THR: What qualities do you look for in kids to ensure they are fit for Disney Channel stardom?
Marsh: When you look at a Shia LaBeouf, Selena Gomez or Demi Lovato, there's a quality of transparency, and you can connect with them across the room. It comes from a confidence and a certain kind of charisma. When Miley Cyrus came in the room at 12½, she was as green as the grass, but something was beaming through her eyes that made us feel like we have to take a shot. For Hannah Montana, it had come down to her and another girl, who was a skilled sitcom actress, and there was an absolute split vote. Many of the people who had to make the show wanted the sure thing -- the girl who could hit the jokes, land the laugh. But I wrote an e-mail to everybody that said: "Our job is not to make shows, it's to build franchises and stars. We may have a drink a few years from now and talk about whether we made the right choice, but I'm saying to you that we're going to hire Miley."
THR: Your actors tends to be branded ‘Disney Stars’ in a way that they aren't elsewhere. Why, and what pressures come with that?
Marsh: For most of people who act, getting a television is the end product. It’s the destination. For us, it’s the launch pad. In my mind it’s: ‘You’ve landed a TV show, now what’s the consumer products opportunity? The film opportunities? The Disney channel movie? The crossover episode? The book you’re going to write?' So they become Disney stars because they intersect with Disney in many ways, and that’s by design. Occasionally there are downsides to that: when we get overly identified with somebody and they go off the rails.
THR: Which has happened on more than one occasion…
Marsh: It’s incredibly demanding to be a 15-year-old kid and live your life in the public eye. At the end of the day, they’re talented but they’re regular teenagers and we’re asking so much of them and it’s nearly impossible to carry the weight of your fans on your shoulders. Still, being identified with Disney in my mind is net positive.
THR: How involved do you get in their personal lives?
Marsh: We're one leg of a four-legged stool. It's the network, the production company, the reps and the parents. We're really clear on where our role begins and ends. We have things like a one-day seminar called Talent 101, where we bring in security experts, psychologists, showrunners and life coaches. It's usually after the pilot but before the series launches. But at the end of the day, it's the parents who really have to be parents. We give them all of the tools they might need, but the network is not responsible for raising their children.
THR: What effect do the tabloid exploits of many former stars have on this family-friendly brand?
Marsh: People know that we don't control who these individuals are, and we don't try to. It's the parents' job to do that. Would our lives be easier if everyone was the perfect poster child? Of course. Do I know that's not a reality? I do. Someone like Demi is an unbelievably talented young woman who had some challenges in her life from before we met her and will probably have those challenges far into the future. It's not fair, if that's the right way to express it, to lay that at the feet of the network that discovered her.
THR: Do you stay in touch with these kids after they graduate from Disney Channel?
Marsh: I do. One of my favorite stories was with Shia, who was an insane, crazy, wonderful persona. After Even Stevens, I wanted him to go to college because I thought, "You're so smart, and this would be a great education for you socially and academically." Initially, he told me he didn't want to, that he had lots of opportunities. Then a few years later, he came to me and said: "Gary, I'm going to go to college. Would you write me a letter of recommendation?" I wrote him a letter of recommendation, and he got into Yale and CalArts. He called me with the great news and said he thought he was going to go to CalArts so that he could continue to work in L.A. About three months later, I get another call: "Gary, I've got to tell you, I'm not going to college. I got an offer for this Transformers thing. It's Michael Bay, and if it works, I could get set for life." How do you tell an 18-year-old kid not to do that? Turns out, it was an OK choice for him. (Laughs.)