When we were kids, we thought teenagers were adults. All of the kids on Power Rangers were supposed to be high school students, but they were all in their twenties. Some shows were good about this, like Saved by the Bell, and Nickelodeon generally casts real-life teenagers in high school roles, but sometimes, a legitimate “grown-up” slips through.
When an actor is cast in a role, the producers’ primary considerations include acting ability, marketability, and chemistry with co-stars. Way down on the list is the actor’s actual age. Usually, this isn’t a particularly big deal; after all, in Hollywood, anything between the ages of 30 and 50 is pretty much a wash, especially for men (in sexist Hollywood, female actors generally tend to skew much younger).
Sometimes, however, characters are overtly written as teenagers, in stories which take place in a high school setting. In these cases, it is often impractical to cast a 15-year-old actor, or a much older actor simply feels better in the part. The actors on this list were usually a perfect fit in their role, but the dissonance between their age and that of their character is downright egregious. Here are the 15 Worst Examples Of Adult Actors Playing Teenagers.
Glee, a subversive and addictive drama/comedy/musical, ran for six seasons on FOX, and while the show made an effort to boot most of its students into the real world by having them graduate at the end of Season 3 and shift the dynamic of the series, it still made no qualms about casting inappropriately old actors as so-called high school students.
The late Cory Monteith was 27 years old when the show debuted in 2009, playing a high school athlete over ten years younger than himself. Cory was only a few months older than Mark Salling, who played a fellow athlete/glee club member. Slightly less egregious were the castings of Lea Michelle and Dianna Agron, who were “only” about 23, playing high school sophomores.
The show got into some trouble with cracky “family advocacy” groups like The Parents’ Television Council, who decried a 2010 GQ cover shoot featuring Monteith, Michelle, and Agron as being akin to child pornography, despite the actors being deep into adulthood. The PTC has a well-deserved poor reputation for their foolish overreactions to what they deem “indecent.”
The first filmed adaptation of a Stephen King story, Carrie also ranks as one of the best. Directed by Brian DePalma (Scarface, Mission Impossible) Sissy Spacek plays innocent high-school girl Carrie White, who is only about 16 years old. Spacek, however, was 26, a full decade older than her character. Meanwhile, the other high-school students, played by such actors as John Travolta and Nancy Allen, were similarly much older than their teen-aged characters, with the boyish Travolta being among the youngest, at 24 when the film released.
Amusingly, the actress who played the Miss Collins, Betty Buckley, is only three years older than Sissy Spacek. The 2013 remake, perhaps the king (queen?) of superfluous remakes, brought Carrie herself down to normal age, being played by actual teenager Chloe Grace Moretz, but the rest of the cast remained young 20-somethings with varying degrees of success at passing for teens.
13. The Walking Dead
Beth Greene, Hershel’s youngest daughter, is supposed to be just 16 years old, but she is played by Emily Kinney, who was 26 during her Season 2 introduction to AMC’s The Walking Dead. Many fans of the show were shocked when they learned Kinney’s true age, since her character had such a youthful nature and Kinney looks like such a kid. Indeed, when she plays nursemaid to baby Judith, she’s indistinguishable from a real teenage babysitter, lending her scenes a saccharine dissonance against the harsh and cruel world of the show. Beth gradually matured into a strong young woman until her appearances in Season 5, at which point she went on something of a solo adventure which ended in disaster.
Beth fanatics still in mourning can catch the erstwhile apocalypse survivor on ABC’s Conviction, starring Hayley Atwell, set to debut in October. Emily’s music is also quite good, with intelligent lyrics and catchy pop hooks. We recommend starting with 2014’s Expired Love, and then following up with 2015’s This Is War.
12. Back to the Future
Michael J. Fox was 24 when Back to the Future came out, though his character, Marty McFly, was only supposed to be 17. It’s a credit to the actor’s youthful appearance and endearing voice cracks that he was believable in the role. He continued to thrive in the two sequels, which released four and five years after the original.
Hilariously, the entire Back to the Future trilogy, while spread over a period of sixty years, all take place within just a few weeks from Marty’s perspective. This means that Michael J. Fox was 29 years old playing the 17-year-old McFly. Also funny is the fact that Fox is three years older than Crispin Glover, and just a month younger than Lea Thompson, who play Marty’s parents! However, due to the time-travel shenanigans involved, the three characters are teenagers for most of the original film. We have to say, Crispin Glover at 21 makes for a very convincing gawky teen!
11. Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure
In the future, the music of Bill S. Preston and Ted Theodore Logan will change the world, bringing an end to all war and uniting humanity under the banner of rock and roll excellence.
However, during the events of the Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, our two would-be rock messiahs are little more than easy-going high school slackers who love heavy metal and kissing girls — and hate homework. Being a screwball comedy, George Carlin appears from the future in an effort to set the future saviors of the planet on the right track by… Sending them to various eras in time to interact with historical figures so they can get a passing grade on their history project. It’s weird and stupid, but in the absolute best way.
Despite being school kids, Bill and Ted are played by Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves, who were 25 and 26, respectively, when the film came out. Still, their funny haircuts and Keanu’s adorably crooked smile made it easy to accept them as a pair of clueless teenage rebels. Also, the movie is just so much fun and joyfully free-spirited that the age of the actors is hardly an issue.
10. Beverly Hills 90210
In the ’90s, America’s favorite zip code was 90210. The high school students of Beverly Hills were beautiful and glamorous, but most of them were way too old to be high school students. Shannen Doherty and Jason Priestly can arguably get a pass, being just 20 and 21 years old, respectively, when the show kicked off, but Luke Perry was 25 when he first appeared on the series, playing a high school junior.
The absolute worst case, though, has to be the character of Andrea Zuckerman, as played by the lovely and talented Gabrielle Carteris. The actress was 29 years old, playing a 16-year-old student. Even in a soap opera like 90210 with an exaggerated sense of reality, that’s just pushing our suspension of disbelief too far.
When the sequel series, simply titled 90210, began airing on The CW network in 2009, the kids’ high school teacher was played by Ryan Eggold (The Blacklist), who was only 24 years old and younger than many of the actors playing his students!
9. The Terminator
Linda Hamilton was 28 when James Cameron’s first Terminator film came out in 1984, but her character was supposed to be just 19 years old. The sequel, Terminator 2: Judgement Day, was set ten years later, despite being released only seven years after the original, slightly reducing the ridiculous age gap between Linda Hamilton and Sarah Connor.
However, things get weird with Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. Released in 2003, the film is set in 2004, but John Connor’s opening narration states that Sarah Connor was 23 during the events of The Terminator, and that he himself was 13, and not 10, during T2. Additionally, Sarah Connor’s gravestone puts her age at just three years younger than Linda Hamilton, which would set the first film in the year 1982, shifting the whole timeline down by several years. Either that, or Sarah Connor was in labor for three years, which seems unlikely.
8. Kingdom Hearts
Kingdom Hearts is a video game series in which the worlds of Square Enix collide with those of Walt Disney Studios, leading to such crazy matches as Donald Duck and Goofy going toe-to-toe with Cloud Strife, and having JRPG protagonist Sora go up against bosses like Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty, or Monstro from Pinocchio. It’s as awesome as it is bizarre, and we’re eagerly anticipating the long-awaited Kingdom Hearts III.
Kingdom Hearts makes a strong effort to recruit as many actors from the original films as possible to reprise their roles in the games. James Woods returns from 1997’s Hercules to voice Hades, Ming-Na plays Mulan, Bruce Boxleitner returns as Tron, and so many more.
The most awe-inspiring casting in the game, however, has to be Kathryn Beaumont, the voice of Alice (of Alice in Wonderland) and Wendy (from Peter Pan). She played Alice in the 1951 film, and was 12 years old when it released, and Peter Pan came out just two years later. The first Kingdom Hearts title released in 2002, and featured the 64-year-old actress effortlessly returning to the role of 7-year-old Alice and the 12-year-old Wendy. Beaumont has since retired from playing those roles, but is still dedicated to the Kingdom Hearts series, having played the role of Kairi’s grandmother in 2010’s Birth By Sleep.
No live-action Spider-Man is safe from this; Tobey Maguire, Andrew Garfield, and even Tom Holland are well past high school age. Holland, as featured in Captain America: Civil War and the upcoming Spider-Man: Homecoming, is the youngest of the three, at just twenty years old, playing a fifteen-year-old version of Peter Parker, Iron Man’s favorite child soldier. Next is Tobey Maguire, who was 27 when the first Spider-Man film came out way back in 2002. Finally, Andrew Garfield was 28 years old when The Amazing Spider-Man hit theaters in 2012. Both Maguire and Garfield’s takes on the web-slinger start out with the character in high school.
The goal of Spider-Man: Homecoming seems to be to make Spidey more in line with being the kid hero that he often was in the comics, and, even though Tom Holland is literally 20 years old, he definitely has the look of a 15-year-old student. Here’s hoping that the young actor doesn’t go through an unexpected growth spurt!
Contrasting analyses of the text of Shakespeare’s classic play, Hamlet, put the age of its title character as old as 30, or as young as 16. It’s to the story’s great credit that either interpretation works and can add further nuance to his grievances and motivations.
However, if Hamlet is actually supposed to be a teenager, then that means that the myriad filmed adaptations of the story are way off in their casting choices. Laurence Olivier was 40 when he starred in 1948’s Hamlet, which he also directed. Bizarrely, but surprisingly seamlessly, he cast 28-year-old Eileen Herlie as his mother. Mel Gibson starred in a popular and hip version of the story in 1990, directed by Franco Zeffirelli; he was 34, and Glenn Close, only 45, played his mother.
Perhaps due to Hollywood sexism, Gertrude (Hamlet’s mother) is often played by actresses way too young for the role, slightly lessening the gross-out factor in Hamlet’s perceived Oedipal Complex… But only slightly.
Here’s a funny comparison: Smallville, starring Tom Welling, is set during Clark Kent’s high-school days in his tiny Kansas town; Superman Returns, starring Brandon Routh, is set five years after Superman II, and features a more mature take on the Kryptonian’s mythology with a Man of Steel that’s already well into his career as a superhero. Tom Welling, who plays the younger version of Superman, is three years older than Brandon Routh.
Indeed, Welling’s version of the character really stretches our suspension of disbelief. In the pilot, he’s supposed to be only 14 years old! Though, if any teenager should look like a hunky 24-year-old man, it’s Superman (or Superboy, as the case may be). Additionally, Michael Rosenbaum, playing a 21-year-old version of the bald menace, Lex Luthor, was 29, a full eight years older than his character. Seriously, most of the actors on the show were significantly older than their characters. Maybe it was a deliberate choice, to pay homage to teen shows like 90210 and Dawson’s Creek? Probably not.
4. Happy Days
This “’50s throwback” was one of the most fondly nostalgic sitcoms of the ’70s. Happy Days was about high school kids in the ’50s and their quests to get dates and hang out at Arnolds, the local burger joint. The lead actor was ostensibly young Richie Cunningham, played by Ron Howard, who had earlier starred as Andy’s son in the quintessential ’50s sitcom, The Andy Griffith Show.
However, the true breakout star of the show was Arthur “Fonzie” Fonzarelli, aka The Fonze, who was played by Henry Winkler. These days, younger fans might know Winkler more from his work on Parks & Recreation and Arrested Development, but back in the 1970’s version of the 1950s, The Fonze was just the coolest guy ever. The character was supposed to be about 19 years old or so, but Winkler was a full decade older than that when he first donned the iconic leather jacket, and 39 when the series came to an end in 1984.
3. Blackboard Jungle
The original “good teacher at a bad school” drama, 1955’s Blackboard Jungle was a huge hit with teen audiences due to its mind-blowing use of rock and roll in its soundtrack and startling depiction of rebellious youth. Glenn Ford (Superman: The Movie) stars as the teacher who tries to educate his ragtag, multiethnic group of inner-city youths, whether they like it or not. The two lead “teenagers” were played by Sidney Poitier and Vic Morrow. Morrow, as the violent punk with an axe to grind against the teacher, was 26 years old when the film came out. Maybe his character was held back nine times?
Even worse was Sidney Poitier himself, who was 28 at the time of the film’s release. Perhaps casting legitimate adults was a deliberate choice by the filmmakers, to make their menacing and violent behavior more intimidating, and their eventual defeat and/or redemption all the more rewarding for viewers. Either way, the film proved to be a huge hit, and made instant stars out of its young actors.
The original “high school musical,” Grease is a beloved classic to teenagers of all ages, a sock-hop fantasy with catchy tunes and a pervasive sense of fun and adoration of the era. There are times and places for social commentary, and there are times and places for pure, unadulterated fun; Grease is the latter.
The entire main cast of the film is supposed to be high-school aged, but pretty much the whole cast was way too old to pass for teenage students. John Travolta was 24 when the movie released, but he is a full five years younger than Olivia Newton-John, who plays Sandy. Even worse, resident “mean girl” Rizzo is played by Stockard Channing, who was 33 when the movie came out. She’s old enough to have actually been in high school in the 1950s, which is hilarious. Still, we can’t imagine anyone else singing their heart out in the film’s version of “There Are Worse Things I Could Do,” so we have no choice but to let this one slide.
1. The Buddy Holly Story/La Bamba
Music-based biopics are the king of this trope; we could literally fill the entire list with entries from rock biopics, like Coal Miner’s Daughter, in which Sissy Specek (Carrie!) started playing a 14-year-old Loretta Lynn when she was 30, but we’ll stick to two specific examples.
Before he went certifiably insane, Gary Busey was an incredibly gifted actor. He was in the legendary Kris Kristofferson/Barbara Streisand Oscar-winning remake of A Star Is Born, and was himself nominated for an Oscar for his stunning portrayal of the title character in The Buddy Holly Story. Everybody knows that Buddy Holly was one of the most talented rock and roll performers of all time, and the film is a tribute to his legacy, even if it is rife with historical inaccuracies due to a completely fictionalized portrayal of Holly’s band, The Crickets. The film follows Holly from age 19 to his death at 22, though Gary Busey was 34 when the film released; however, his extensive weight loss and transformative performance went a long way towards making him completely believable.
The plane crash which took the lives of Holly and The Big Bopper also killed Ritchie Valens, who was just 17, but whose legacy of rock and roll and timeless 1950s guitar licks endures to this day. In 1987’s La Bamba, one of the greatest rock and roll biopics ever made, Valens was played by Lou Diamond Phillips, who was 25 years old when the film came out.
Do you agree with our list? Can you think of any examples we missed? Sound off in the comments!