The successful career paths of 7 Hollywood child stars

Odd List NP Horton 3 Apr 2013 - 05:30

With the arrival of Spring Breakers imminent, Nick looks at seven former child stars who've gone on to enjoy film careers as grown-ups...

Making a name for yourself while young is definitely an appealing way to get into the acting business, for pushy parents and wannabe stars alike. The pros are obvious – fame and fortune at a young age, established links with the industry, and an early chance to make your mark. But for many, being a child star is the only thing they know, and once adulthood comes around, there goes the career.

Options can become limited once you’ve gone past your cute sell by date (just ask Macaulay Culkin), so is it any wonder that Vanessa Hudgens, Selena Gomez and Ashley Benson have decided to explode their child star image by starring in boundary pushing and very adult Spring Breakers? Going against type has paid off spectacularly for them, as Spring Breakers has already become one of 2013’s must-see movies. But what of other former child and teen idols? Here’s a quick look at how they chose to leave their squeaky clean image behind, and begin new life as respected (or not) adult actor.

Zac Efron (b. 1987)

The new role model for Disney stars who want to be taken seriously. Efron made his name in 2006 in the first of the unstoppable High School Musical films (alongside Hudgens) and earned the Teen Choice Breakout Star award, of which there is no higher accolade from youngsters. However, it was clear that Efron desired more than the everlasting devotion of teens and sought to spread his wings a bit, first with a role in the 2007 film version of Hairspray.

While not exactly straying too far from the formula, he followed that up with 2009’s teen body swap comedy 17 Again (much better than it should be) and hosting duties on Saturday Night Live, and a very amusing Funny Or Die skit entitled Zac Efron’s Pool Party. But this wasn’t quite enough to push him away from his teen idol status. For that, he needed The Paperboy (2012), Lee Daniels' follow-up to Precious. And he needed Nicole Kidman to wee on him (in the film anyway). Mission accomplished, Zac: you’re a bona fide ‘real’ actor now.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt (b. 1981)

Famous as the sweet mop-topped teen Tommy from 3rd Rock From The Sun (1996 onwards), viewers back in the 90s would have little idea that the boy who graced the pages of teen magazines but often shunned the limelight would become JGL – Hollywood darling.

Taking his first steps into the film world via roles as a loveable loser in 10 Things I Hate About You (1999) didn’t really change public opinion about him, so off he went to college for a bit, studied French Poetry, and then decided to return to acting, except this time with a stated desire to be ‘in good movies’. This led him to take on the part of the mentally disturbed violent teen Lyle in 2001’s Manic, a role which reshaped his career. Angry and disaffected, it showed there was far more than a decent ability to deliver a scripted one-liner.

Following that up a few years later with his breakout turn in high-school noir Brick (2004), as the genuinely dangerous and charismatic Brendan, suddenly it was no longer a case of ‘look at Tommy from 3rd Rock’, but rather, ‘what’s JGL going to do next?’ Probably play Batman if Christian Bale doesn’t fancy it is the answer there.

Thora Birch (b. 1982)

A child star of adverts, Thora Birch seamlessly transitioned into child roles in films, landing a run which included Paradise (1991), All I Want For Christmas (1991), Hocus Pocus (1993), and a recurring role as Jack Ryan’s daughter in Patriot Games (1992) and Clear & Present Danger (1994). So far, so wholesome. So it was something of a pleasant surprise when she astounded critics with a magnificent turn as the alienated and disaffected Jane Burnham in American Beauty (1999), outshining the mighty Kevin Spacey with a part played with restraint and intelligence.

She followed that up two years later with an even better performance in Ghost World (2001), as trapped teenager Enid, making sure the audience feels her adolescent pain while maintaining a healthy dose of wry observation. However, in the fickle world of film, a successful child career followed by two breakout adult roles does not equal guaranteed mainstream work, as Birch has sadly slipped down the pecking order and into DTV movies (and being fired from an off-Broadway revival of Dracula: a low-point in anyone’s book).

Josh Brolin (b. 1968)

Pretty much everyone who starred in The Goonies (1985) faced an uphill battle to establish themselves beyond that film. It’s a microcosm of the child star dilemma – famous for being them, and not cared about if they try to be anything else.

Josh Brolin could have easily ended up being nothing more than a ‘what happened to…’ story as he followed up his role as Brand Walsh with the horrible skating film Thrashin’. But luckily for him, he landed a part as the dangerous, roguish, but well-meaning Wild Bill Hickok in the 1989 ABC series The Young Riders – a character that obliterated his past as a Goonie and paved the way for critical adulation nearly two decades later in No Country For Old Men (2007). Brolin’s is definitely the way to do it, as it’s always a surprise to find out about his former child star status. No jokes about Brolin - that’s how much I respect him.

Lindsay Lohan (1986)

We know, it’s an obvious one – but to talk about child stars who try to change their image without mentioning LiLo seems a bit remiss. Lohan became the child star with her role in Disney’s The Parent Trap (1998), then landed another hit with Freaky Friday (2003) followed by a squeaky clean turn in Herbie: Fully Loaded (2005). If that wasn’t enough, she seemed to make a transition into more edgy roles via Mean Girls (2004), but that that obviously wasn’t enough for Lohan, who definitely wanted to shed her child star image.

If a litany of arrests over drink and drugs wasn’t enough to convince everyone she was now an adult, she decided to shock everyone with a grown-up film part as a stripper. While a tried and tested method for other former teen stars (Elizabeth Berkley, Jessica Biel), LiLo chose I Know Who Killed Me (2007) to show off her moves. It’s one of the worst films of all time. Recently she was arrested in New York for apparently getting into a bar fight over Max George from The Wanted. Which is as amazing as it is ridiculous. Good job she’s got The Canyons to rely on later this year…

Kieran Culkin (b. 1982)

Maybe he learnt to avoid the pitfalls from watching his older brother’s failure to turn world domination as a child into a meaningful career. While never quite as mega-famous as a kid, Kieran was still pretty well known from roles in Home Alone (1990), and Father Of The Bride (1991). Turning adorable into edgy requires a powerhouse performance in a film which gets noticed, and Kieran managed that with Igby Goes Down (2002), channelling bored and disaffected into critical gold.

Firmly establishing him as a new talent to watch, Culkin promptly disappeared for the best part of a decade before re-emerging as a comic talent in Scott Pilgrim Vs The World (2010), pretty much stealing the film as Scott’s gay best friend and roommate Wallace. Let’s hope he sticks around this time.

Alyssa Milano (b. 1972)

Big in the States but unknown in the UK, 80s sitcom Who’s The Boss launched a tiny Alyssa Milano into stardom, playing smart good-girl Samantha Micelli. This led to her starring as Arnie’s kidnapped daughter in 1985’s Commando (a strong candidate for Arnie’s finest action movie) and cementing her place as the nation’s favourite screen daughter. So what to do when your cash cow comes to an end?

Facing the numbing prospect of going back to school, Milano instead decided to star in several B-movies which could definitely be described as ‘erotic thrillers’, including Embrace Of The Vampire, Deadly Sins (both 1995), and the franchise that keeps on giving child stars adult roles, 1996’s Poison Ivy II (Drew Barrymore had used the original Poison Ivy to reinvent herself). It’s no wonder she decided to head back into the safe embrace of a network show after that, with the role of witchy Phoebe Halliwell in Charmed, where she spent the next decade becoming a powerful player in the entertainment industry, and making sure all her future roles had a no-nudity clause.

Honourable Mentions

Anna Chlumsky: From super cute kid in Uncle Buck and the eponymous girl in My Girl, to spouting ‘fuck-a-deedoo-dah, fuck-a-dee-ay!’ in Veep.

Elijah Wood: From Thora Birch’s cute co-star in Paradise, to getting his finger bitten off as a Ring-corrupted Frodo in The Lord Of The Rings.

Spencer Treat Clark: From Bruce Willis’ adoring son in Unbreakable to pot-smoking hill-billy with the family from hell in the remake of Last House On The Left.

Christian Bale: From scared war child Jim Graham in Empire Of The Sun, to psychotic Wall Street killer Patrick Bateman in American Psycho.

Emily Browning: From the orphan child who Jim Carrey creepily tries to marry in Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events to sedated sex worker in the disturbing Sleeping Beauty.

Christina Ricci: From the scene-stealing Wednesday Addams, to several impressive movies, and the TV show Pan Am.

Spring Breakers is out on the 5th April in UK cinemas.

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What? No Will Wheaton?

I'm incredibly surprised Kurt Russell didn't even make the honorable mentions. He's pretty much the definition of a child star who went on to become a successful actor.

Spring Breakers - "one of 2013's must see movies". Don't think I've heard Den talk like that about many movies. Especially one so out of norm, managing 67% on rotten tomatoes (fairly good I agree, but not great), and heavily promo'd by other luminaries as 'Nuts' magazine. Either it is brilliant or you've taken the check for the banner advertisment bit close to heart.

At least three of the honourable mentions are far more relevant to the full article

Drew Barrymore, Jodie Foster, Christina revised list please!

I remember watching Who's the Boss At tea time on ITV in the UK and it was far superior to the utterly dreadful Upper Hand remake. Since then I've loved watching anything Alyssa Milano's been in

Talk about the goonies, Sean Astin is another child actor who did well

Some of these child stars weren't exactly obsessed over when they were young, because they only had one movie. I can understand a TV show, because there are multiple episodes/seasons. But one movie doesn't establish someone. Hell, even Efron and Culkin had sequels to backup their performances and appeal.


"Culkin promptly disappeared for the best part of a decade before re-emerging as a comic talent in Scott Pilgrim Vs The World"

The very definition of the word success

Same goes for a lot of other ex child stars that aren't mentioned, including Ron Howard, Jodie Foster, and Natalie Portman, Anne Hathaway, Dakota and Elle Fanning, (scratch that, I think Elle Fanning is still a minor...), and lots more.. I wonder how they picked which actors to cover. Lindsay Lohan and Joseph Gordon-Levitt are natural choices, sure. But some of the others barely have a career.

Reportedly many of Thora Birch's problems stem from her highly domineering father/manager.

How has Joaquin Phoenix been missed off the list?

Anyone remeber a little cult classic called 'Space Camp' in 1986? This is an odd list that has been compiled. It's half filled with actors who do not have a career anymore.

Lest us not forget that Zac Efron made his acting debut in Firefly

Emily Browning is an interesting case actually. She's tried way too hard to get away from her child roles. After A Series of Unfortunate Events established her, she danced about in fetish gear for Sucker Punch and then let herself get fiddled with in her sleep for Sleeping Beauty. All three, incidentally, are rubbish films.

>Successful career paths
>Lindsay Lohan

JGL is the only one who's an outright star now.

Who's the boss unknown in the UK ? where were you during the 80's I think every young lad had a crush for Alyssa during the show's run

I was going to write some snark, but decided to do some research first. Sure enough, he has done a little more recently than appear on Big Bang Theory and hang out at ComicCon. I'm sure he can pay his bills, so that's definitely success in Hollywood and TV land.

He'll always be the annoying Wes Crusher to me though :-)

And Efron appeared in Firefly, so...

I think you can also count Christian Bale…although how he made an honorable mention instead of the main list I have no idea.

No mention of her turn on bay watch.

Brolin's a bigger star (and an Oscar-nominated one at that) than JGL.

Jodie Foster has to be the proper poster girl for this list...

A Series of Unfortunate Events battered and twisted the three books upon which it was based into a messy hodge-podge of a film that is only worth watching for Jim Carrey being at his hammy best.

Sucker Punch is hateful. It was Zack Snyder channeling the masturbation fantasies of his 12 year-old self.

Sucker Punch is quite simply one of the biggest disappointments for me loved the trailer, was eagerly waiting to see it only for it to be one of the worst films I have ever seen

Ok, so I must have the fantasies of a 12 year old boy, because I love this movie and watch it quite often ! The visuals, the music, the story, the fights, hot school girl fighting samurai robots... Just perfect for me ! ^^

Visuals, tick. The music, hyper-active and irritating. The fights, fun until your mind drifts back to the fact they're occurring in the mind of a very young looking girl doing an erotic dance.

It's difficult to enjoy a film when you're forever questioning the integrity of the film maker's motives.

You're overanalysing it ! Well ok, you don't like the video clip aspect of it and dislike the songs. But "the fact they're occurring in the mind of a very young looking girl doing an erotic dance." Uuuh, that's precisely what was great about this scenes. Hot young girls fighting evil.

I felt like it was a deeply nasty film that fetishised uncomfortably young looking girls and hid that behind flashy visuals and music video editing.

I think I'm simply too geeky and pervert, so this movie was perfect for me. I didn't feel "uncomfortable" at all. And I had to rewatch the movie to understand it because I was totally lost the first time. It's another reason why I love this movie, I like to think about a movie all day to try to make it work in my head and have to discuss it with friends to share our theories.

I think having a single theory about Sucker Punch is over-praising the thing. It was a lame-brained, sleazy movie.

Ron Howard! My mind skipped over him first time through. Another that could be added would be Jackie Coogan, imo.

The SUCCESSFUL career path of Lindsay Lohan?

Even for a crappy blog that is a ridiculous statement. She is the very epitome of a child star that did not make the transition into adult star...and in the worst possible way.
Why not include Dana Plato and Todd Bridges on this list. How about Gary Coleman too! Let's thrown in the whole cast of Diff'rent Strokes. Maybe Danny Bonaduce too!

How is Lindsay Lohan a natural choice for this article? She is the natural choice for the OPPOSITE of this article. It wouldn't surprise me if they made a video to show to all children getting started in the industry and she was in the "Don't be like this" segment

He is a crappy blogger...which means he doesn't make enough money to pay ALL his bills each month. So of course he is taking kickbacks.

Which is less than appearing in one movie.

They probably didn't mention it since she was never ON Baywatch.

My bad. I was thinking Nicole Eggert who was a child actress in Charles in Charge. She was also in Who's the Boss with Alysa.

Ok, so how r Christian Bale & Elijah Wood honorable mentions? And how is Jodie Foster not mentioned at all????

sure, there's Jodie Foster, Natalie Portman, but these did films rather than TV. The Olsen twins kinda faded, but are still worth about 300 million?

All the other childstars from that show really faded, some into drugs etc.
We love to see kid stars succeed, but the mean public loves it even more when they utterly fail. Which is we see LiLo all the time.

LiLo is too, successful, she still gets parts that many actresses don't.

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