The entertainment industry is messy enough as it is and navigating your way through it as a kid is no easy feat. While most actors hope that getting an early start on things might increase their chances at a lifelong career in the business, the stories that usually make the headlines have more to do with the downfall of child actors, rather than their achievements.
There are certainly cases of child stars who have managed to maintain their stardom. Successful kids who become successful adults. There’s also the other side of things: tales of turmoil splattered on tabloids and a “where are they now?” following a former child star’s name.
While the lives of a lot of successful adolescent actors seem to be riddled with controversy, there are a few who stand out by veering a different course. These onetime child stars found fame, only to have lost it, then beat the odds once again, rightfully earning their spot on the coveted A-list. It might be surprising to hear just how early some of them started out on their road to success.
Talent may get your foot in the door, but it is hard work and persistence that will get you to the top. Luckily, these superstars of today recognized that, and understood that timing really is everything.
Here are 15 Failed Child Stars Who Are Now A-Lister Adults.
15 Jason Bateman
Jason Bateman was a permanent fixture on TV screens in the ‘80s. He and his sister Justine could be spotted starring in any number of popular family-friendly shows, even making it onto Little House on the Prairie as a child. But after Silver Spoons and Valerie, Bateman’s career seemed to just vanish. Somehow, for the next decade, he managed to fly under the radar, away from the fans who watched him grow up.
While he never actually stopped working in the ‘90s, we lost sight of the actor until he reemerged in the 2002 movie, The Sweetest Thing. This time, Bateman was back as a rather good looking adult with a ridiculously charming sense of humor. It was pretty much game over after that. By the time 2011 rolled around and Horrible Bosses hit, Bateman rose to A-list status and the rest is history.
14 Kerry Washington
There is only one person who could properly portray Olivia Pope, and that is Kerry Washington. The idea of anyone else attempting to fill the “Gladiator’s” shoes is unthinkable. While Washington found wild success on the ABC show that launched her into superstardom, the actress had a few other jobs before she began fighting for justice in politics.
Back in 2001, she was fighting for justice on the dance floor in Save the Last Dance. And, if you’ve always been loyal viewer of network TV, you might recall her guest starring on shows like NYPD Blue and Law & Order. However, prior to Kerry Washington being a hero to adults, she was actually a hero to kids – and for the same network no less. The actress was doing ABC Afterschool Specials as far back as 1994.
13 Ben Affleck
The tale of Ben Affleck and Matt Damon is one that has been admired ever since their big Oscar win for 1997’s Good Will Hunting. Their friendship, and later, their success, became the goal for anybody who ever dreamed of selling a screenplay.
The story of Ben Affleck only got better from there, as the indie actor we knew from movies like Mallrats and Chasing Amy, found huge success both in front of and behind the camera. It didn’t matter if it was Armageddon or Jersey Girl, even Affleck’s failures couldn’t slow him down to becoming one of the hottest commodities in Hollywood.
However, Affleck’s rise to fame didn’t start in the ‘90s. His career began with a Burger King commercial in the early ‘80s as a child but he didn’t see stars until he hit adulthood. How do you like them apples?
12 Jake Gyllenhaal
Even though the actor was born into a renowned Hollywood family, he didn’t become the Jake Gyllenhaal we all know and love until he grew up to accrue some major heartthrob credentials. Between his mother (famed screenwriter Naomi Foner), father (director Stephen Gyllenhaal), his sister Maggie, and godmother Jamie Lee Curtis, Jake seemed destined for stardom.
While that would turn out to be the case, it didn’t actually come to fruition until years after he initially started acting. 2001’s Donnie Darko may have earned him critical acclaim and starring alongside Jennifer Aniston in The Good Girl might have been the role that put him into the leading man category, but he actually got his start much earlier on. Gyllenhaal’s first role was as the little boy in 1991’s City Slickers.
11 Angelina Jolie
Angelina Jolie is about as A-list as you can get. Daughter of actor Jon Voight, she starred alongside her dad all the way back in 1982’s Lookin' to Get Out. Her unmistakable face can be spotted in numerous photos early on, standing next to her father on the red carpet.
We saw a more grown-up Jolie, in 1995’s Hackers, but her breakthrough role didn’t officially happen until 1998’s Gia. Taking home the Golden Globe and then adorably jumping into the pool at the Beverly Hilton Hotel to celebrate the win immediately made her one of America’s sweethearts. After that, fans were focused on everything from her odd relationship with a much older Billy Bob Thornton, to her marriage with Brad Pitt.
Of course, relationships aside, Jolie continues to prove that as an adult, she is one actress whose star will always shine bright.
10 Ryan Reynolds
These days, most people either associate Ryan Reynolds with Deadpool, or they spend their time fawning over the seemingly perfect romance he has with wife, Blake Lively. While Reynolds has accumulated a ton of credits which has made him the A-lister he is today, he actually began his journey in entertainment before he hit adulthood.
Around the age of 15, Reynolds first appeared in a Nickelodeon show appropriately titled Fifteen. After that, the Canadian child actor struggled to find fame, booking small roles in shows like The X-Files, which eventually led to a break from the business.
Once in Los Angeles, an adult Reynolds caught a break of a different kind, when he landed a role on Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place. He inevitably went on to secure the title of rom-com king, both onscreen and off.
9 Elisabeth Moss
While Elisabeth Moss first became a household name portraying Peggy Olson in AMC’s Mad Men, the actress had been working in the entertainment industry for over a decade before she found success. You may have recognized her re-watching shows like Grey's Anatomy or Medium, or maybe thought she got her start on The West Wing, but Moss began her long journey to fame as a child back in 1990.
She studied ballet when she was younger and booked her first role in an NBC miniseries called Lucky Chances. It seems while she may have had a few chances in the years to come, she didn’t quite get lucky until she reached adulthood. Now, The Handmaid's Tale star has an Emmy and a few Golden Globes under her belt, proving that persistence pays off.
8 Joaquin Phoenix
In the ‘80s, the Phoenix family was well-known in the entertainment industry. Before his untimely passing, brother River starred in Stand by Me, and saw incredible success as a child actor. Other siblings, including Rain, Summer, and Liberty, also followed in those footsteps, marching toward the Hollywood dream.
As a kid, Joaquin was called Leaf Phoenix, and by 1982, was booking gigs on TV shows. Finally, in 1989, the hit movie Parenthood had brought the young actor into the spotlight, but, as it would turn out, this Phoenix didn’t actually rise until later on in life.
In 1995, we saw him starring opposite Nicole Kidman in To Die For. Now back to his given name, he went on to find victory as an adult, becoming one of two Phoenix family members to be nominated for an Academy Award.
Yes, that’s right. Drake, the hot, chart-topping, multiple Grammy Award-winner, was once a child actor. Hailing from Toronto, Ontario, Aubrey Drake Graham got his start appearing in commercials. Booking television and movie roles here and there, Drake hit the jackpot at the age of 15, when he got the part of Jimmy Brooks in Degrassi: The Next Generation. He was a key player in the whole Degrassi franchise for quite some time, until he eventually ended up on the road with Lil Wayne.
In 2009, he dropped a mixtape, left the TV high school life behind, and was well on his way to becoming the world-renowned musician we know today. While Drake’s acting career never quite took off, he certainly understands the meaning of the word YOLO. In fact, he coined it. While he may have “Started From The Bottom”, now he's firmly part of the A-list.
6 Nicolas Cage
Even though director Francis Ford Coppola might be Nic Cage’s uncle, soon into his career, the actor decided to drop the Coppola in order to (literally) make his own name in Hollywood.
Cage was bitten by the acting bug as a child and studied theater in high school before he dropped out at age 17. He booked a tiny role in Fast Times at Ridgemont High (under the name Nicolas Coppola) but after most of his scenes were cut, the young actor stepped back from the industry and took a job selling popcorn at a movie theater in Los Angeles.
In 1983, he scored big with the movie Valley Girl, which really got his career off and running. After he starred in his uncle’s film Rumble Fish, favorites like Peggy Sue Got Married, Raising Arizona, and Moonstruck followed, as did a long list of movies that spans decades.
5 Jerry O'Connell
If you were around in the ‘80s, then you know Jerry O’Connell as the sweet little troublemaker named Vern from the hit movie, Stand by Me. Although the 12-year-old had officially landed his “big break” with that role, his career as a child actor never really blossomed. Even with My Secret Identity, he couldn’t quite make his success stick.
In the mid-‘90s, a bit older (and slimmer), O’Connell reemerged, starring in the popular sci-fi series Sliders. However, it really wasn’t until 2002, when he starred opposite of Jill Hennessy in Crossing Jordan, that he officially crossed over into the mainstream. His concurrent appearances in Las Vegas further solidified the actor as a hunky leading man, which is now also the case in real-life, after he secured the role of a lifetime as husband to the gorgeous Rebecca Romijn.
4 Cynthia Nixon
Cynthia Nixon may be the Miranda Hobbes for an entire generation of women, but before she found lasting fame playing her iconic role on Sex and the City, this “Little Darling” was plugging away as a young child, trying to break into the business.
Nixon’s first IMDb credit was at age 8, and she continued to work all throughout the ‘80s, but with little to no recognition. She played Sunshine in the popular coming-of-age film Little Darlings, and starred in numerous ABC Afterschool Specials, as well as movies including The Manhattan Project and Let It Ride.
Despite all of her guest starring roles on celebrated TV shows and highly-regarded films, the actress didn’t see stardom until booking the part on the HBO hit series in the ‘90s. Now, it’s a role she will forever be remembered for.
3 Laurence Fishburne
While the actor earned his current A-list status portraying some pretty unforgettable characters, all showcasing his incredible talent, The Matrix star actually got his start back in the ‘60s when he was just a child.
Before School Daze, before The Color Purple, even before Apocalypse Now, Laurence John Fishburne III began his career on stage at the young age of 10. He locked in a part on One Life to Live before he was even a teenager, but as the years went on, despite how much he worked, he couldn’t quite level up.
By 1991, the actor changed his name from Larry to Laurence and soon after, catapulted into stardom. His Oscar nom for 1993’s What's Love Got to Do with It sealed the deal, leading the way for the multiple award-winner to shine in both movies and television.
Most people know Fergie as the girl who got her start with the Black Eyed Peas but Stacy Ann Ferguson took center stage long before she found success as an adult pop sensation. Back in 1984, the vocalist starred in the popular show, Kids Incorporated. As a child actress, she went on to do other series like Mr. Belvedere, Married with Children. and also appeared in the ‘90s teen sitcom, California Dreams.
While the "Glamorous" singer seemed to have gotten off to a rough start acting-wise, she managed to soar to celebrity status in the early 2000s making (or remaking) a name for herself, eventually becoming a superstar. While Fergie never found fame as a child actor, today, she’ll never again have to ask “Where Is The Love?” Certainly, she knows the answer.
1 Robert Downey Jr.
When it comes to A-listers, Robert Downey Jr. is certainly no overnight success. While most of us remember him stepping into the spotlight as a teenager, his very first role was actually in 1970, at the young age of five.
It wasn’t until the ‘80s, when the actor starred in films like Weird Science and The Pick-up Artist, that he essentially began weaving himself into the fabric of pop culture. For the next decade, he rode the Hollywood wave and ended up crashing somewhere in between box office blockbusters and his unsuspecting neighbor’s house.
While Downey fell on some hard times that nearly had him written-off, the Oscar-nominated/Golden Globe-winner came back with a vengeance in the early 2000s, leading to the one of the happiest endings in Hollywood history. Although Downey now plays a superhero in the movies, it’s actually what he has overcome in real life that makes him an idol.
Can you think of any other child actors who didn't earn their A-list status until they became adults? Let us know in the comments!