They say age is just a number. With botox, plastic surgery, and raw food diets, that can certainly be true. Still, age is a notoriously big deal in Hollywood, and the entertainment industry has a pretty bad habit of having older actors play characters that are significantly younger. In some ways, it makes sense — casting young adults to play teens helps studios get around child labor laws, for one thing; and makes some of the more adult-themed situations the characters find themselves in a little bit less disturbing, in theory. Nevertheless, when you’ve got an actor older than 25 playing a high school junior, it gets a little bit weird.
Sometimes, it’s patently obvious that these actors are well past the days of pep rallies and high school proms. Other times, they can almost pass for the not-even-old-enough-to-vote-yet characters they’re cast as. Here are 15 Older Actors Who Played Teenagers in TV and Movies.
15. Rachel McAdams – Mean Girls
Regina George was the undisputed queen bee of the Plastics, the ultra-exclusive clique at the center of Mean Girls. So it makes sense that she’d be a little more mature than the other girls in her squad. Still, when the surprise-hit film was in production, Rachel McAdams, the actress who gave Regina her memorable swagger, was 25 years old. That’s nearly a decade older than her cliquey counterpart.
If that’s not a big enough gap to make you raise your eyebrows, this might: Amy Poehler, who played her “cool” mom, is only seven years older than McAdams. Like, definitely not old to have given birth to her. McAdams’ performance in Mean Girls helped establish her as a viable star in Hollywood — as did her turn as a 17-year-old Allie in the sobfest The Notebook.
14. Cory Monteith — Glee
Finn Hudson was basically the best possible version of a teenage boy. Handsome but goofy, a gifted athlete and passable singer, and yet he rarely got cocky about his abilities. He hung with the jocks and the geeks. He was open-minded and kind, and above all, he was a natural leader.
Cory Monteith may have been able to pull all of these qualities off because he had a maturity that his fictional counterpart did not; he was 27 years old when Glee started up in 2009. In fact, he was just four years younger than Matthew Morrison, who played teacher/New Directions coach Will Schuester. Sadly, both Monteith and Finn will remain forever young; the actor passed away at age 31, and his Glee character was subsequently killed off when he was 19.
13. Gabrielle Union – Bring it On
With its subversive comedy and impossible-to-forget cheerleading chants, Bring it On has become a quintessential movie for many early Millennial girls. While Kirsten Dunst was 18 years old when she played the perky captain of the Rancho Carne Toros’ spirit squad, many other cast members were already well into their 20s when they signed on to play teens. That includes Gabrielle Union, who brought both a spitfire charisma and and impressive athletic prowess to her portrayal of Isis, the head cheerleader of rival squad the Clovers.
12. Leonardo DiCaprio – Catch Me If You Can
Before he won an Oscar for his grisly performance in The Revenant, Leonardo DiCaprio spent years trying to divorce himself of his Titanic-induced teen heartthrob status. In doing so, he took on ambitious, character-focused roles – and yet still somehow managed to end up playing a teenager long after he’d left those years behind.
In Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me if You Can, DiCaprio portrayed scam artist Frank Abagnale Jr., who started his nefarious life of crime at the young age of 17. Sure, Leo still had a bit of a baby face, but it was most certainly a stretch for the 28-year-old to play an adolescent. He made it work, though – and has obviously since graduated to far more adult roles.
11. Andrew Garfield – The Amazing Spider-Man
Marvel has a strange habit of casting very non-teen actors in this quintessentially teen role. It was certainly true when Tobey Maguire took on the role in Sam Raimi’s early-2000s films when he was well into his 20s.
They tried their best to find a younger-looking replacement when they rebooted the franchise in 2012 – and they did. Sort of. Andrew Garfield, while believably youthful with his puppy dog eyes and lanky figure, was still 28 years old when he took on the role of Peter Parker in The Amazing Spider-Man.
Now that they’re rebooting the franchise again, at least they’ve come up with someone who’s within a couple years of being a teenager to play the young superhero. Tom Holland filmed his Spidey scenes for Captain America: Civil War right around his 19th birthday.
10. Gabrielle Carteris – Beverly Hills 90210
Gabrielle Carteris earned a moderate level of fame thanks to her time on the ‘90s teen drama staple Beverly Hills 90210. However, she did so by playing both the perpetually under-appreciated nerd and someone considerably younger than her actual age.
When she was cast to play the 16 year old Andrea Zuckerman in 1990, she was already 29 years old. By the time her character graduated high school, Carteris was already 32 – in other words, old enough to have not only earned her high school diploma, but her bachelor’s, her master’s, and maybe even a Ph.D. Carteris left 90210 in the fifth season, and has since had the opportunity to play adults in several made-for-TV movies.
9. Henry Winkler – Happy Days
Ayyy! Arthur Fonzarelli is indisputably one of the most iconic TV characters of all time. In his ten years on Happy Days, the Fonz became a symbol of nostalgia, and a post-dated poster child for 1950s greasers. So it’s surprising, to say the least, that Henry Winkler – the actor who played him – was 28 years old when he was cast as the high school dropout.
Assuming the Fonz was about 18 when Happy Days started, we’re still looking at a decade-wide age gap between the lovable mechanic and the man that played him. Despite the big difference, Garry Marshall made the right choice in casting Winkler – after all, it’s hard to imagine anyone else delivering Fonzie’s “sit on it” comebacks or jumping that shark.
8. Stacey Dash – Clueless
Before she was a permanent fixture on Fox News, Stacey Dash was best known for her stellar performance as Dionne Davenport in the ‘90s hit Clueless. As Cher’s feisty best friend, she had plenty of sage teen advice about driving, fashion, and going all the way.
Dash certainly looked the part of her 16-year-old character – with her impossibly youthful appearance, she could probably still pass for a twenty-something. But in reality, Dash was already almost into thirty-something territory when she took on the role. At 28, she was several years older than the rest of her co-stars in the film, but no one was wiser at the time. Clueless later got picked up as a TV series, and Dash reprised her role as Dionne. By the time the series was off the air in 1999, Dash was 32 – nearly twice the age of the character that made her famous.
7. Jason Earles — Hannah Montana
An obnoxious sibling is the hallmark of just about every Disney Channel sitcom ever created. In Hannah Montana, that role was filled by Jackson, Miley’s lazy and immature teenage brother, played by Jason Earles. The actor made the best of his diminutive stature and youthful energy — so much so that few viewers had any inkling that he’s actually 13 years older than his on-screen sister, Miley Cyrus.
When Hannah Montana first hit the airwaves in 2006, Earles was 29 years old. By the time the series wrapped up in 2011, he was 34 — i.e. old enough to enter into creepy territory if he continued to spend most of his time around teenage girls.
6. Alan Ruck – Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is an ‘80s teen classic, not only because it captures the joy of reckless adolescent truancy, but because its characters are still relatable today. That’s especially true of the titular character’s depressive, hypochondriac of a best friend, Cameron. He seems more mature than Ferris in some ways — more hesitant to take part in the movie’s unplanned adventures, at the very least.
So maybe it’s not that big of a surprise that the actor who played him, Alan Ruck, was long past his golden teenage years when he took the part. He was, in reality, 30 years old when he played Cameron. Old enough, anyway, to tell his character everything would probably work out for him okay in the end.
5. Sean Patrick Thomas — Save the Last Dance
Save the Last Dance wasn’t the best teen movie of the early 2000s, but it definitely wasn’t the worst, either. At the very least, what this hip hop-infused romance had going for it was two leads — Julia Stiles and Sean Patrick Thomas — and their genuinely convincing performances as teens falling in love.
Stiles was 19 when Save the Last Dance was filmed. Thomas, on the other hand, was 30. It wasn’t his first foray into playing considerably younger characters — throughout the late ‘90s and early 2000s, he played high school and college students in Can’t Hardly Wait, Cruel Intentions and Halloween: Resurrection, before finally graduating into more adult roles in movies like Barbershop.
4. Trevor Donovan – 90210
When the CW rebooted 90210 in 2008, it retained many of the original’s show key elements: high-stakes teen drama, an impossibly attractive cast, and the habit of casting actors woefully too old to play high school students.
This time around, it was Trevor Donovan, who first cropped up as the openly gay dreamboat tennis star Teddy Montgomery in the series’ second season. Donovan was 31 years old when he first started playing the high school junior in 2009, which makes his run on 90210 one of the most egregious age gaps in TV history. Maybe they should have cast him as a dreamboat teacher instead.
3. Bianca Lawson – Pretty Little Liars
Bianca Lawson has made a career out of taking on memorable roles in film and television. She’s appeared as high school students on Dawson’s Creek, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, American Horror Story, and Teen Wolf. Here’s the thing, though — in TV land, she has been approximately 16 years old for more than 20 years.
In 2010, when she took on the recurring role of Maya St. Germain in the first season of Pretty Little Liars, she was 31 years old. It’s not that she can’t pass as a teenager — she, incredibly, has barely aged since her first big gig on Saved by the Bell: The New Class. She is finally getting a chance to play a wider variety of roles, too: she’s booked a gritty part as an actual adult in Oprah’s new series Queen Sugar.
2. Ingrid Bergman – Joan of Arc
There’s nothing wrong with an actor fighting for the role they’ve always dreamed of playing. Except when that role is of a 14-year-old iconic heroine, and the actress is nearly 20 years older than that.
Ingrid Bergman was 33 years old, and already a well-established actress when was cast to play the iconic religious teenager in Joan of Arc. Director Victor Fleming hoped that her acting talent and star power would propel the movie forward, anyway. Unfortunately, moviegoers weren’t quick to buy her as a teenager. Reviews for the movie were poor, the box office performance was a disappointment, and Bergman learned that just because an adult actor can play a kid doesn’t mean they should.
1. Stockard Channing – Grease
In retrospect, there were worse things Stockard Channing could do than play a character nearly 20 years her junior. That doesn’t mean it’s at least a little bizarre that she was 33 years old when she played the part of teen rebel Rizzo in Grease. Sure, she sang a stellar rendition of her character’s memorable songs, and hand jived with the best of them.
Still, the only reason Channing’s mature take on teen romance didn’t feel incredibly out of place was that she wasn’t the only older actor in the cast. She still had co-stars Olivia Newton-John and Jeff Conaway beat by at least four years, though, and wouldn’t have passed as a teen student at any high school in America, Pink Lady jacket or no Pink Lady jacket.
Are there any older actors that deserve to be on this list? Let us know in the comments!