Ethan William Childress has two roles on the set of the new ABC comedy “Mixed-ish”: portraying the family’s young son Johan and making everyone else who works on the “Black-ish” prequel feel old.
Absurdly, painfully, feel-it-in-your-bones old.
The series, airing at 9 p.m. Tuesdays, takes place in 1985, and the show’s period-specific set was an eye-opener for the 10-year-old Las Vegas native.
“I was looking at this thing,” Childress remembers, “and then I pointed to it, and I asked Tika (Sumpter, who plays his mother), ‘What’s this?’ And she says, ‘It’s a phone.’ And I’m like, ‘What???’ ”
The experience led to one of his favorite jokey put-downs: “You’re so old, you know rotary phones.”
Relatively new to acting
Childress sits in the living room of his family’s valley home, looking back on his short route to success and trying to keep Remington, their 3-year-old Great Dane that’s larger than he is, from devouring everything in sight.
It’s a hiatus — the cast and crew get every fifth week off — and Childress is home for a few days to see his father, David, and 13-year-old brother, Braylon, for the first time in a month. He got off work around 8 p.m. Monday, then his mother, To-Hona, drove straight from the set to Las Vegas. Thursday night, the two of them will return to the apartment they’re renting less than a mile from the studio in Burbank, California, and start the process all over again.
Asked how he ended up on a TV series with relatively little acting experience, Childress credits “the radio and my dad.”
After hearing one of those commercials for paid workshops designed to turn young children into stars, David and To-Hona discussed the idea with Childress. “I said sure, because you never know until you try,” he says.
That was in January 2018. This February, following 64 mostly unsuccessful auditions for everything from movies to TV guest spots to print ads, Childress landed an audition for “Mixed-ish.” Eight days later, following a callback and a screen test, he was hired.
“It’s awesome,” he says of his new job. “It’s very cool to have all my friends super excited for me and hyped.”
Mature beyond his years
Childress isn’t 10 in the rehearsed, robotic style of some child actors who seem to answer questions by reciting a series of scripted responses. He’s conversational in a way that makes you suspect, ever so briefly, that he’s really 27 and just quite small for his age.
His maturity should prove an asset on a series that combines the silly with the serious.
Focusing on the childhood of “Black-ish” matriarch Rainbow Johnson (“Mixed-ish” co-creator Tracee Ellis Ross), the comedy begins with the family being forcibly removed from a commune — according to the government, it was “a radicalized cult in violation of over 47 ATF regulations” — and moving into a home owned by Rainbow and Johan’s grandfather (Gary Cole). In the premiere, Childress’ Johan marvels at the indoor toilet and assumes “it’s a portal to another dimension.” Later, he mistakes the sink in the school bathroom for “the high toilet.”
But the series also tackles grown-up themes of race and cultural identity and the fact that, in 1985, biracial — aka “mixed” — children like Childress were something of an anomaly.
“What I think happens is, since it’s a comedy, it’ll drag people in,” he explains, “and then it’ll teach them all these lessons throughout the episode.”
Making time for acting
When it comes to the production of a weekly TV series, the young actor basically is learning by doing.
“There’s lots of acting coaches to teach you how to act, but nobody to tell you what to expect after that,” To-Hona reveals.
Her career as a mortgage underwriter allows her to work remotely, so she accompanies her son to the set, where he’s legally allowed to be up to nine hours a day plus a 30-minute lunch break, although he usually works six or seven hours. She’s also around during the three hours of daily online schoolwork he completes with an assist from on-site teachers.
Childress keeps up with his dad, a legal secretary/paralegal, and brother back in Las Vegas daily through phone calls, texts, Skype, FaceTime and Discord — pretty much any way he can through his iPad.
“I’m one of those mean parents,” To-Hana says, “who doesn’t see a need for a 10-year-old to have a cellphone.”
‘Hey HEY hey’
As an actor, Childress has a reliable tutor in Mark-Paul Gosselaar.
The “Saved by the Bell” star, who’s been working steadily in Hollywood since he was 12, plays his father on the series, looks out for him and will help with his line readings.
“He’s very nice,” Childress says. “I’ve learned a lot from him.”
It took a village, though, to teach the 10-year-old the proper inflection of Dwayne’s signature “Hey HEY hey” catchphrase from “What’s Happening!!” that he quoted in the series premiere.
Of the 13 episodes ordered by ABC, nine have been filmed, and five have aired. Childress and his family are waiting to hear if “Mixed-ish” will earn a full season on the network.
‘This is my career now’
Regardless, the experience has changed the young man’s job outlook.
“I’m thinking this is my career now, but I’ve already thought of a few things, in case this doesn’t work out, that I would like to even just try.”
He had to stop playing sports when he took up acting, so professional football player or professional soccer player are on his list of backup careers, as is video game designer.
“I forgot how to code,” Childress says, meaning that he learned how to program video games at such a young age, those skills had time to atrophy and eventually escape him, all by the time he was roughly as old as some of the stuff in the back of your refrigerator.
“But,” he adds, “I would be willing to relearn it and make some games.”