For almost as long as there have been movies, there have been child actors. While they can range from adorably precocious to positively unwatchable, these young performers play an essential role in bringing our favorite movies to the screen. They also face a strange form of scrutiny, because we know that at any given point, they could either grow up to be the next Oscar winner, or a complete trainwreck.
Some child stars peak early. They impress us from a young age with their mature take on characters, but then end up fading into obscurity as they reach adulthood. For others, it takes a little while for them to really figure out the whole acting thing, but as they grow older, they end up surprising us with their talent. Here are 15 Child Stars No One Expected To Become Amazing Actors.
15. Ryan Gosling
Ryan Gosling has impressed critics and wooed audiences with his career-changing, sure-to-be-Oscar-nominated performance in La La Land. Long before he found his way onto the Hollywood A-List, he was just another child actor making the rounds on kid-friendly TV. Children of the ’90s probably remember him singing and dancing alongside Justin Timberlake, Britney Speaks, and Christina Aguilera on the Disney Channel’s Mickey Mouse Club reboot, MMC. He also guest-starred in spooky classics like Goosebumps and Are You Afraid of the Dark?
Throughout his early acting years, he tended more toward cheesy than charming, and hardly seemed like future Academy Award material. The 36-year-old actor — and frequent subject of interweb meme-ry — grew into his talent, though, and has proven to be a versatile and charismatic actor thanks to performances in Blue Valentine, Drive, and The Nice Guys. In other words, he’s come a long way since his “Hey there, hi there, ho there“ days.
14. Keri Russell
These days, TV fans know Keri Russell as the brilliant KGB operative Elizabeth Jennings on The Americans. The 40-year-old actress is enjoying a bit of a resurgence thanks to her mature and complex performance, but when it comes to her career, she’s a veteran. In fact, Russell got her start at 15 years old, right alongside Ryan Gosling in The MMC, and later had stints in Honey, I Blew Up the Kids, Boy Meets World and Married… With Children.
At the time, despite her fantastically curly hair and sweet, introspective demeanor, her performances generally came off as one-note — cheery, or introspective, but hardly groundbreaking. It wasn’t until the late ’90s and her role as the titular heroine of the WB’s coming-of-age drama, Felicity, that viewers started to notice how truly talented she is.
Russell’s filmography is as multifaceted as her skills as an actress: she’s starred in action thrillers like Mission: Impossible III, quirky comedies like Waitress, and uplifting dramas like August Rush. It’s too bad she hasn’t had many chances to put her dancing skills to work since her time as a Mouseketeer, though.
13. Neil Patrick Harris
For a while there, Neil Patrick Harris looked like he was apt to end up on a “Where Are They Now?” lists of child stars. He won the role of Doogie Howser, M.D. when he was just 16 years old, and became a household name almost overnight. The actor’s career definitely took a dive after his initial run on network television was over, though — and he was well on his way to becoming a has-been until he figured out a way to turn his career around.
Harris experienced a bit of a comeback after showing everyone he was in on the joke and playing a drug-addled, sex-crazed version of himself in Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle. Then, he nabbed the “legendary” role of Barney Stinson on How I Met Your Mother, and once again became a staple on TV sets around America. In his years on the sidelines, Harris managed to hone his craft and has emerged as one of the top comedic actors of his generation. Though HIMYM wrapped in 2014, Harris has proven he has staying power, and that he’s not afraid to stretch his talents as far as possible. This year, he’ll show us a side we haven’t seen before when he stars as the sinister Count Olaf in Netflix’s dark new show, A Series of Unfortunate Events.
12. Emmy Rossum
Child stars are a staple of the Disney brand, and since the company launched its very own television channel, it’s been responsible for the birth of numerous young actors’ careers. Many of these wunderkinds fade into obscurity, but every once and a while, one will surprise us. After a short stint on the soap opera As the World Turns, Emmy Rossum had her chance to break out as a young actress in the Disney Original Movie, Genius. At the time, she was just 13 years old, and the movie’s formulaic, glossy plot didn’t exactly give her a chance to shine as an actress. When she was 16, she was cast in as Christine in the highly-anticipated (and equally disappointing) adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s classic musical, The Phantom of the Opera. Rossum’s performance was fine, but hardly career-making, and it took her a few more years to really come into her own.
These days, it’s a different story. Since 2011, she’s starred in Showtime’s edgy dysfunctional family drama, Shameless. Her gritty, fearless portrayal of Fiona has been so critically acclaimed — and crucial to the series’ success — that she was recently able to successfully negotiate a paycheck equal to that of her veteran co-star, William H. Macy. You gotta admire a woman who not only knows what she wants, but has worked hard to get it.
11. Jason Bateman
In some ways, it’s hard to believe that the “bad boy” from Silver Spoons and Michael Bluth from Arrested Development are the same guy. That’s because Jason Bateman has grown a lot as a performer since his days as Ricky’s best friend, Derek. The now 47-year-old actor got his start in Hollywood by appearing in commercials and on Little House on the Prairie. A few years later he hit teen idol status thanks to his role as the dreamy oldest son Danny in The Hogan Family. While he was a hit with the ladies, Bateman’s work was much more firmly in the “looks great in a pull-out locker poster” than the “impressively nuanced character work” category.
It wasn’t until Bateman grew up a bit and honed his comedic timing that he really began to prove his worth as an actor. Sure, he’s had some misses along the way (we don’t talk about Norbit, okay?), but he’s really found a niche for himself lately by harnessing his wry natural humor to entertain fans of all ages with everything from Horrible Bosses to Zootopia.
10. Evan Rachel Wood
Evan Rachel Wood has led an immensely intriguing life in the public eye. Though she’s delivered numerous terrific performances over the years, she’s sometimes received more attention for her personal life than for her professional talents. The 29-year-old actress started her career in 1994, and appeared in critically acclaimed TV series like American Gothic and Once and Again. A few years later, she earned some buzz when she played rebellious teenagers in Thirteen and Down in the Valley. Even then, she seemed to get more attention for her sexually charged roles than for her developing acting skills.
In the mid-2000s, she worked constantly in film and TV, but instead of gaining praise for her work, she was more often the frequent subject of tabloid fodder thanks to her relationship with the controversy-laden rock star, Marilyn Manson. It’s to her credit that Wood has been able to weather the celebrity storm and mature as a performer despite the noise. These days, we’re all talking about her incredible turn as Dolores, a sentient robot with a killer inner strength, on HBO’s sci-fi hit, Westworld — and we can’t wait to see what daring role she takes on next.
9. Christian Bale
It’s not that Christian Bale’s early performances were bad. After all, any kid that can take on a meaty role at the center of a Steven Spielberg film and live to tell the tale is deserving of some praise. Still, few would have expected that the boy from Empire of the Sun would go on to become one of the most celebrated actors of the 21st century. He hovered on the brink of teen idol-dom thanks to roles in Newsies and Little Women, but didn’t immediately show any signs of delving into the dark, character-driven roles he’d find later on in life.
It wasn’t until 2000, when he portrayed the now-iconic Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, that we truly first got a taste of what Bale was capable of. Now 42 years old, he’s shown that he’s capable of going to extreme levels to nail a part, like when he lost tons of weight for The Machinist and his Oscar-winning role in The Fighter. He’s also proven that he’s capable of bringing an impressive level of gravitas to huge franchises, thanks to his super-popular turn as Bruce Wayne in The Dark Knight Trilogy.
8. Reese Witherspoon
Reese Witherspoon made the leap from regular actress to Hollywood royalty in 2001 in Legally Blonde. Since then, she’s enjoyed a career that most actors would dream of, including her pick of roles, her own production company, and an Academy Award for her performance in Walk the Line. It’s easy to forget that before she was Elle Woods, she was just another young actor trying to find her breakthrough role.
In fact, she’d been at it for quite some time. Reese Witherspoon started acting professionally when she was 15 years old in the 1991 film The Man in the Moon. As a teen, she starred in numerous other films, including A Far Off Place and Jack the Bear. She started to gain some attention within the industry when she was in her early 20s, thanks to memorable roles in Pleasantville and the indie hit, Election. All this to say, while Witherspoon worked steadily as a young starlet, it wasn’t until she transitioned from childhood to young adulthood that she was able to give performances that were really noteworthy. While it took Reese Witherspoon a while to make a name for herself, in her case, we’d say it was worth the wait.
7. Jussie Smollett
Usually, if someone is able to transition from child star to adult actor, it’s because they keep working in Hollywood without a break. That definitely wasn’t the case for Jussie Smollett — and that makes his current success all the more impressive. When he was 9 years old, the actor and singer co-starred as Terry Hall in the Disney classic The Mighty Ducks. He later had a supporting role in 1994’s North, and appeared on television in Alex Haley’s Queen and the short-lived series On Our Own. He then elected to take some time away from acting, hitting the pause button until 2012.
After a few guest starring roles on series like The Mindy Project and Revenge, he got his (second) big break as Jamal Lyon on Fox’s explosive drama, Empire. Smollett wasn’t a bad child actor by any means, but he lacked the full-on star power that he has these days. It’s that very quality that’s propelled him into other big projects, like Underground and Alien: Covenant, and that might make the case for more child stars to take a break before they try their hand at acting as adults.
6. Kirsten Dunst
When your first role ever results in a Golden Globe nomination, it might seem a little silly to say that your future success was unexpected. In Kirsten Dunst’s case, though, her unique and quirky take on characters has definitely gotten better with age. From her much-lauded performance as the eternally young Claudia in Interview with the Vampire to similarly shrill takes on literary characters from Little Women and Jumanji, as a child star she often ended up being more annoying than endearing.
Dunst worked steadily throughout much of her childhood and into her teen years. Though she dabbled with some more complex, adult roles in films like The Virgin Suicides, she was also responsible for a divisive take on Spider-Man‘s love interest, Mary Jane Watson. That role made Dunst a household name, though maybe not for the best reasons.
It wasn’t until the mid 2010s, and Lars Von Trier’s underrated apocalyptic drama, Melancholia, that Kirsten Dunst started to make a consistent case for herself as a really stellar actress. However, recent brilliant turns in Midnight Special and FX’s Fargo have shown that when she takes on the right role, she’s spectacular.
5. Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Like their adult counterparts, child actors tend to get typecast. When he was working as a pre-adolescent performer, Joseph Gordon-Levitt frequently played children that were smart, sometimes really smart — and sometimes too smart for their own good. In films like A River Runs Through It and Angels in the Outfield, he had a kind of preternatural stoicism that could come off as dull or bland. In 3rd Rock From the Sun and 10 Things I Hate About You, his intelligence had a tendency to come off as more smart-alecky than, you know, smart.
It wasn’t until his late teens, with films like Brick and Mysterious Skin, that his characters began to develop any real kind of layers. Nowadays, he still has the habit of playing a brain, in films like Inception, The Dark Knight Rises and Snowden. He’s just gotten way better at making that appealing and compelling rather than annoying.
4. Jodie Foster
Jodie Foster started her acting career at the especially young age of 6. Early roles in TV programs like Mayberry R.F.D. and The Courtship of Eddie’s Father were cute but pretty forgettable, and gave approximately zero indication of the amazing talent she would soon display. Unlike many other child actors, Foster began to show signs of an impeccable gift as a teenager in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. By playing a young prostitute (and earning her first Oscar nomination), she signaled a change in her career that would still take a few years to really take hold. Roles in Disney films like Freaky Friday saw her straddling the line between adolescence and adulthood — sometimes a bit awkwardly — but she absolutely ended up sticking the landing.
Foster has gone on to become one of the most celebrated actresses of her generation, thanks to amazing performances in films like Panic Room, and Academy Award-winning turns in The Accused and The Silence of the Lambs.
3. Leonardo DiCaprio
With a resume that includes films with some of Hollywood’s most legendary directors and a starring role in one of the most successful movies of all time, you might think that Leonardo DiCaprio is one of those rare actors that came out of the womb as a star. You’d be wrong, though, because he, like so many performers before him, got off to a not-so-inspiring start. Sure, Growing Pains was a ’90s sitcom classic, but Leo’s portrayal of wayward youngster Luke was hardly groundbreaking. His feature film debut, Critters 3, wasn’t exactly a star vehicle either, and saw him playing a hammier version of the troubled kid persona that permeated a lot of his early performances.
It wasn’t until his late teens, with more challenging roles in films like What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and The Basketball Diaries, that he found his groove as an actor. Somewhere between Titanic and The Revenant, he cemented his status as a performer who will go to extremes to nail his performance. The rest, as they say, is Hollywood history, one that culminated in him sleeping in a horse carcass on his way to Oscar glory.
2. Emma Watson
As Hermione Granger in the early Harry Potter films, Emma Watson was, at times, robotic and rehearsed. Of course, that worked in some ways for Hogwarts’ resident brainiac, who spends much of her non-evil fighting time reciting facts she’s memorized and taking her friends to task for their lack of academic discipline. Still, it wasn’t exactly method acting — and it took her a few years to grow into the role. Given her performance in films like Sorcerer’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets, it would have been hard to predict that Watson would end up being not only a standout in the franchise’s cast, but that she would go on to deliver some pretty stunning non-Potter performances.
By the time Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows hit theaters, Hermione was a fully-realized character, one that rippled with intelligence and heart. The same can be said of the characters she’s played in The Perks of Being a Wallflower and Darren Aronofsky’s oft-underrated Noah. It’s a no-brainer, then, that Watson will now play another wise young heroine — Beauty and the Beast‘s Belle. After all, she’s proven she has what it takes to bring some pretty amazing characters to life.
1. Daniel Radcliffe
Casting Harry Potter must have been a nightmare. They needed to find a young actor that would be capable of aging with his character over the course of a decade without going off the rails, personally and professionally. Luckily, they found Daniel Radcliffe, who not only managed to convincingly play the Boy Who Lived, but who greatly improved as an actor over the course of the franchise’s eight films.
While he was cute and mostly convincing in the first three Harry Potter installments, Radcliffe’s early performances weren’t flawless. He could be stiff, and had trouble displaying some of the more extreme emotions that Potter goes through. Still, he committed himself to the role, and to his craft, and these days he’s routinely turning in some incredibly interesting performances, most recently as an FBI agent who goes undercover as a skinhead in Imperium and as Paul Dano’s corpse BFF in the wonderfully weird Swiss Army Man. Daniel Radcliffe’s days of fighting Voldemort may be over, but his time as an actor worth watching is just beginning.
Did we miss your favorite child star that grew up to be an unexpected A-lister? Let us know in the comments!