Acting is a hard but rewarding job. The long hours, the grueling atmosphere, and angry production assistants can get to actors, but for most, this is the job they’ve always wanted. Some are thrown into acting in their adolescence when they’re introduced to the wonders of high-school drama classes, but some have been acting professionally since they were children.
The usual expectation for child stars is that they’ll fade away into oblivion once they become older and lose their star quality, but that simply isn’t the case. In fact, many of your favorite actors have been in the business ever since they were children, giving up their childhoods in the process of pursuing their careers.
However, having a head start in the industry doesn’t mean much considering most of the actors on this list didn’t become household names until they reached adulthood, which makes their stories even more special.
Whether they had a cameo in a well-known classic film or a major role in an obscure film, here are 15 Actors You Had No Idea Were Child Stars.
15. Ben Affleck
Before Ben Affleck was winning Oscars and snapping necks as Batman, he was teaching math and science to sixth graders in the educational program The Voyage of the Mimi. Airing on PBS, the show focused on a young Affleck and his fictional grandfather going on adventures with a scientific approach. At only 12, this was Affleck’s official television debut.
Seeing as the show was mainly used in the classroom as a supplemental educational tool, it’s no wonder The Voyage of the Mimi faded into obscurity. However, the show received a spiritual successor in the form of The Second Voyage of the Mimi, which also had Affleck reprising his role, years later.
In an interview, Affleck stated that he’s glad his earliest claim to fame was so low-key, considering most child stars end up with unpleasant lifestyles down the road.
Affleck may not have made strides in the acting world as a child, but seeing as the original The Voyage of the Mimi premiered 13 years before Affleck won his first Oscar, it seems acting was his one true calling.
14. Jessica Alba
Before she was considered a Hollywood It-girl and a successful businesswoman, Jessica Alba was just another eager kid who wanted to join the ever-expanding pantheon that is Hollywood.
Since Alba was five years old, she’d known that acting was her passion. When she was eleven, she entered in an acting competition which had a grand prize of free acting lessons. Alba won, and two years later, at the age of thirteen, she made her film debut in the comedy Camp Nowhere, in which she had a small role.
She continued acting throughout her teens with roles in films like Venus Rising, Never Been Kissed, and Idle Hands. However, her first major breakthrough came in the form of the television series Flipper, where she was featured as a series regular for two years.
Alba would later go on to star in the sci-fi series Dark Angel and the movie Sin City – roles that got her critical praise.
13. Ryan Reynolds
A lot of eager and rising actors get their first few gigs on television as it gives them a feel for the entertainment industry without the stakes one would expect from Hollywood. Canadian star Ryan Reynolds’ first acting job was on the Canadian teen television show Hillside (or Fifteen in the United States) which aired on Nickelodeon.
Hillside focused on teen issues like stereotypes, drinking, divorce, and dating. On the teen soap opera, Reynolds portrayed Billy Simpson, one of the few characters who appeared in all four seasons of the show.
Only fifteen years old when the show began airing in 1991, Reynolds got a steady flow of work on Canadian projects like The Odyssey and Ordinary Magic before making it to the big leagues with appearances in films like Definitely, Maybe and Deadpool.
12. Mila Kunis
Mila Kunis enrolled in acting classes when she was nine and was quickly discovered by an agent afterward. She began acting on television with small appearances on shows like Days of Our Lives and Baywatch before she was twelve years old. She also starred as a young Gia Carangi on the HBO film Gia, meaning she portrayed a younger Angelina Jolie.
Kunis’ breakthrough role is clearly That ’70s Show, where she portrayed Jackie Burkhart for eight years. Funnily enough, the role of Jackie was to be played by someone who was eighteen or older, but Kunis isn’t one for rules and auditioned for the role regardless despite being only fourteen years old. The executives loved Kunis’ audition so much that they broke the rules for her so she could star in the show, and the rest is history.
11. Jake Gyllenhaal
Jake Gyllenhaal is best known for his roles in Donnie Darko, Zodiac, and Nightcrawler – films that prove that he is one of the best actors working in the industry. However, Gyllenhaal got his start in Hollywood at the very young age of eleven in the film City Slickers, where he starred alongside Hollywood veterans Billy Crystal and Daniel Stern. His role in City Slickers was small, but at least he got to play the son of Billy Crystal’s character.
Gyllenhaal’s subsequent roles after City Slickers included Josh and S.A.M, Homegrown, and A Dangerous Woman – all before he was eighteen years old. None of these roles allowed Gyllenhaal to fully show off his acting chops but they did serve as a launching pad for him, as he would eventually garner an Oscar nomination for his role in Brokeback Mountain.
10. Keira Knightley
Keira Knightley has had quite a prolific and diverse career but you’d be surprised to know that she’s been acting ever since she was eight years old. Her acting debut was in the British anthology series Screen One in a small role as a little girl.
Knightley got her first big break when she was fourteen years old when she starred in Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace as the decoy queen to Natalie Portman’s character.
Her role in The Phantom Menace allowed her to be seen by literally every agent in Hollywood, and she subsequently starred in films like The Hole, Pure, and Bend It Like Beckham. She starred in all these films before she was seventeen, which is quite impressive.
These three roles allowed her to mix and play with different genres and acting styles before her first big break, which was Pirates of the Caribbean when she was just seventeen years old.
9. Ryan Gosling
Many assume that Ryan Gosling just randomly showed up out of nowhere and became a star overnight, but that’s far from the case. In fact, Gosling is more than likely a big part of your childhood if you grew up watching The Mickey Mouse Club. We often think about Justin Timberlake or Britney Spears when we remember The Mickey Mouse Club but Gosling appeared on the show in three episodes as himself when he was only thirteen years old.
If you grew up watching the Canadian horror classic Are You Afraid of the Dark? then you’ll be glad to know that Gosling appeared on the show as well, along with Goosebumps a year later – all before he was sixteen years old.
8. Scarlett Johansson
Scarlett Johansson may be best known for playing Black Widow in the Marvel Cinematic Universe but before she became a household name, she was just another kid trying to make it big in Hollywood. Despite not getting the role of Judy Shepherd in Jumanji (the role ultimately went to Kristen Dunst), Johansson’s first gig was in 1994’s North, when she was only nine years old.
Just like in North, Johansson’s subsequent roles in films like Just Cause and Home Alone 3 were considered cameos at best, but she continued to make strides for herself, eventually landing lead roles in films like the Robert Redford directed The Horse Whisperer, My Brother The Pig, and Ghost World, all before she was eighteen.
7. Paul Walker
Before he launched to stardom with the Fast and the Furious films, Paul Walker began his acting career starring in television shows as a kid. While he wasn’t a regular star on any of these shows, he made appearances on television programs such as Highway to Heaven and the after-school anthology show CBS Schoolbreak Special. He later became a series regular on the sitcom Throb by the time he was 16.
Walker made his film debut in the cult horror-comedy classic Monster in the Closet when he was only 13 years old. After Monster in the Closet, Walker continued to star on select television shows in small roles until he became an adult and became synonymous with his Fast and the Furious character Brian O’Conner.
6. Kristen Stewart
Despite her breakout role being Bella on Twilight, Kristen Stewart had a long and prolific career before she started hanging out with vampires. When she was twelve, she was acting alongside Jodie Foster, Jared Leto, and Forest Whitaker in the David Fincher directed Panic Room. Her role in the film was substantial and she received considerable praise for her role as a distressed child under attack.
Her first major role was the heist film Catch That Kid when she was only fourteen years old. While Catch That Kid faded away from everyone’s memory, her most memorable childhood performance comes from Zathura, where she played the elder angsty teen sister.
5. Christian Bale
Christian Bale has had a long and rewarding career that has allowed him to play a multitude of roles in order to hone his skills. Best known as Bruce Wayne/Batman in the The Dark Knight trilogy, Bale made his acting debut in the made for television film Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna when he was only 12 years old. A year later he starred alongside the late Christopher Lee in the critically planned but gorgeous Swedish film Mio in the Land of Faraway, which was his first lead role.
However, Bale got the attention of everyone when he starred in Steven Spielberg’s World War II coming-of-age drama Empire of the Sun, where he played a young boy who becomes a prisoner of war in China. Only twelve years old when cameras began rolling, Bale impressed everyone with his incredibly stark and nuanced performance.
4. Christina Applegate
The usual age people associate with child stars is between five and fifteen. but there are way younger actors. Take Christina Applegate, for example, who had her first acting job just three months after she was born.
Appearing on Days of our Lives as a baby, Applegate’s role didn’t require much from her, but nonetheless, she received considerable screen time as the resident baby on the show.
Once she was older, she continued to act with roles in films like Jaws of Satan and Beatlemania, before fully transitioning into television with her role in Married With Children when she was only sixteen years old.
3. Joaquin Phoenix
One of the most critically acclaimed actors of our time, with three Academy Award nominations under his belt, Joaquin Phoenix got his start on television like so many actors. At the age of eight, Phoenix made his acting debut alongside his late brother River Phoenix on the short-lived show Seven Brides for Seven Husbands. His role was small, but he continued to act throughout his early teens.
Phoenix later starred in films like Kids Don’t Tell and SpaceCamp, with the latter being considering his breakthrough role as a child star.
After his breakthrough, he starred in Ron Howard’s classic comedy Parenthood. His performance in Parenthood garnered him significant acclaim and allowed him to riff off Hollywood veterans like Steve Martin, Dianne Wiest, and Rick Moranis. He also got to act alongside Keanu Reeves, with whom he would become great friends.
2. Elijah Wood
Many people know Elijah Wood as Frodo Baggins from the groundbreaking The Lord of the Rings franchise, but Wood has another classic film up his sleeve. In 1989, when Wood was only eight years old, he had a small role in Back to the Future Part II as the kid in the retro arcade who was figuring out how to play an arcade game.
Wood received additional success as a child star when he starred in films like The Good Son and North, which gave him a chance to expand his acting chops with much more complex roles.
1. Christopher Walken
Christopher Walken is a living legend of Hollywood, and rightfully so, thanks to his unique voice, and diverse, eccentric roles. While Walken didn’t make his feature film debut until he was twenty-three years old, he was no stranger to acting on television.
When he was ten years old, Walken made his television debut on the show The Wonderful John Acton, in which he had a recurring role. After that, he was a regular star on the soap opera Guiding Light, which is the longest-running soap opera in American history.
By the time he was eighteen, Walken had a considerable amount of experience in the television industry, which led to him eventually making his film debut five years later.
Which actors surprised you that they were child stars? Let us know in the comments!
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