My Big Fat Greek Wedding star Nia Vardalos' cameo as a district attorney is one incentive to watch Wednesday's Law & Order: SVU on NBC, but you'll also see another familiar face on the upcoming episode.
Avon resident Leah Violante, 6, will appear in flashback sequences of the Jan. 30 episode, Criminal Hatred. She plays a student listening to a teacher read books in a classroom and getting her picture taken for a class photo.
In real life, Violante is a student at Pine Grove School.
This is Violante's television debut, though she is no stranger to big auditions from a Skippy peanut butter commercial and Nickelodeon show to 2013 feature film sequel Grown Ups 2. Connecticut casting agency InterFACE in Norwalk connected her with the Law & Order:SVU opportunity offered through a New York agency called XMist Production Company.
"I felt proud," Violante said of her Law & Order: SVU shoot.
She initially auditioned throught the agency for a Pepperidge Farm commercial and was offered the Law & Order role on Dec. 19 instead.
That was days after the Dec. 14 shooting in Newtown that claimed the lives of 20 children and six educators. That gave Jeanene pause when deciding whether to let her daughter be on a crime show with violence.
“It was something I thought about. It was also the craziness that it was only a week later, so here we are going into New York and into the holidays," Jeanene said. "Especially with guns and whole episodes with kids..."
But she ultimately decided to give Leah the opportunity.
Two days later, Leah and Jeanene traveled the Chelsea Piers section of New York City for the episode shoot. As Leah puts it, they got there by "two trains and a taxi."
Leah and her family were told little about the character she represents in the flashback for confidentiality reasons.
She said a cameraman told her "I was good." Other directions included "smile" and "stand here, stand there," Leah said.
When asked what Law & Order: SVU is about, Leah said, "guns." But her parents have been cautious about what they tell her about the show.
"We’ve kept it kind of very vague and said that it’s a grown-up show that helps people that have gotten people in trouble," Jeaneane said.
The production crew were very careful not to expose the child actors to violent scenes and filmed their scenes in a separate area from the rest of the show. The kids and their families were allowed to tour a portion of the set.
The Violantes plan on taping the episode to show Leah her scenes but won't let her watch the whole thing.
Leah describes acting as "fun." Then there are the perks. Ask Violante what she liked the most about filming the TV episode and she'll tell you about the "bacon and doughnuts" in the catering area beforehand.
Violante also has an interest in fashion side of being an actress from getting her hair done to the "dress-up clothes." She described her wardrobe for the Law & Order: SVU episode as "purple pants and a shirt and it had a vest connected and a butterfly." Her hairstyle was casual with a headband.
When Violante told her friends she was going to be on TV, she said "they didn't believe me."
“I said, 'I am' with a smile and a nod and a wink in his head," Violante said, making a Santa reference.
But with her humor and energy, it's no surprise to her parents that Violante has shown early talent as an actress. Jeanene said her daughter's theatricality surfaced from as young as three years old when she was the first to volunteer to Hula on a family trip to Hawaii.
Like her favorite singer, Kesha and actress, Bella Thorne from Disney's Shake It Up, Leah loves to entertain.
“She’s very outgoing, she loves life," Jeanene said. "She enjoys everything she does. She likes to get up, to sing and to dance, so it was a natural fit for her."
Leah is blazing the trail as an actress in her family and also auditions for modeling work. Jeanene said she's looking forward to see how far her daughter's early acting career goes.
“The day it’s not fun for her is the day we’re going to stop," Jeanene said. "I don’t want to be the stage mom.”
Young aspiring actors could benefit from this piece of advice from Leah about auditioning.
“I’ll help you get over stage fright," Leah said, who added that it's important "always to be serious" and "always to never look at the audience, just be brave.”
Jeaneane used to model adult business and casual ware and Leah's father, Dominick is the owner of Avon Kempo & Aikido Academy and a former stand-up comedian. Leah is so used to seeing her parents teach martial arts classes that she's not afraid to "get up and speak," Dominick said.
Both her parents are proud of her appearance on the NBC crime show.
“I think it’s great," Dominick said. "I did stand up comedy so I like being up on stage and being able to entertain people. Leah has the same outgoing personality.... for her to get an opportunity so young is great."
Where can you see Leah next? She may be in an upcoming Avon Old Farms School production of Damn Yankees.
As for her bigger dreams?
“I want to be in a movie," Leah said. Or perhaps a "gymnastics teacher because they have cute clothes and you get to do flips.”
The episode Leah Violante is scheduled to appear begins at 9 p.m. on NBC, channel 4.