She may be only in her early teens, but Kansas City-based actress Bebe Wood operates like a professional. This surprised Todd Holland, executive producer of ABC’s “The Real O’Neals.”
“We hadn’t met her — she was in Kansas — and we had a conference call and her dad puts her on the phone and we were thinking we’d have this family conversation, but then her dad goes, ‘I’m gonna put Bebe on the phone and leave, that’s how she wants it,’ ” Holland said. “And we were like, what? No one will be there to remind her later about what we said?”
Not only was Wood in contention for the role on “Real O’Neals,” which bows Wednesday, she had a competing offer from CBS’ “Life in Pieces.” She went through a similar conference call with that comedy’s producers, who also knew her from the short-lived NBC comedy “The New Normal.”
“She took both pitches from all these executive producers calling her, wanting her to be on their shows,” Holland said, still marveling. “Then she called us back and said, ‘I pick you.’ All on her own at 13 years old!”
Now 14, Wood said she chose “Real O’Neals” because its producers emphasized the impact they hope the show will have.
“Todd was on the phone talking about the show’s inspiration and what it meant to him instead of just numbers and how they wanted to brand the show,” Wood said. “Todd talked about how maybe it could affect a teenager living in the Midwest who is gay. It had more heart.”
Wood plays Shannon, younger sister of middle child Kenny (Noah Galvin), who comes out as gay to his Irish-Catholic parents (Martha Plimpton, Jay R. Ferguson) in the show’s first episode.
The series was loosely inspired by the coming-of-age experience of syndicated columnist and author Dan Savage, which prompted some quarters to protest that the show, sight unseen, would mock Roman Catholics. At a January ABC news conference, the executive producers of “The Real O’Neals” defended the series and said faith will be an important part of the characters’ lives.
“It’s a faith-affirming show in a lot of ways,” said executive producer Casey Johnson. “We just felt like people need to see the show, and they need to see what it’s about. And I think all of that criticism was coming before anyone had actually seen the show.”
In one episode, Shannon will face a crisis of faith around her confirmation.
“Growing up Catholic and going to Catholic school really contributed to how I felt during the show,” said Wood, who was confirmed just before filming the pilot. “I told them all about my confirmation experience.
“Some people find that the fact that the family is Irish-Catholic and dysfunctional means we’re saying every Irish-Catholic family is dysfunctional and it’s not. Every family, whether they’re Irish-Catholic or not, is their own thing.”
Wood said while there is humor around religion in the series, it’s not humor at the expense of religion.
“There’s a joke that the priest in the show drives a Lexus,” she said. “Our priest at our church drives a Jaguar, so I think it’s very relatable and true.”
Wood’s interest in acting began when she was just 3 and saw “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” onstage in London. As she sat in the front row, the show’s antagonistic Child Catcher character approached her, tapped her on the nose and said, “I’ll get you.”
“He looked at me like, should I have done that? And apparently I started giggling and after the show I wanted to meet him and said I wanted to do what he does,” Wood said. “For my 4th birthday, I started taking acting classes back here in Kansas City.”
She’s involved with Music Theatre Kansas City, most recently appearing in 2013’s “Seussical” and 2014’s “Camp Rock.”
“Some of my favorite actors to this day are local, Kansas City actors Seth Golay and Cathy Barnett,” Wood said.
An only child, Wood attended St. Agnes Catholic School in Roeland Park for first through fourth grades before she moved to home-schooling “because of the acting thing,” Wood said.
Her parents, Thad and Olga Wood, divvy up subject areas to teach Wood (she expects to complete ninth grade this month and wants to go to college, possibly Virginia’s College of William & Mary). Thad’s job as a computer consultant allows him to work from anywhere.
“We travel all over the country together, which is great,” Wood said. “Most teenagers who act have to be split up from one of their parents, and the mother usually goes with them to Los Angeles. I’m quite lucky to have both of my parents there with me.”
When Wood was 9, the family relocated temporarily to New York for almost two years, during which time she landed her first TV roles on NBC’s “30 Rock” and HBO’s “Veep.” Those parts led to “The New Normal,” which, like “Real O’Neals,” was filmed in Los Angeles. In “Normal,” Wood played the daughter of a surrogate carrying a baby for a gay couple.
Wood said she knew several gay couples in the Kansas City neighborhood where she first lived, and she finds the thought of discrimination against them more than a little troubling.
“I wouldn’t say I’m drawn to shows about gay couples and gay teenagers, but I would say I’m somewhat of a gay rights activist,” Wood said. … “The people we’d hang out with (when I was younger) were gay couples. I’m outraged about injustice in the world with some people thinking gay people are disgusting. I find that awful.
“Thankfully we’ve taken a big step with marriage (equality) legal everywhere, thank God, but for basically my whole life it wasn’t, and I found that horrifying.”
“Real O’Neals” actor Noah Galvin, 21, said he has worked with a lot of child actors in New York, and working with Wood offered a unique experience.
“It’s a dream,” he said. “I was a little kid actor and so often either the child is a brat or the parents are brats and the child is the saving grace, but in this situation her entire family — both her parents were usually on set with her — were great. She’s so independent, so smart, so creative, so not jaded and just lovely. She pushed us all to be better humans, to be honest.”
Actress Mary Hollis Inboden, who plays the mom’s best friend, stood next to Galvin at an ABC party that Wood was not allowed to attend because she’s underage and alcohol was being served. Inboden was quick to interject her own praise: “We’re all better with Bebe.”
▪ “The Real O’Neals” debuts with two episodes beginning at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday on ABC. The show moves to its usual Tuesday night time slot on March 8.