headed.
“I keep building on what I’m doing, trying to get bigger projects and working with all different levels of kids,” he says.