Growing Pains: When Child Stars Become Adults

The Good, the Bad, and the What Ever Happened To?

by | July 16, 2009 | Comments

Growing up isn’t always easy, so imagine having to grow up on movie screens in front of an audience of millions. Sure, the money probably eases the burden… but we digress.

Watching the Harry Potter kids as Half-Blood Prince rolls out seems to reveal a relatively well-adjusted trio of stars who’ve avoided the pitfalls of celebrity life and kept their wits about them (though not always their clothes, as Daniel Radcliffe showed in his Equus theatre debut).

But how will the kids fare post-Potter? Will they transition successfully into adult roles? We decided to take a look back at 25 memorable child stars — and the courses their careers took.

Natalie Portman

A 12-year-old couldn’t ask for a cooler film debut than that of a gun-toting, Lolita-esque muse to a hardened New York hit man. In 1994’s Leon, Natalie Portman gets to swear, smoke, wear hot pants and learn how to take out a target — only Luc Besson would dare get away with it — thus preparing herself for a successful adult career as the muse of a Sith Lord, a terrorist, and Devendra Banhart. But really, Natalie — what the hell was with Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium?

Edward Furlong

Ah, Eddie. He burst onto screens wearing a Public Enemy T-shirt, robbing ATMs and teaching killer robots how to high five as the young k.d. Lang — sorry, John Connor — in 1991’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day, but the ensuing years have been anything but ‘eeeasy money’. 1998’s trio of Pecker, American History X and Detroit Rock City looked promising, but Furlong’s battle with drugs sidelined his CV — and meant we had to deal with Christian Bale as John Connor in Terminator Salvation. Uh, thanks for that. Still, at least Uwe Boll’s giving him work.

Dakota Fanning

There are those who’ll insist Dakota was never really a child actress — just an adult trapped in a miniature body. True, there’s something eerily preternatural about her performances, even going back to 2001’s I Am Sam — when she was just seven — and she was definitely too old to be playing with pigs and spiders in Charlotte’s Web. But the world wasn’t ready for Dakota to grow up, as the rape-gate controversy over the quickly-shelved Hounddog illustrated. Now, she’s ready for proper young adult, starring in Twilight: New Moon, and as proto-punk ’70s riot grrl Cherie Currie in The Runaways. Hello daddy, hello mom…

Linda Blair

To be fair, Linda Blair was never going to live up to — or live down — her portrayal of The Exorcist‘s Regan, a… ‘troubled’… child given to decorating her bedroom with projectile vomit, descending staircases upside-down, and telling men of the cloth exactly what their mothers liked to suck in Hell. Her roller-skating teenage return in the train wreck Exorcist II quickly gave way to a rut of straight-to-video B-movies in the 1980s, while she later spoofed her most famous role with 1990’s Repossessed!, resurfaced for a cameo in Wes Craven’s Scream, and recently appeared in an episode of TV’s Supernatural. Fitting enough.

Haley Joel Osment

Teenage growth spurts can be painful at the best of times, but when your awkward years are captured in a police mugshot for a DUI, it’s all the worse. That 2006 photo of Haley Joel Osment’s post-car accident arrest stunned everyone who remembered him as the silent, ethereal little boy who saw dead people in The Sixth Sense, played a creepy kinder-droid in Spielberg’s A.I. and then, well… it’s not that HJO disappeared exactly, but did anyone see Home of the Giants? He’s only 21, so let’s give his body time to align and then we’ll see where he goes…

Elizabeth Taylor

Hard to imagine the fabulously over-the-top 77-year-old icon was once a child star, but there it was: baby-faced Liz cuddling up to a border collie in 1943’s Lassie Come Home and a prized horse in 1944’s National Velvet. Her adult career is legendary, of course, with two Best Actress Oscars, star turns in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Giant; not to mention an infamously stormy marriage to Richard Burton and a collection of husbands almost as long as her list of film credits.

Ke Huy Quan

He got his break trying to pick Dr. Jones’ pockets and went on to become the adventurer’s trusted sidekick in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom — proving useful in a lop-sided fight against evil henchmen and wicked Maharaja’s with voodoo dolls — but Ke Huy Quan may just be as fondly remembered as Data, he of the malfunctioning booby-trap gadgets in 1985’s The Goonies. Seems his fight-training paid off, too: he’s since worked as a stunt choreographer on X-Men and Jet Li’s The One.

Kristen Stewart

Okay, so she wasn’t exactly stretched to do much of it in Twilight, but we all knew Kristen Stewart could act — cast your memories back to the barely 12-year-old’s petrified turn as Jodie Foster’s diabetic daughter in David Fincher’s Panic Room and you can see a child actress with an intense range… of fear, at least. No doubt her ex-child prodigy co-star offered her some tips because Kristen’s career has been on a sure and steady climb ever since — with the obligatory kids’ films (the underrated Zathura) giving way to parts in Into the Wild and the Twilight Saga, which has made her one of the world’s most recognizable stars. Next up: loving rock and roll as Joan Jett in The Runaways. Yowl.

Drew Barrymore

Drew’s rise and fall and rise again is the oft-told stuff of pop culture legend: a descendant of the famous Barrymore acting clan, the 7-year-old with the blonde pigtails melted the world’s heart as Gertie in E.T. and, just a few years later, had succumbed to the abyss of Hollywood’s party drugs. Yet what looked like a classic case of child-star burnout turned around in the ’90s — we’re saying precisely at the moment she appeared as a Swedish receptionist in Wayne’s World 2; or gave a ‘revealing’ interview on Letterman — and, post-Charlie’s Angels, Barrymore is a successful producer (thank her for Donnie Darko) and about to be first-time director, with Ellen Page’s all-girl roller derby Whip It! due later this year.

Macaulay Culkin

It’s a filmic image as enduring as Méliès rocket in the Moon, Citizen’s Kane‘s Rosebud or Godard’s Breathless jump cuts: yes, we’re talking about 10-year-old Mac’s hands clasped to his face in Edvard Munch-like horror in Home Alone — arguably the greatest ever moment in cinema history. (What? We poll experts on these things, you know.) Culkin was the biggest thing in child stardom since Shirley Temple and for a brief moment in the early ’90s he reigned supreme: a hit sequel, hangin’ with Michael Jackson; a pretty moving turn in My Girl. But age and — dare we say, a limited acting range — caught up with Culkin, whose roles in the likes of Party Monster required more than cute McCallister face-pulling. We’ll always have his weirdly hot Sonic Youth video, though.

Winona Ryder

“My whole life is a dark room,” deadpanned Winona Ryder as the comically morbid kid in Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice. “One big, dark room.” Okay, so things haven’t gotten quite so grim for “Wino Forever” (as ex Johnny Depp renamed his tattoo of her), but after an opening resume that included Heathers and Edward Scissorhands — and an Oscar nomination for 1994’s Little Women — the actress appears to have steadily drifted sideways, appearing most recently in stuff that’s missed theatrical release altogether. We could make some easy wisecrack about kleptomania here, but whatever she’s doing to keep her looks — it’s clearly working.

Leonardo DiCaprio

Hey, Mr. Serious Scorsese Muse and Eco-Crusader — you were in Critters 3! Yep, Leo’s less-than-auspicious debut predicted little of what his career would become; yet the guy quickly demonstrated his electric talent as a teen in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? and The Basketball Diaries. Titanic teen-idolatry, running with the so-called “Pussy Pack” and overexposure almost finished him, so DiCaprio wisely removed himself from the public eye for a couple of years, reemerging with Spielberg (Catch Me If You Can), Scorsese (Gangs of New York, et al) and Ridley Scott (Body of Lies). What we wouldn’t give to see the dude lighten up a little, though…

Christian Bale

Ben Stiller said that, while working on Empire of the Sun, he conceived the idea for Tropic Thunder, his war-movie satire rife with maniacal, egotistical actors who love to shout a lot. Could he have been reminiscing about his 13-year-old co-star Christian Bale, who hurled perfectly eloquent obscenities at incompetent director Steven Spielberg and ordered John Malkovich to get out of his shot? We’ll never know, but Bale’s performance — based on J.G. Ballard’s memoirs — shows a kid with already enormous intensity. The rest is history — Patrick Bateman, Bruce Wayne, Reign of Fire. What’s that, you don’t remember that movie? Helicopters and dragons — together? Bale is next up in Public Enemies, and is filming The Fighter with David O. Russell.

Judy Garland

Dead at age 47 from a drug overdose, Judy Garland’s was a tumultuous career marked by dizzying highs — and tragic lows. Already a child star at MGM in the ’30s, she may have been 17 by the time she stepped down the Yellow Brick Road as Dorothy, but her role in The Wizard of Oz is immortalized among the great childhood performances. Garland’s adult career was marred by pills and alcohol abuse — some claimed the studios insisted she was overweight, leading to her self-destructive binges — and the actress attempted suicide several times. Yet with 1954’s A Star Is Born she emerged triumphant — only to be gone, sadly, just a few years later.

Jodie Foster

Stick with psychos, kids, and you’ll do just fine. 13-year-old Jodie Foster’s big break (and first Oscar nomination) came as Travis Bickle’s obsession — a preteen prostitute in Taxi Driver — and she would go on to win her two adult Oscars playing a rape victim in The Accused and matching wits with Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs. (On the other hand, a Foster-fixated wackjob did attempt to assassinate ex-President Ronald Reagan by claiming the actress made him do it.) Still at the top of her game, Foster will next direct Mel Gibson in The Beaver (jokes after class, please). But would everything have been different if Disney had released her from her contract for a shot at Princess Leia?

Jake Lloyd

You kinda have to feel a bit bad for Jake Lloyd: aside from his CGI Rasta pal Jar Jar Binks, the young Anakin Skywalker copped a large percentage of the flak from incensed fan-boys demanding a refund for their violated childhoods in the fallout from Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace. And that was more or less it for Lloyd, who seemed none-too-fussed about the whole thing — as this candid interview reveals — and headed off to college (as a film major, no less). Then again, we’re sure the merchandising royalties from one of the ten highest-grossing films of all time will ease his bad memories.

Natalie Wood

Her role in 1947’s holiday classic Miracle on 34th Street would have sealed her movie memory, but child star Natalie Wood was only beginning — it was her roles as a young woman that will be best remembered. Over the next two decades she starred opposite James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause, headlined musical gem West Side Story, and appeared alongside Warren Beatty in Splendor in the Grass (both from 1961). Her later career was less eventful, save for the fact that, well, she drowned — at just age 42, having filmed her last role opposite Christopher Walken in the sci-fi Brainstorm.

Kirsten Dunst

“I want some more,” hissed Kirsten Dunst’s tortured bloodsucker in Interview With the Vampire, all golden tresses and dripping red fangs like some Shirley Temple of the underworld. And she got it: after doing kid duties in films like Jumanji and Small Soldiers, she transitioned elegantly into quality teen roles both haunting (The Virgin Suicides) and archly bubble-headed (Bring It On). Spider-Man, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Marie Antoinette would follow, confirming her place as one of her generation’s most talented.

Shia LaBeouf

“Who is this guy and how does he seem to be everywhere all of a sudden?” exclaimed some as the teenager apparently groomed by Dreamworks for instant stardom started opening number one films with Disturbia and Transformers and landing the plum role as Jones Junior Junior in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Shia’s success wasn’t quite overnight, however: he’d done his time on Disney’s TV series Even Stevens, appeared in kids’ film Holes, and guested on episodes of The X-Files and Freaks and Geeks. Now, he’s the more or less the biggest star in the universe — whether you like it or not.

Christina Ricci

Miss Ricci’s always had a thing for the dark side — she was, after all, the sardonic face of Wednesday Addams in the two films of the classic TV series, before taking the Tim Burton rite-of-passage opposite Johnny Depp in Sleepy Hollow. But even that couldn’t prepare us for the emotionally dark places the actress was drawn to: from her precocious role in Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm to her lascivious entrapper in The Opposite Sex, Ricci has shown she’s willing to bare her soul — and, in Black Snake Moan, everything else — for her art. Plus, her haircut might have been the best thing about Speed Racer

Anna Paquin

Winning an Oscar at 12 — the second-youngest actress to do so — for The Piano in 1994 was either a ticket to a downhill ride or the beginning of something illustrious. In truth, Anna Paquin’s career since has been a mixed bag, her most visible work being her role as Rogue in the X-Men trilogy. Beyond the franchise, though, she’s shown range in smaller films (Almost Famous, the excellent The Squid and the Whale) and her current gig headlining TV’s True Blood has seen her maintain her profile. Not so sure about the hair.

Corey Feldman

As one half — the more charismatic half, you say? — of late ’80s teen heartthrobs the Coreys, Feldman and his screen pal Haim were cemented onto bedroom walls and into a time and place that it was always going to be tough to escape from (just try to watch 1995’s Dream A Little Dream 2 — we dare you). Long before that particular dreamboat ran aground, though, Corey Feldman had appeared in a bunch of the ’80s most cherished films: there he is playing with Gizmo in Gremlins, shooting his mouth off in The Goonies and coming of age in Stand By Me. The Lost Boys should have made him a star. So what happened? May we direct you to last year’s Lost Boys: The Tribe, perhaps?

Carrie Henn

Who could forget wide-eyed, pint-sized lost urchin Newt in Aliens? (Well, who but David Fincher, anyway, who decided to reintroduce her as a frozen corpse in Alien 3). In many ways she was the soul of James Cameron’s revered sci-fi sequel, compelling Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley to motherhood instinct action and inspiring the movie’s great line: “Get away from her, you bitch!” So, with just the one movie to her credit — and what a movie at that — it makes you wonder where she vanished to. The answer: Henn, now 33, is a school teacher. (Thanks to Cplbeaudoin for the photo).

Tatum O’Neal

Sorry, Anna Paquin: Tatum O’Neal was all of 10 when she won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in Paper Moon, the 1973 hit in which she played a diminutive grifter opposite her dad, Ryan. Unfortunately it was to be the high point of her career. After a couple of teen turns in The Bad News Bears and International Velvet, Tatum became better known for her marriage to tennis bad-boy John McEnroe, and — if Michael Jackson’s 2002 reminiscence is to be believed — she was the raunchy starlet who attempted to deflower the shy young music star. O’Neal’s recent drug busts for crack possession put her a long way from the glory child actor days, though she continues to get TV work.

Shirley Temple

The Queen Bee of child movie stars, Shirley Temple began her acting training at age three, and was a star at six, going on to appear in a string of popular hits during the 1930s. In 1935 — now the ripe old age of seven — the golden-curled one received a special ‘miniature’ Oscar from the Academy for her contributions. Now that’s one good ship lollipop. You can’t blame her from retiring from movies in 1949 — aged 21.

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