Are Child Actresses Safer Bets For Long Careers?

Do child actresses go on to have bigger, better careers than child actors? I’m thinking here of performers who start their careers with major roles on TV or in movies as a pre-teen or young teenager. And, by ‘bigger, better’ I mean that they increase or at least maintain their level of artistic accomplishment, in terms of the size and frequency of roles, as adults.

Let’s look at a few examples:

  • Anna Paquin – Wins an Oscar at the age of 11 for The Piano.
  • Drew Barrymore – In Altered States at five years old (how big was her role?), then E.T. at seven.
  • Natalie Portman – Stars in Léon at 14.
  • Scarlett Johansson – I can’t speak to her career before The Horse Whisperer at 14, but she’s been acting since she was 10.
  • Kirsten Dunst – Has a major role in Interview a Vampire at the age of 12.

Now, who are the equivalent male actors? It seems to me that most leading men’s first recognizable role is as an adult. There are only a few that I can think of: Ron Howard, Jason Bateman (what was his first big role?)…who else?

It’s much easier to think of the misses: Corey Haim, Corey Feldamn, Wil Wheaton, Henry Thomas, Gary Coleman, Jake Lloyd, Haley Joel Osment and so forth.

I’m sure we can produce a similar list of misses for actresses, but the names don’t spring to mind as easily.

Do you think there’s any merit to this thesis? If so, why does it occur? Maybe it’s just a question of girls maturing faster than boys, and therefore dealing with their stardom better? Or maybe if a girl is pretty at 10 or 12, she’s going to be attractive at 25, while boys don’t develop as reliably?


  1. You can go back further, too: Elizabeth Taylor, Judy Garland, Natalie Wood, Jodie Foster, Diane Lane, Helen Hunt, Sarah Jessica Parker, et. al.

    Wikipedia, of course, has a big list. Not a small number of men who’ve gone on to longer careers too, including ones I wouldn’t expect, like Christopher Walken and Buster Keaton.

  2. It seems to be true. If I’m not mistaken Kurt Russell was a child actor. And you can’t forget Ricy Shroeder from Silver Spoons.

    1. I thought about Ricky Schroeder. I guess he barely qualifies as having an adequate adult career, though not on the meteoric rise of the women I’ve mentioned.

  3. I’m interested you see Wil Wheaton as a miss. I guess he’s not a mainstream actor, but I think he’s doing pretty well. Also…did you see the Funny or Die sendup of Ralph Macchio’s failure to garner attention as a wash-out? Pretty funny stuff.


    1. Indeed, that’s the case for Mr. Wheaton. He’s succeeded in a variety of ways, but none of them involve acting. In fact, watching any of his performances, I’d say acting didn’t come naturally to him.

  4. Christian Bale has done quite well for himself. He started out in Empire of the Sun and Henry V (plus some TV work) and I think he may still be acting!

  5. Probably just as many girls…maybe more. Although, true the names don’t come to mind as easily…

    Dakota Fanning seems to be making the transition, too…(perhaps too soon to tell).

  6. I was going to say Christian Bale as well. Brilliant in everything I’ve seen him in. I think a re-watching of Empire of the Sun is in order.

    1. Thanks for the lists. I don’t know about all the names, but I don’t think Anthony Michael Hall qualifies. His first break was at 16, and his adult career doesn’t stand up to the popularity of his early movies.

      I discounted River Phoenix because he wasn’t permitted to have much of an adult life.

      Michael J. Fox was 24 when he did “Back to the Future”, so I don’t think he counts.

      Heath Ledger was 20 when he did “10 Things I Hate About You”, which seems to have been his North American debut.

      According to IMDB, Russell Crowe didn’t really start acting until his mid-twenties.

  7. Russell Crowe’s first role listed in IMDB was when he was eight. Health Ledger was 13, Michael J Fox was 12, as was Anthony Michael Hall. I’m betting all started long before that.

    River Phoenix qualifies because he had not only had adult roles prior to his death, but was noted as being an extremely good actor.

    1. I should have clarified in my original post. I’m interested in a child actor’s “big break” role, not a local children’s show or a bit part. Had you seen Michael J. Fox before “Back to the Future”?

      That is, when did the child actor rise to popularity, and how did that popularity compare with their adult career.

      For the women I named in their original post, I was highlighting what I thought was their first big role as children.

  8. Fox’s first big role was “Family Ties,” but he was 20 (playing 16 or 17) when the show premiered.

    I think we need tighter parameters on what you mean by adult success: Anna Paquin won an Oscar at 11, but her adult career looks more like Rick Schroeder’s (tv stars both) than Kirsten Dunst’s (Spider-Man).

    Also, I’d suggest that most of your male misses are memorable because they were memorable flame-outs. Willie Aames and Adam Rich don’t spring to mind, right? (though Dana Plato is an example of a memorable-flame-out actress)

    There’s a chance what you’re seeing is the inherently greater self-destructiveness of young men versus young women, so Tina Yothers and Danica McKellar quietly go on to parenthood and obscure careers, while Osment flips his car over.

    If you wanted to put some numbers on it, I’d take the aforelinked Wiki list, see how many of the actors were in a big-budget studio release (or successful primetime drama) after the age of 25, and count up the male and female success ratios. It would take an hour or two, but give you a defensible number.

    1. Yep, I agree that it’s mostly down to male self-destructiveness. Also that young women tend to be naturally better actors than young men. Finally, perhaps the artistic demands placed on child actresses are greater, so they tend to prove their capability and stickiness?

      Yeah, Paquin is a bit fuzzy, though there’s no denying that TV has moved closer to film in terms of its importance or authority in our culture. So a starring role in a TV show is ‘worth’ a little more in 2010 than it would be ten years ago. I’d also say that her film work has been more prominent than Schroeder’s over the last decade.

  9. Here’s my theory:

    Because the ratio of parts for men to women (boys to girls?) is approx. 517:1 (actual math may vary), I am inclined to think that Casting identifies future leading ladies in childhood.

    Playing leads gives you skills you aren’t called to learn in character roles. The experience these child actresses gain in moving from project to project, playing the young heroine, builds their resumes over the course of 10-15 years, setting them up for a better chance of success (I think we agree on the definition) in adulthood.

    Casting typically only needs one pretty blonde to play the leading lady / young heroine for the audience to focus on. Hayden Panettiere in Heroes, Kirsten Dunst in Interview W.A.V., _____ Mitchell in V (drawing a blank on her first name), etc. etc.

    Digression: When I think about this phenomenon I am reminded of Helene Cixous’ essay, “La Mer” I think is the title, where she observes, “It is always necessary for the woman to die in order for the play to begin”. = Storytelling needs a focus, and that focus is the object of male desire, the blonde woman.

    Many more casting opportunities exist for boys, so there’s scope for “character boys”. Think “Chunk” from The Goonies, etc. Boys don’t have to be pretty blondes to be cast, because casting needs the audience to be able to tell the boys in the gang apart; for instance, “The Outsiders”.

    While there is much more work for boys in general, character boys aren’t called to the same level of responsibility / given the same story-carrying focus as young leading men (like Christian Bale, f.i.) and definitely not as much as young leading women. So while many more male child actors have occasion to come to the attention of the audience / public, I suspect that their career paths vary so widely because 4/5 of them are character boys, with the potential limits that being slotted into that pigeonhole presents.

    Must note: of _course_ there are exceptions to this “character boys” theory, f.i. Jerry O’Connell.

    As this is already quite long enough, with the exception of Drew Barrymore, let’s not even delve into the topic of “character girls” 😉

    For your consideration!


  10. I love, love, love that the girl from Blossom grew up to be a neuroscientist and then stopped her career to have children, because she disagreed with how science has little accommodation for parents who want to be involved in their children’s lives. I assume her first career provides her with the income to do what she wants, but the woman has guts.

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