The pressures and pitfalls of fame are real. Sure, it’d be nice to have money and fans, but there are huge downsides to it all. Child actors have to deal with the brain-bending nature of fame at the same time as growing up and finding out who they really are.
It’s a tough business and being a young, impressionable actor involved in the Hollywood machine must be incredibly difficult. The system seems purposefully designed to chew kid actors up and spit them out and it’s a wonder how any of them keep their heads on straight and manage to navigate the numerous beartraps laid out before them.
However, there are plenty who have managed to take their early fame and run with it, managing to remain famous and transition to much meatier and well-regarded roles. There are even a select few who have somehow been able to channel all of that into a successful adult career and become bonefide megastars in the process.
With all of that in mind, we decided to take a look at the actors who pulled it off and the others who didn’t quite get there.
Here are the 10 Child Actors Who Are Now A-Listers (And 5 Who Couldn’t Make It).
15. A-Lister: Natalie Portman
Natalie Portman made her feature film debut at the age of 12 in The Professional, holding her own whilst sharing the screen with Jean Reno.
Soon after, she went on to work with some of Hollywood’s biggest names, like Woody Allen, Michael Mann, Tim Burton and of course, George Lucas. Whilst Portman had always been fairly well-known, starring in Lucas’ Star Wars prequels strapped a rocket to her back and she hasn’t really come down ever since.
Natalie hit award gold for her role in Darren Aranofsky’s dark and twisted Black Swan, where she earned the Best Actress Oscar for her performance as Nina Sayers/The Swan Queen. She also joined the MCU as Jane Foster in both Thor and Thor: The Dark World before moving on to more challenging roles in Jane Got A Gun and Jackie, in which she played Jaqueline Kennedy Onassis.
Portman currently has two projects lined up for 2018 in the forms of sci-fi actioner Annihilation and drama The Death and Life of John F. Donovan, in which she’ll share the screen with Jessica Chastain, Susan Sarandon and Game of Thrones’ Kit Harington.
14. A-Lister: Drew Barrymore
Practically all of Drew Barrymore’s family are actors, from her parents to her great-grandparents, so it should be no surprise that Drew followed suit. She started at the crazy age of 11 months, winning a part in a dog food commercial.
However, it was Steven Spielberg’s E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial that defined her career and made her one of the biggest child stars of the era. After E.T., Barrymore starred in Firestarter, based on the Stephen King novel. From there, she worked consistently, growing up on screen with more adult-orientated roles in Poison Ivy and Scream.
Barrymore found a romcom niche in movies like The Wedding Singer, Never Been Kissed and Ever After before starring in the hugely successful Charlie’s Angels movies. She made her directorial debut with roller derby movie Whip It and has maintained her level of fame with a starring role in Netflix sitcom Santa Clarita Diet, which was renewed for a second season slated to release next year.
13. Couldn’t Make It: Macaulay Culkin
Arguably one of the biggest child stars of the ’80s and ’90s, Macaulay Culkin shot to international fame as Kevin in the family-friendly home invasion movie Home Alone. Following the success of that, Culkin appeared in the tear-jerking My Girl, Home Alone sequel Lost in New York and live-action/ animated mash-up children’s adventure The Pagemaster.
Culkin has acted infrequently in lower-profile television and movie roles since the Nineties, most notably 2003’s Party Monster, which marked somewhat of a career revival. However, he seems to have purposefully moved away from the limelight to concentrate on personal projects.
He sang and played percussion in Velvet Underground comedy parody band The Pizza Underground, who used to give out free boxed pizzas to gig attendees as part of their gimmick. Most recently, he’s been on British TV, starring in insurance adverts.
He’s also set to appear in Seth Green’s newest movie Changeland, which is currently in post-production. It’s always possible that Culkin could return in a big way to the global stage, but he seems happy doing his own thing at the moment, which is hard to argue with.
12. A-Lister: Elijah Wood
As far as movie debuts go, a fleeting appearance in Back to the Future Part II is pretty hard to beat. After that, Elijah Wood starred in Macaulay Culkin movie The Good Son, before headlining the star-studded by crtically reviled North.
Roles in The Ice Storm, Deep Impact and The Faculty assured his status as an adult actor, but as we all know, it was his role as Frodo Baggins in The Lord of the Rings trilogy that catapulted him to the global fame he still enjoys to this day.
If there’s one thing you can count on, it’s that Elijah Wood will pick unconventional roles. None of his post-Hobbit work has been quite as big, but he’s been in a huge range of things, including voice roles in King of the Hill, American Dad and Family Guy, and numerous music videos.
He is currently starring as Todd Brotzman in Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, which recently aired its second season.
11. A-Lister: Ron Howard
Ron Howard got his first credited film role at the age of 5 in The Journey and did television work (including an episode of The Twilight Zone) before getting his big break as Opie Taylor on the long running The Andy Griffith Show, clocking up a mighty 209 episodes.
He continued to make limited appearances in TV shows like I, Spy and M*A*S*H before landing a role as Steve Bolander in George Lucas’ nostaligic American Graffiti. This in turn led to his other defining sitcom role, that of Richie Cunningham in Happy Days.
After leaving the show, Howard went into directing and helmed and starred in Grand Theft Auto (no relation to the games). His big directing break came in the form of Night Shift, where he directed his Happy Days co-star Henry Winkler.
After this point, Howard went on to chair some huge movies like Splash, Willow, Backdraft and Apollo 13. He won the Best Director Oscar for A Beautiful Mind in 2001 and has been busy since. He’s also in charge of Solo: A Star Wars Story, replacing original directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller.
10. Couldn’t Make It: Lindsay Lohan
Lindsay Lohan started modelling at the age of 3 and went on to star in the remake of Jodie Foster’s Freaky Friday in 2003. Lindsay was a Disney kid and started becoming well-known after starring in the 1998 remake of The Parent Trap.
After appearing in big hits like Mean Girls and Herbie: Fully Loaded, she threatened to become the next former Disney star to break out, with a huge teen following and a platinum album under her belt.
Her winning streak faltered with romcom Just My Luck which underperformed at the box office, but before she was able to bounce back, the press took a massive interest in her personal life and her hard-partying lifestyle. Her headline-grabbing antics soon overshadowed her professional career and it stalled her rise to the top.
In more recent years, Lindsay has found help for her various addictions and has returned to acting for her stage debut in Speed-the-Plow, David Mamet’s satirical play. Lohan continues to make infrequent television appearances, but looks unlikely to be walking down many more red carpets in the future.
9. A-Lister: Anna Paquin
There are plenty of actors who could be described as natural talents, but Anna Paquin has a stronger claim to that than most. Having only had acting experience in a school play, Anna attended an open audition for Jane Campion’s The Piano and got the role, beating out thousands of other hopefuls.
The Piano ended up being a critical darling that had truckloads of awards thrown at it, including the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for Paquin, making the 11 year old the second youngest Oscar winner ever.
Anna initially didn’t want to continue acting, but she relented and starred in many movies as a teenager, including Amistad and Almost Famous.
Oh, and a little superhero franchise like the X-Men trilogy, playing troubled teen Rogue. Paquin has continued to work since and found new levels of fame and fandom playing Sookie Stackhouse in HBO’s steamy supernatural hit series True Blood.
8. A-Lister: Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Joseph Gordon-Levitt was bitten by the acting bug at the age of 4, joining a local musical theater group. He was spotted by an agent in a production of The Wizard of Oz and was soon appearing in commercials.
A speight of made for TV movies and followed before he starred in Disney’s Angels in the Outfield. This then led to him being cast as Tommy Soloman in 3rd Rock From the Sun, turning him into a teen idol.
He starred in 10 Things I Hate About You and lent his voice to Disney animated movie Treasure Planet before leaving acting to focus on his studies. In 2004, he dropped out of university to concentrate on acting again. He chose a number of lower-profile movie roles before reminding everyone of how good he is in (500) Days of Summer.
Since then, he’s became a regular movie fixture, showing up in Brick, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, Inception, 50/50, The Dark Knight Rises and Looper. If you’re yet to see Star Wars: The Last Jedi, directed by frequent collaborator Rian Johnson, keep an ear out for a vocal cameo from the man himself.
7. Didn’t Make It: Amanda Bynes
Starting her professional career at the age of 7, Amanda Bynes started out like many actors on this list and appeared in several commercials. She trod the boards early on, starring in several stage productions of Annie, The Secret Garden and The Sound of Music.
Bynes hit the big time as a cast member of popular children’s sketch show All That, before getting her own successful spin-off The Amanda Show. Her movie debut came in the form of Frankie Muniz movie Big Fat Liar and she continued to capitalize on that success, getting a starring role in sports romcom She’s the Man.
She looked all set to make the transition to adult actor with a role in the movie version of Hairspray, but things stalled when her personal life and public run-ins with the law became the main focal point for the press. Bynes decided to hang up her acting boots, going on an indefinite hiatus.
Bynes has publically struggled with mental health issues, but seems much better in recent interviews. She’s stated that she intends to return to acting sometime soon, but wants to return to TV where it all started.
6. A-Lister: Christian Bale
Not only is Christian Bale an Oscar winner, but he also played Batman— two things which ensure a place in the Hollywood history books. Bale’s career started early.
He landed his first on-screen role in a commercial at the age of 8, popping up in an advertisement for Pac-Man cereal a year later. After some stage work, Bale nabbed his first film role in the made for TV movie Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna.
The young Bale continued to work until his big breakout role in Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun. His performance earned him a ton of critical praise and he even received the first ever Best Performance By a Juvenile Actor award from the prestigious National Board of Review. Bale clearly had talent to burn and after Empire of the Sun, the offers came pouring in.
Christian shook off his kiddie image with roles in movies like Velvet Goldmine and American Psycho. While he’s hung up the Batcape for good, Bale continues to pick interesting projects and his insane workload doesn’t seem to be lightening any time soon.
5. A-Lister: Jodie Foster
Early starts are something of the norm, but even with all that, Jodie Foster started her career in front of the camera at a staggeringly early age. Foster was a professional child model at the age of 3 before getting her first noteworthy television role in the sitcom Mayberry R.F.D. at the age of 5.
Her first feature film role was in Napoleon and Samantha, but widespread recognition didn’t come until her outstanding performance in Taxi Driver, for which she earned an Academy Award nomination.
Foster became a teen idol thanks to roles in movies like Bugsy Malone and Freaky Friday but the Academy soon came knocking again, giving her the Best Actress Oscar for her performance in 1988’s The Accused.
The role also marked her successful transition into adult roles and in 1991, she cemented her place in Hollywood’s A-List as Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs (winning her second Best Actress Oscar in the process).
Jodie still makes appearances in movies here and there, but has switched her focus to behind the scenes, directing several movies like Little Man Tate, The Beaver and Money Monster as well as several Netflix productions.
4. Didn’t Make It: Jonathan Lipnicki
Jonathan Lipnicki looked to become the next big child star after an adorable turn as Renee Zellweger’s son, Ray, in Tom Cruise romcom Jerry Maguire.
After lending his voice to the Eddie Murphy remake of Doctor Dolittle, he rose to prominence with a big role as in Stuart Little, often sharing the screen with a talking CGI mouse voiced by Michael J. Fox. He went on to star in Like Mike, The Little Vampire and Stuart Little 2, before fading into relative obscurity.
Lipnicki took a break from high-profile acting after satirical movie The L.A. Riot Spectacular but has continued to make cameo appearances and guest spots on TV shows like Family Guy and Monk as well as webseries MotherLover.
In more recent years, Jonathan has been training in mixed martial arts, even teasing a possible professional fighting career. Just keep that in mind if you see him on the street and are tempted to bring up The Little Vampire.
3. A-Lister: Kurt Russell
Kurt Russell’s first role in a feature film was an uncredited part in Elvis Presley musical It Happened at the World’s Fair at the age of 11. After several guest appearances, Russell got his first starring role in the fantastically named western series The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters, although it was canceled after one series.
In the late ’60s, Russell was signed to Disney and became a big star for the House of Mouse during the 1970s. He soon caught the attention of John Carpenter and the rest is history.
Their pairing soon turned out to be legendary and they made Escape From New York, The Thing, Big Trouble in Little China and Escape from L.A. together. Russell earned critical acclaim for his role in biopic Silkwood before returning to blockbuster movie making with Tango & Cash, Backdraft, Stargate and Tombstone.
He teamed with Quentin Tarantino in Death Proof before being called on again in 2015 for The Hateful Eight. If that wasn’t enough, he joined the Fast and Furious franchise and the omni-present MCU, playing Ego the Living Planet in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.
2. A-Lister: Leonardo DiCaprio
At the age of 14, Leonardo DiCaprio starred in an advertisement for Matchbox cars. He got a few bit-parts on television before he was apparently hand-picked by Robert DeNiro to star in This Boy’s Life.
However, it was What’s Eating Gilbert Grape that got him mainstream attention and gave him his first Oscar nomination. He continued to work until his fame skyrocketed with Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, where he became a teen heartthrob and was soon on magazine covers the world over. “Leo-mania” reached its peak with James Cameron’s Titanic and soon DiCaprio was a huge star.
DiCaprio soon found his niche when he starred in Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can and embarked on his first Martin Scorsese collaboration, Gangs of New York, in 2002.
Since then, Leo has made smart and interesting career choices, starring in The Aviator, The Departed, Inception, The Wolf of Wall Street, Django Unchained and 2016’s The Revenant for which he finally won the Best Actor Academy Award after years of nominations. Good for him.
1. Didn’t Make It: Hilary Duff
There was a time when Hilary Duff seemed unstoppable. She started inconspicuously enough, with her first big role as young witch Wendy in direct-to-video movie Casper Meets Wendy and continued in bit parts on TV. Then came Lizzie McGuire.
Duff landed the title role and the series became a massive hit for The Disney Channel. She gained teen idol status and the whole package became a merchandising powerhouse, earning a reported $100 million from tie-in sales alone. Hilary then embarked on a music career.
While her first Christmas album sold well, it didn’t gain as much traction as her second, “Metamorphosis”, which not only marked her transition into being more of an adult multimedia star, but proved to be a critical and commercial success.
Duff starred in more family friendly projects like Cheaper By The Dozen and A Cinderalla Story until the end of Lizzie McGuire prompted her to choose teen dramas like The Perfect Man and Material Girls.When more mature projects like War, Inc and Stay Cool failed to gain much traction, Duff moved back to TV work, but none with the same high profile as her Disney Channel breakout.
Can you think of any other child actors who became A-listers or any who couldn’t make it? Sound off in the comments!
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