Growing up in Hollywood is tough on a child actor. Many young lives have been ruined by fame at too early an age. Newly anointed Oscar winner Leonardo DiCaprio and ‘Divergent’ star Shailene Woodley are among the select group of former child stars who have transitioned to successful acting careers as adults. In this week’s Roundtable, we celebrate young talents who have avoided flaming out.
M. Enois Duarte
Now that he’s finally acquired the coveted Best Actor Oscar, which pretty much everyone agrees he deserved many years ago, I think it’s safe to say that Leonardo DiCaprio has been the most successful in his transition from television to motion pictures. In fact, he’s been so good on the silver screen that most moviegoers have all but forgotten the actor actually originated from television. His best-known roles were in the short-lived 1990 ‘Parenthood’ TV spinoff and in the more successful sitcom ‘Growing Pains’.
DiCaprio’s big break came with a powerful performance as a troubled-teen opposite Robert De Niro in ‘This Boy’s Life’, and was quickly followed by an even more impressive portrayal of a mentally disabled boy in ‘What’s Eating Gilbert Grape’. Since then, he’s enjoyed a variety of successes with a few misses sprinkled throughout. Still, most would agree that the actor has continually challenged himself with interesting and unique characters, some far more memorable than others. His recent win is very well deserved!
On behalf of my wife and her brothers, I’m submitting Ryan Reynolds as Billy on ‘Fifteen’ (a.k.a. ‘Hillside’). I had never heard of the show ‘Fifteen’ before I met my wife, but in doing some research, I’ve learned that it was only called ‘Fifteen’ here in the U.S., where it aired on Nickelodeon. In Canada, it aired under the title ‘Hillside’. Another interesting fact: It only ended up becoming a show in Canada after Disney shot a 13-episode season, then took a pass and tossed it up north. Yet for the last couple of seasons, the show was filmed at Universal Studios in Florida.
Anyway, anytime I’ve ever watched a Ryan Reynolds movie, there comes a moment, whether ten seconds or two hours in, where my wife will say the words, “He was Billy on Fifteen!” If any of her brothers comes in, they’ll do the same thing: “Hey, wasn’t he Billy on Fifteen?” “Billy on Fifteen” seems to be the character’s full name. Anyway, I never knew anything about this character or this show, did you?
As much as I’m tempted to list several members of HBO’s Stark family, that will have to wait a bit. For now, I can certainly say that I never thought the kid from ‘3rd Rock from the Sun’ would go on to have a successful movie career. I didn’t even think he was good in ‘The Juror’, but Joseph Gordon-Levitt was a full-on child actor with multiple roles before making the transition to movie star. No doubt, being tagged as a Christopher Nolan regular has helped, but I think there’s more to his success. He’s shown that he can be a lead actor and can handle a balance of comedy and drama. That’s a far cry from where most child actors wind up.
I’ve enjoyed watching Saoirse Ronan grow up, both physically (no, I don’t mean that in a creepy way, you sick bastards) and in talent. She was great at the age of 13 opposite Keira Knightley and James McAvoy in Joe Wright’s ‘Atonement‘. Her Best Actress nomination for ‘Brooklyn‘ at this year’s Academy Awards shows how far she’s come. The juxtaposition of Ronan in the two roles is awesome. While she’s still a wonderful, if not better, actress, she’s had a great set of roles while coming of age. My personal favorite is ‘Hanna‘, in which she kicks loads of ass as a teenage version of Jason Bourne. Now just 21-years-old, she has plenty of time to keep amazing us.
Chris Boylan (Big Picture Big Sound)
An obvious pick would be Leonardo DiCaprio. Love him or hate him, Leo has been acting professionally since at least his early teens. His first on-screen appearances were in TV commercials for Bubble Yum and Matchbox as a young teenager. Then he picked up recurring roles in the TV series ‘Santa Barbara’ and ‘Growing Pains’ before getting his big movie break. He was hand-picked by Robert De Niro to co-star in ‘This Boy’s Life’, which was released in 1993. It didn’t take long for DiCaprio to earn A-list status, starring in one of the highest grossing films of all time (‘Titanic‘). DiCaprio finally graduated from also-ran to winner at this year’s Oscars where he took home gold for his role in ‘The Revenant’.
Another good example would be Drew Barrymore, who stole our hearts in ‘E.T.‘ at the tender age of 7. After that, her star faded quickly as she slipped into those common pitfalls of fame and celebrity: drug and alcohol abuse. She had already been in and out of rehab twice by age 20, but she has managed to turn things around nicely with lead roles in the ‘Charlie’s Angels‘ franchise reboot, and several co-starring gigs with Adam Sandler (some of which, like ‘The Wedding Singer‘, were actually funny). Ms. Barrymore now has her own production company, and is exploring life behind the camera as a director and producer. That sure beats knocking off 7-11s, like some of her contemporaries!
Adam Tyner (DVDTalk)
My wife was peering over my shoulder a minute ago and read the email about this week’s Roundtable. Here’s her response, verbatim: “Ryan Gosling, duh! ‘Mickey Mouse Club’ for the win!” Maggie then merrily skipped out of the room, unaware that she was setting herself up for High-Def Digest stardom.
She’s not wrong, though. After getting his Mouseketeer ears as a 12-year-old and becoming a fixture on essentially every kids’ show out of Canada, Gosling became a household name in 2004 with ‘The Notebook‘. Most actors would cash in on that sort of newfound heartthrob status and star in one “It’s ‘The Notebook’ with a twist” knockoff after another until the well ran dry. Gosling has instead devoted much of the past decade to a parade of modestly budgeted and often fiercely uncommercial films, with nary a Noah Calhoun to be found among them. Gosling is a movie star but on his own terms, and that’s not as common a combination as you might think.
Chris Chiarella (Sound & Vision)
I’ve been rediscovering ‘Freaks and Geeks‘, thanks in large part to the stellar new Blu-ray box set from Shout! Factory. The casting in general is the secret weapon of this rightly celebrated cult sitcom, and while Martin Starr might not be a household name, he totally killed it as uber-geek Bill Haverchuck. This heartbreakingly real teenager is a far cry from the too-cool computer genius of ‘Silicon Valley’, which begins its third season next month on HBO, and I started to wear out my fingers clicking through all the roles he’s played in between, as listed on IMDb. This guy’s legit.
Having just seen her on ‘The Walking Dead’ earlier this week, I feel that I have to mention Alicia Witt, who got her start acting at the tender age of 9 in David Lynch’s doomed sci-fi epic ‘Dune‘ (which many readers here are aware is my favorite movie). A few years later, Lynch brought her in for a small part in the second season premiere of his hit TV series ‘Twin Peaks‘, playing Lara Flynn Boyle’s little sister, a character who was strangely never seen before or after.
I still consider the actress’ best performance to be in Lynch’s all-but-forgotten HBO TV movie ‘Hotel Room‘, in which she played an emotionally fragile young woman suffering a mental breakdown during a power blackout in 1930s New York City.
Witt’s big break came shortly after that when she was cast as Cybill Shepherd’s daughter in the popular sitcom ‘Cybill’. She also scored notable roles in movies such as ‘Mr. Holland’s Opus’ and ‘Urban Legend‘. As an adult, she’s been a frequent presence on TV with recurring roles in shows like ‘Law & Order: Criminal Intent’, ‘Friday Night Lights’ and ‘Justified’.
Unlike our ‘Walking Dead’ recapper Shannon, I think Alicia Witt has always been an excellent actress, and I enjoy her TV and movie appearances whenever I see them.
Which former child stars have impressed you as they’ve transitioned to adulthood? (Note that I’ve struggled this entire article to avoid saying “adult actor,” which implies something very different than intended!)