Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen won America’s heart as little Michelle Tanner on Full House, and without that, the twins would hardly be a household name today. But that isn’t credit to the girls’ charisma (lol) or comedic timing — it was baby wrangler Adria Later pulling the strings of the doll-like duo.
As Full House lore goes, John Stamos wanted to get rid of the disobedient baby Olsens from the get-go.
Apparently in those early episodes, the Olsens, as most babies do, cried a lot. And yeah, John Stamos was not about it. “I said, ‘Get rid of these kids,’ and they brought on a couple of unattractive red-headed kids,” he revealed at a Grandfathered panel. “We tried that for a while and that didn’t work. So I said, ‘OK, get the Olsen twins back.’ And that’s the story.”
Perhaps the girls were saved by not being, as he so charmingly says, beastly little ginger snaps. We’ll never know for sure. But unfortunately, with the Olsens’ lacking true discipline as the result of being literal infants, the pressure was really on the baby wrangler.
Early in the series, Ashley was, no shock, dropping the ball left and right. “When we did the series the first year, Ashley was very much afraid to come on the set and her sister, Mary Kate, did most of the scenes,” Adria told The Washington Post. Then one day when MK got an eye infection, Ashley had to step in. “I went up to her and said, ‘This is your day,’ and I took her away from the mother and dressed her in the classroom. We took her out there and she did the whole show, and blew everybody’s mind.”
But what does a baby wrangler do?
Besides calm down anxious Ashleys? The job of a baby wrangler is essential to get reactions out of a child, basically acting as the director for kids too young to read scripts. “Sometimes I pop up above an actor’s shoulder to get the baby to look at the actor and then duck down to avoid the camera,” Adria said. “You do need a good sense of camera angles and set.” She also confessed that when working with children she shoots “from the hip,” often wearing an apron on set with pockets full of little toys and treats. “I let it evolve and unfold,” she said in 1991.
As the kids got older, Adria’s job was to feed them lines off-set and have them recite it back. The studio audience would witness this in real time and be expected to react and laugh like things were peachy keen. Adria’s voice would later be edited out in post-production. And yet if you watch scenes of Michelle as a toddler, you’ll notice that every once in a while she looks off-camera or experiences a deep pause. And that’s the wrangling at work.
With time, the Olsen Twins had enough star power to get their own fanbase.
Even with dodgy line-reciting, the Olsen twins got by and became a huge hit. By kindergarten-age, they had the Full House team wrapped around their fingers. “One time the executive producer promised to have a cake scene for them, and then he forgot,” Adria jokingly recounted to People. “On the day of the taping, I walked in and announced, ‘Ashley and Mary-Kate won’t be in this week because there is no cake scene.’ He immediately wrote a new scene.”
Yet it was still the behind-the-scenes directing that made the Olsen girls TV-worthy. “Without Adria Later,” a 1990 Orlando Sentinel article reads. “[The Olsens] would be about as useful to the show as twin poodles.”
Savage. And yet, it’s a little hard to contest that.
But what makes Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen any different than other child stars?
Consider the fact that Mary-Kate and Ashley are, well, Mary-Kate and Ashley. They were an international brand long before they hit puberty. Movies, dolls, books, video games, those weird straight-to- VHS musical movies, their entire adolescence was one big franchise.
Part of that was the luck and novelty of being (near) identical twins. As a counterpoint, even famous pairs like Cole and Dylan Sprouse — who have also been in the acting world since they were eight months old — never had the same level of sellability. With the Mary-Kate and Ashley brand, MK&A were able to become legitimate innovators (for fashion, mind you), and live a very colorful, albeit complicated, life.
And that all started with being coached and wrangled as a child, both as Michelle Tanner…and as Mary-Kate and Ashley.
Of course, maybe some of you can understand the need for a baby wrangler. After all, nobody comes out of the womb as Meryl Streep, including well, Meryl Streep. But what we find weird, even if it is Hollywood protocol, is that the Olsen twins had to be coached into answering their interview questions.
Seriously, during an Entertainment Tonight first look at the unauthorized Full House movie, it was revealed that MK & A were fed lines during their interview. “Say ‘my favorite thing about TV is eating a cake,'” Adria prompts in the 1990 footage. First of all, this is literally forcing the girls to be charming(?) because they can’t handle that naturally. Oh, and little Mary-Kate-or-Ashley (probably Ashley) is like, terrible at reading it back. You’re four, you’ve been doing this your entire life, get it together.
When you watch the full interview back with Adria’s coaching edited out it is very strange because, well, the Olsens are wily and are still terrible, terrible actresses. Like, we know saying that is a hit on your childhood, but look into your heart, you know it to be true. Even for little kids, their language is garbled and rather unintelligible, and the fact that they can’t organically come up with responses like, “I like to play,” is pretty concerning. Clearly, Adria was a successful wrangler, but she wasn’t a miracle worker.
Or maybe she was. Because you could argue that aside from the perfect packaging of identical twins, the Olsens couldn’t have gone far without being just-cute-enough and just-good-enough for television. They could’ve been scrapped as little babies, never to release a series of VHS films, never attend NYU, never get the chance to became style icons, never end up running a fashion empire…far, far away from the set of Fuller House.