The life of a child star is a very difficult one. No one under the age of twenty is properly equipped to be in the spotlight and in the public eye. It’s not what children are built for. They’re young and naive. But still, movies and TV shows need kids in them, so kids are cast in the roles and get thrust into the spotlight and surrounded by paparazzi. It’s more than some kids can handle, because let’s face it, they’re just kids. That’s why so many child actors have burned out as they enter into adulthood and stop being cute. Macaulay Culkin went from being that adorable little rascal from Home Alone and Uncle Buck to being an unusual twentysomething who looks like a serial killer and disappeared from the Hollywood radar. Henry Thomas starred in E.T. the Extra Terrestrial, the highest grossing movie of all time, and pretty much never appeared in anything ever again. The two Coreys went from being teen heartthrobs starring in every other movie throughout the 1980s to being virtually unknown. Who knows what will happen to the cast of Stranger Things? Or all of the kids from the new It movie? There are those rare few child actors who go on to have successful careers as adults, so it is possible. Here are the 10 most famous ones!
10. Winona Ryder
Millennials will recognize Winona Ryder as Joyce Byers from their favorite Netflix show Stranger Things, but she made her name way back in the ‘80s, when she was a teenager. She made a splash as the goth girl in Tim Burton’s weird little fantasy horror movie Beetlejuice and Michael Lehmann’s fierce black comedy Heathers. She was a huge star in the media throughout the ’90s, as the tabloid press followed her relationship with fellow actor Johnny Depp intently, and then her arrest for shoplifting in 2001 was just the icing on the cake for the paparazzi. In the 1990s, when she was starring in moody movies like Edward Scissorhands and Dracula and particularly Reality Bites, Winona Ryder became a kind of sex symbol for Generation X, but after her arrest for shoplifting, Hollywood turned against her, and for the first time since the beginning of her career, she struggled for work. In the early 2010s, she started making a comeback with roles in movies like The Dilemma and Black Swan and Frankenweenie, but she didn’t manage to seriously re-solidify her status as a star until the Duffer brothers cast her in the ‘80s-homaging Netflix science fiction horror series Stranger Things, which will be back for its third season later this year.
9. Haley Joel Osment
Haley Joel Osment got very lucky with his roles in the 1990s. He played the title character’s son in Forrest Gump and a cybernetic Pinocchio in Steven Spielberg’s critically acclaimed sci-fi drama A.I., and got his breakout part in M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense, in which he plays a boy who can communicate with the dead. The movie quickly became one of the highest grossing movies of all time and garnered a mountain of glowing reviews from critics. Osment’s role in The Sixth Sense earned him a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor at the age of eleven, making him the second youngest nominee in the category of all time, after Justin Henry from Kramer vs Kramer, who was eight when he was nominated. For years, Haley Joel Osment has been remembered as the kid from The Sixth Sense and hadn’t really been able to carve out a career as an adult (especially since he didn’t exactly grow into his adorable, innocent, childlike face, and therefore still looks like a kid in an adult body), but in recent years, he’s been doing just that. He’s been reinventing himself as a star of cool, quirky comedy movies with roles in films like Tusk, Sex Ed, the movie version of Entourage, Me Him Her, and Yoga Hosers. Plus, later this year, he’ll be appearing in Zac Efron’s Ted Bundy movie Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile as a detective.
8. Kurt Russell
Kurt Russell has been in show business for over fifty years, because he started as a kid. Since it’s been so long since he was a child star, it’s easy to forget that he ever was one. But way, way back in the 1960s, Russell started out as a kid starring in western series on TV, before signing a contract with The Walt Disney Company to make a bunch of movies with them throughout the 1970s. TCM host Robert Osborne called him the “studio’s top star of the ‘70s.” In other words, Kurt Russell was once the Disney star that Miley Cyrus was. He was the face of their company for a whole decade. And then in the ‘80s, as an adult, Russell seamlessly transitioned from child actor to adult action star in movies like Tango and Cash and The Thing and Escape from New York, and then came the genre pieces like Backdraft and Stargate and Tombstone. In recent years, he’s made a comeback as a blockbuster star – he has a supporting role in The Fast and the Furious movies, he played the villain in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, and he played one of the lead roles in Quentin Tarantino’s snowbound boiling pot western The Hateful Eight. Aspiring actors dream of having a tenth of the career that Kurt Russell has had.
7. Leonardo DiCaprio
It could be argued that Leonardo DiCaprio is the biggest movie star in the world right now. He’s earned himself the right to do artsy kinds of movies and turn them into blockbusters. Normal movie stars have to do a superhero movie that makes $500 million before the studios let them make a historical western epic. But Leonardo DiCaprio, he can make a historical western epic that does make $500 million – and win an Oscar for it. Fans had been waiting for Leo to win an Oscar for twenty years. He was nominated four times before he finally won. That’s Leo as an adult – the outspoken environmentalist who tells important stories and delivers powerhouse performances. But that wasn’t always the case. He started out as a kid on the sitcom Growing Pains, where he played one of Mike’s students in the seventh and final season. It’s hard to imagine the guy from Catch Me If You Can and The Wolf of Wall Street in a network sitcom, but that’s how it all started. DiCaprio’s talent was clear, and tragic roles in heartfelt drama movies like Romeo + Juliet, Titanic, This Boy’s Life, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, and The Basketball Diaries quickly followed. And then the DiCaprio that we know and love today was born when he started working with Martin Scorsese.
6. Natalie Portman
As an adult, Natalie Portman has won an Oscar for her turn in Darren Aronofsky’s dark tale Black Swan as a resentful ballet dancer, starred as the mother of Luke and Leia in the Star Wars prequels, and brought the life of Jackie Kennedy to the silver screen. But it all started when she was thirteen years old, when she played the orphaned protégé of a ruthless assassin opposite Jean Reno and Gary Oldman in the action-packed thriller Leon: The Professional. Even as her acting career boomed throughout the 1990s and the 2000s, Portman managed to squeeze in enough studies to earn a degree from Harvard University. Natalie Portman has made movies for all kinds of audiences: Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium for kids, The Other Boleyn Girl for sophisticated adults, No Strings Attached for less than sophisticated adults, Thor for nerds, Star Wars for ultra nerds, V for Vendetta for anarchists – she appeals across the board. This year, she’ll be seen in Alex Garland’s thought-provoking science fiction thriller Annihilation, the musical drama Vox Lux, and the Canadian drama film The Death and Life of John F. Donovan, the story of a disgraced magazine publisher in which she’ll star alongside Wonder’s Jacob Tremblay, Westworld’s Thandie Newton, Game of Thrones’ Kit Harington, and screen legends Susan Sarandon and Kathy Bates. Not bad for a former child actor.
5. Christian Bale
Yes, Batman was once a child star, too. He may have gone on to play the Caped Crusader in Christopher Nolan’s masterful superhero epics and win an Oscar for The Fighter and go viral for an outburst on the set of Terminator: Salvation, but he started off as the Welsh kid in Empire of the Sun. He was just thirteen at the time, beating out over four thousand competitors for the role, and the rest is history. He played a young boy who ends up in a Japanese internment camp during the Second World War, and despite his young age, his performance was so powerful that he’s been getting steady work ever since. His blockbuster roles in the 2000s have given way to more artistic and meaningful work in the 2010s. Bale has told important true stories on the screen, like the story of the ABSCAM operation in American Hustle or the story of the 2008 banking crisis in The Big Short. He also just starred in a critically acclaimed western called Hostiles and has worked with such fantastic directors as Terrence Malick, Ridley Scott, David O. Russell, Michael Mann, Werner Herzog, John Singleton, and Todd Haynes. This year, we will see Bale take on the role of former Vice President Dick Cheney in a satirical biopic called Backseat, directed by Anchorman’s Adam McKay.
4. Jodie Foster
Jodie Foster started her career as a child actor on the right foot. When she was twelve years old, she appeared in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, one of Martin Scorsese’s earliest films. And then right after that, when she had established a working relationship with an emerging visionary, she starred alongside Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel in Taxi Driver, perhaps Scorsese’s first true masterpiece. She played a teenage prostitute in the movie, and brought a childlike innocence to the role that genuinely makes you empathize with her. Her performance in Taxi Driver was so great that it inspired John Hinckley, Jr. to try and kill the President of the United States, just to impress her! That’s quite a way to start your career as a movie star. Foster would go on to have a very prosperous career as an adult actor, winning the Academy Award for Best Actress twice, for playing a marginalized female FBI agent in The Silence of the Lambs and for playing a rape victim in The Accused. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, Jodie Foster was one of the biggest stars in the film industry, with starring roles in movies like Contact and Panic Room and Elysium and Inside Man. More recently, she has successfully moved into directing, with quirky, wonderful movies like The Beaver and Money Monster, as well as the powerful tale of parenthood that is the Black Mirror episode “Arkangel.”
3. Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Child Joseph Gordon-Levitt and adult Joseph Gordon-Levitt almost seem like two completely different people. They don’t look anything alike and they do totally different projects. Child Joseph Gordon-Levitt used to do crowd pleasers, while adult Joseph Gordon-Levitt does quirkier, darker stuff. As a child, he starred as Tommy Solomon on the sitcom 3rd Rock from the Sun and appeared in the iconic teen romantic comedy 10 Things I Hate About You. But as an adult, he’s moved on to more serious stuff. As Gordon-Levitt matured, his work matured with him. This may be the key to finding success as an adult when you’ve been famous as a child. Adult Joseph Gordon-Levitt reinvented himself in the bittersweet, melancholic, quirky indie romantic comedy (500) Days of Summer, and he’s since worked for Christopher Nolan on both Inception and The Dark Knight Rises, Steven Spielberg on Lincoln, Rian Johnson on Looper, and starred alongside Seth Rogen in 50/50, The Night Before, and World War III-baiting The Interview. Gordon-Levitt has played important real-life figures, too: he played Philippe Petit in Robert Zemeckis’ The Walk and he played infamous whistle-blower Edward Snowden in Oliver Stone’s Snowden. Long story short, Joseph Gordon-Levitt is doing it right!
2. Drew Barrymore
The beginning of Drew Barrymore’s career as a child actress could be accused of nepotism, since she got her breakout role as the little sister in E.T. the Extra Terrestrial, directed by Steven Spielberg, who just so happens to be her godfather. She’s the granddaughter of the legendary John Barrymore. So, you could attribute Drew Barrymore’s career to nepotism. However, while it may have been her family name and her connections that got her started, it was her talent that’s kept her going for the past thirty or so years. As a kid, she didn’t handle the media’s spotlight well. Drew Barrymore is a prime example of a child star who was too young for the spotlight. At the age of seven (seven!!), she became the youngest person to host Saturday Night Live. She was seven! No wonder she turned to drugs and alcohol! She spent most of her childhood in rehab, but then she came back with a vengeance and emerged as an A-list star in the 1990s. She stole the show in the opening scene of the postmodern slasher movie Scream as the Ghostface killer’s first victim and she featured in her own Hanks/Ryan and Roberts/Gere-style romcom double act with Adam Sandler, starring alongside him in The Wedding Singer, 50 First Dates, and Blended. Drew Barrymore’s been in all kinds of movies, from action comedies like Charlie’s Angels and its sequel to romcoms like Never Been Kissed to quirky indie pieces like Donnie Darko. She’s even directed her own movie called Whip It! and she has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. She currently stars as a cannibal in the Netflix comedy series Santa Clarita Diet, which is definitely worth a watch.
1. Chloë Grace Moretz
The girl made herself famous by dropping a C-bomb in the satirical superhero action comedy Kick-Ass at the age of just 13 isn’t running out of offers any time soon. She got her big break at the age of only eight years old, when she made her film debut in The Amityville Horror. Roles in Big Momma’s House 2, Disney’s Bolt, and (500) Days of Summer shortly followed, before Kick-Ass introduced her as a force to be reckoned with to a wide audience. That’s when she started working with all the great directors in the business – she starred as a vampire in Matt Reeves’ Let Me In, and then played a Brit with a convincing accent in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, and then she had a supporting role in Tim Burton’s big screen version of Dark Shadows. She played Stephen King’s iconic telekinetic teen Carrie White in the remake of Carrie. She starred alongside Denzel Washington in The Equalizer. She joined Seth Rogen and Zac Efron in the sequel to their movie Neighbors. This year, she’s playing Snow White in a new animated movie and starring in the remake of Dario Argento’s legendary Italian horror movie Suspiria. What a career! Moretz is also an outspoken public figure, as both a supporter of LGBTQ rights and feminism, and in 2014, she was named one of the 25 Most Influential Teens of the year by Time magazine. She keeps going from strength to strength, and she’s pretty much set for life as a huge star. It’s almost like she never was a child star and she just happened to start her adult acting career when she was eight years old.