Tied to the 20th anniversary of Bring It On, we hereby dub the next five days Teen Movie Week. Dig up your varsity jacket, pull up to your cafeteria table, and relive your adolescence as we celebrate the best coming-of-age movies ever made.
When Gabrielle Union first saw the script for Bring It On, the teen movie classic that turned 20 last week, the character who would become the iconic Clovers captain Isis wasn’t quite camera-ready. “She was like a bad stereotype,” Union told Vogue, recalling that the character spoke in “made-up, Blaxploitation dialogue.” Union and director Peyton Reed huddled during production and “kind of rewrote it as we went along,” and the actor’s contributions helped mold what might have been a superficial film into a layered exploration of race, gender, and sexuality. As Reed recently told Ringer contributor Scott Tobias, “Gabrielle Union was invaluable in creating the character of Isis.” Isis, in turn, was invaluable in making a comedy about teen cheerleaders into a more satisfying and sophisticated movie with a message that resonates today (and helped inspire The Ringer’s Teen Movie Week).
Although Union’s portrayal of Isis dismantled one sort of stereotype, it did play into another: the fully adult actor playing a teenaged character. Kirsten Dunst, who played Isis’s rival Torrance Shipman, was actually 18 when Bring It On hit theaters. Union was 27. That role wasn’t a temporal departure from her previous work: At that point in her fledgling film career, Union hadn’t done anything except play high school students despite being in her mid-20s.
Union was 26 when her first film—1999’s She’s All That—hit theaters, and she appeared opposite actors who ranged from 19 to 25. Later that year, she showed up in 10 Things I Hate About You alongside the likes of Larisa Oleynik, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Julia Stiles, and Heath Ledger, who ranged from 17 to 19 when the movie came out. She followed that up with a turn as 17-year-old Shawnee Easton in 2000’s Love & Basketball. That time, at least, she had company: Leads Sanaa Lathan and Omar Epps were 28 and 26, respectively, when the movie debuted, although their teenaged characters do eventually enter adulthood. (It is, perhaps, not a coincidence that of Union’s first four movies, the only one in which her age was not an outlier among her fellow fictional teens was the one with a mostly Black cast; Rachel True in The Craft, Stacey Dash in Clueless, Derek Luke in Friday Night Lights, Ser’Darius Blain in Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, and Brian J. White in Brick could commiserate.)
The age-related creative license that Bring It On took with its casting didn’t derail the movie. If anything, the contrast in ages reinforced the contrast in characters. “[Isis] had to be so mature, so wise, so smart, so strong, that I’m sure they did read a ton of 18-year-olds who just didn’t have the natural maturity or charisma that Gabrielle brought and just rocked so hard in that character,” says TV casting director Mike Page, who considers Bring It On one of his favorite films and doesn’t remember being bothered by the unrealistic age differential when he watched it for the first time. “Whereas the naiveté that Kirsten brought, actually being 18, I think really provided that amazing juxtaposition that created that delicious chemistry between the two of them.”
Page is right about Isis’s origins: In 2015, Reed revealed that the studio had tried to cast a pop star in that role, a choice the director rejected because, he said, “I knew we needed a real actor.” Then again, there are times when the age gap is deleterious and too glaring to ignore. “If you do have a legit 16-year-old playing opposite somebody who’s 28, typically that’s not going to blend on set as well,” Page says. “You’re going to really see that.” Sometimes, he adds, “I absolutely do get taken out of it as a viewer.”
For better or worse (depending on the project), non-teens pretending to be teens—with varying verisimilitude—has been a staple of teen movies dating back to before Rebel Without a Cause. (Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo: true teens. James Dean: not even close.) And the tradition of incongruous casting is still thriving in 2020: This Friday marks the releases of The New Mutants and This Is the Year, two teen movies whose casts are studded with actors whose teens were behind them when filming began. “There are plenty of times where it is just completely laughable that this person is supposed to be playing somebody born post-2001, and clearly they were an ’80s baby,” Page says.
Every teen-movie lover (or hater) is well aware of the older actor phenomenon. Until now, however, we haven’t had hard data to illustrate the trends and identify the most egregious offenders. So in honor of Teen Movie Week, I set out to compile a casting history report worthy of Bill and Ted by quantifying the teen movie actor age inflation effect and talking to casting directors about the reasons for its existence.
There’s no neat database of “teen movies”—in part because it’s difficult to define what a teen movie is—so I started with the post-1950, non-animated portion of Wikipedia’s overinclusive list, which encompasses more than a thousand movies. With assistance from Ringer contributor Rob Arthur, I matched those movies with IMDb data on genre, user ratings, and other attributes. I filtered out TV movies (sorry, High School Musical) and direct-to-video releases, then eliminated the most obscure entries by removing any movies with fewer than 30,000 IMDb user ratings. (Don’t worry, you haven’t heard of most of them.)
To narrow the range of character ages and focus on cases with potentially dramatic age mismatches, I further restricted the sample to movies mostly set no later than the summer after high school graduation, excluding movies that take place on college campuses or feature only college-aged characters. Finally, I removed a few films that intentionally placed too-old actors into teen roles for comic effect, such as Peggy Sue Got Married and Wet Hot American Summer. That winnowing process (which I really don’t recommend replicating) yielded a still-sizable sample of 261 movies, from Rebel Without a Cause (1955) to Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019).
Once I had my movie list, I went one by one, looking up the actors in any prominent teen roles and recording their ages with help from the website ActorAgeCheck, which lists actors’ ages as of any given movie’s release date. This part of the process was somewhat subjective—it’s not always easy to determine character ages precisely or to decide where to draw the line between bit part and prominent part—but I tried to apply a pretty consistent standard.
That teen character dragnet resulted in an inventory of a little more than a thousand roles (roughly four per movie, on average), played by about 750 individual actors. You can view the complete list of movies here, including a second tab devoted to how many times (and over what time range) each actor appeared. The most prolific “teen” actor in the archive is Emma Watson, with eight entries: six Harry Potter films—the ones in which the core characters are in their teens—plus The Perks of Being a Wallflower and The Bling Ring. The most prolific “teen actors” who didn’t star in a series in our sample are Amanda Bynes and Emma Roberts, with five apiece. Roberts also holds the record for the longest span between teen roles: 10 years, beginning with Aquamarine (2006), which came out when she was 15, and ending (presumably) with Nerve (2016), which came out when she was 25. “Sometimes actors can play high school for a very long time without it being weird,” casting director Matthew Lessall says. “It’s weird usually because they’ve emotionally grown out of that space, so they’re not connecting to the character anymore.”
Here’s the one number you need to know: 21.7. That’s the average age, at the time of release, of every actor who played a prominent teen in a qualifying teen movie. Granted, those actors were slightly younger—and, in many cases, slightly closer to their true teen years—when their movies were shot. Keep in mind, though, that I tried to limit the list to characters who were no older than 18, and that a significant number of the movies (such as Super 8, Eighth Grade, Thirteen, It, and the like) concentrated on characters in their early teen years, which tended to lower the average actor age. Thus, the typical actor was at least a few years older than their character. 85.4 percent of the movies featured at least one actor in a prominent teen role who was 21 or older on the movie’s release date, and 29.1 percent featured no actor in a prominent teen role who was younger than 21 on the release date. Also of note: The most prominent actor in a movie’s teen role tends to be slightly younger (21) than the other actors in teen roles combined (22), possibly because it’s harder to get away with a massive discrepancy when an actor receives a lot of screen time.
It’s easier to sell older actors as teens if the ages are largely consistent across the cast. “If you’re casting a group of 18 or older to play 16-year-olds, if they all fit in the same age and it doesn’t look like one kid’s 30 and one kid’s 25 and one kid is 16—if they all feel like they’re 18 playing 16, or whatever that number is—it generally works,” says another casting director, Jeremy Gordon. “If they all fit in the same world, it works.” Yet more than 20 movies in the sample are hiding gaps of 10 years or more in age between actors playing teen characters—in many cases, teen characters who are supposed to be the same age.
In Project Almanac (2015), actor Allen Evangelista (who played Adam Le) was 11 years older than friend and fellow “high school senior” Sam Lerner, and 14 years older than Virginia Gardner, who played a student at the same high school. When you watch Remember the Titans (2000), remember that Wood Harris and Ryan Gosling, also separated by 11 years, played on the same high school squad (and that Ryan Hurst’s character dated another high school student played by Kate Bosworth, who was 13 years younger than Wood). In Better Off Dead, John Cusack’s character is besties with Curtis Armstrong’s character, even though there were 12 years between the two actors. In the aforementioned Clueless (1995), Dionne and Tai travel in the same high school circles, despite the 12-year age gap between Stacey Dash and Brittany Murphy. In Dead Poets Society (1989), Neil Perry’s prep school friend group includes characters played by Gale Hansen and Josh Charles, who had 12 years between them. And don’t forget the real-life 11-year gap between the people who played Ferris Bueller’s girlfriend Sloane (Mia Sara) and best friend Cameron (Alan Ruck, whose relatively youthful face is still screwing with audiences). We could go on.
As previously stipulated, a close correspondence between actor age and character age isn’t the hallmark of a quality movie. Nor is the inverse true. Actors, after all, are pretty good at pretending to be people they aren’t. The correlation between average actor age and average IMDb user rating, where zero suggests no connection and one (or negative one) indicates a perfect connection, was -.12, which is next to nonexistent. (If anything, there’s been a teeny, tiny tendency for teen movies with older casts to be judged more harshly by the IMDb audience.)
The chart below shows the average age of actors in prominent teen roles by decade, lumping pre-1980 movies together because our sample is small for those earlier years.
The ’70s and ’80s was the heyday of old actors in teen roles, but the average age has crept up again since its ’90s nadir. We also see some skews younger or older when we sort by genre. The following chart displays breakdowns for 14 genres, with the caveat that IMDb lists most movies in multiple categories. Sports movies, horror movies, and other action-oriented genres cluster toward the upper end of the age range, while “family” films unsurprisingly set the lower boundary.
Finally, let’s look at the teen movies with the oldest “teen” cast members, on average:
Oldest Average Ages of Actors Playing Prominent Teens
|1989||Back to the Future Part II||28.0|
|1990||Back to the Future Part III||27.3|
|1974||The Texas Chain Saw Massacre||26.0|
|1988||Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood||26.0|
Grease sets a bar that may never be raised for actors who are not nearly teens but are playing teen characters. Rotten Tomatoes’ “critics consensus” for the 1978 musical says, “Grease is a pleasing, energetic musical with infectiously catchy songs and an ode to young love that never gets old.” Yet almost all of its leads got old before the movie came out: John Travolta, who was 24 when Grease was released, was the youngest member of a leading trio that also included a 29-year-old Olivia Newton-John and a 34-year-old Stockard Channing. (At least they went together!) Yet Grease is good; as Gordon says, “It absolutely doesn’t matter that these were legit adults.”
The only actor in the data set who can match Stockard Channing’s 34 is Lochlyn Munro, who played Greg in Scary Movie (which arguably could have been excluded under the Peggy Sue Got Married/Wet Hot American Summer clause). Nicholas D’Agosto, who played a teen football player in Fired Up!, was a full decade older then than he was when he played a teen in Election. Maybe nobody could put Baby in a corner in Dirty Dancing because the supposedly 17-year-old Baby was played by an actor (Jennifer Gray) who turned 27 before the film opened. (Patrick Swayze, who played 25-year-old Johnny Castle, was 35 in 1987.) And no amount of fictional time travel could keep the average age of the casts in the latter two installments of the Back to the Future trilogy down. Teen Wolf gives Michael J. Fox a third entry in the top 10, although he wasn’t always the only one who was lifting those averages up.
Why are older actors such a teen movie trope? We can’t chalk it up entirely to the casting department, because it’s typically not the casting director’s call. “When we’re asked to cast older to play younger, it usually doesn’t start with casting,” Gordon says. “It usually comes from above—producers or studio, network. They want older to play younger, or the director says, ‘No, I want legit 14. I don’t want older to play younger.’ So it’s not really our decision, although we can advise them one way or the other.”
Lessall says he’s always looking for the best actors, first and foremost, but he has to be sensitive to the desires of the creators and bankrollers who give him his marching orders. “You really do have to understand what the director’s vision is, what the production designer’s vision is, what the costume designer’s vision is,” he says. “Usually you get this all through some sort of look book or just general meetings on the phone with all the production heads, because you’re all trying to be on the same page. So, just like the costume designer is designing clothes, you’re designing the look of the piece.”
Once the creatives come to a consensus on the aesthetic they’re seeking, the casting department puts out the call. “Oftentimes it’ll be ‘18 to play younger,’ or ‘Needs to play 16,’ etc., but most commonly, the language would be something like, ‘Needs to be 18 to play 16,’” Page says. After that, it’s up to the agents and managers to submit actors they represent. But “needs to be 18” means at least 18—there’s no upper limit. Casting directors want to cast as wide a net as possible to up their odds of snaring the perfect person, but that approach forces them to sift through a lot of unsuitable bycatch. “We’ll get submissions of all ages,” Page says. “Agents and managers can sometimes be a little more creative than we’re willing to be. I’ve definitely had people in their 40s and 50s get submitted for 16-year-old roles.” Gordon adds, “Half the time, the picture doesn’t really look like them anyway, so we have to meet them.” You’ll never believe this, but actors sometimes lie to land a part, as Coyote Shivers did to book Empire Records.
The prevailing preference for non-teenaged actors has largely logistical roots. “It really can be a thorn in your side to hire a minor,” Gordon says, describing a sting that has nothing to do with acting chops. Lessall says, “I always prefer casting to age as much as possible, but that’s not always possible because oftentimes you have issues like, if the child’s not emancipated or the child isn’t a high school graduate, then they can’t work adult hours.” There are also restrictions on explicit sexual content. As Page puts it, “There’s a lot of things that are just not either legal or ethical to work with people under 18 for.” The appearance of creepiness plays a part, too: Natalie Portman claimed to have lost a lead role in Romeo + Juliet to Claire Danes because Fox understandably said it looked like the older Leonardo DiCaprio was “molesting” the then-14-year-old Portman when they kissed.
It’s easier to work around scheduling limitations and the perils of puberty in movies than it is on TV, where a series can last long enough for growth spurts to strike. “There’s really not that much you can do about it but have an excellent hair, makeup, wardrobe department and hope for the best,” Gordon says. But casting a minor may mean not only constraints in shooting pace or subject matter, but additional costs: on-set tutors, extra charges for travel and accommodations if family members are accompanying the actor, even a dedicated driver and/or production assistant to make sure the young actor is arriving on time and managing the demands of the production. “You’re looking for a young professional,” Lessall says, citing figures like the Fannings or Culkins who’ve “maintained that professionalism from the start of their career onwards, which makes them like little adults” (but ideally doesn’t totally rob them of their childhoods).
There are only so many talented “young professionals” in the true teen age range, which is why the best ones are always in demand. “Once actors are known and they’ve been in certain films, they’re always on that list until they age out of that list,” Lessall says. Gordon adds, “The good actors that you see, they start working all the time. ... I’ll check on all the kids who are 12, 13, 14, and they’re not available. They’re all working.” Even if one has a window, you might not be able to afford them: A less established lead probably can’t command as high a salary as a seasoned actor with more credits and clout, but those extra costs add up and can become prohibitive on projects with tight budgets.
A producer or director who factors all of that in may opt for older actors, concluding, Lessall says, “It’s cheaper to hire them, and they look good, and we’re creating a sexy cast. Teenagers are awkward, and they have zits and pimples” (which they surely don’t feel better about after internalizing the unattainable complexions of inauthentic movie and TV teens). Plus, life experience sometimes translates to a better performance on camera. “You have older kids, young adults, who really have a wealth of life experience to draw from,” Gordon says. “Maybe this 14-year-old [character] has gone through a lot, and at 18 or 21, [the actor has] a lot more to draw from than they would at a legit 14.”
Of course, compared to the typical viewer, casting directors are hyperaware of actors’ ages. “If I happen to know that this actor is definitely not 18 years old, I’m not buying it, though I think most people, just the general audience, will buy into it a little bit more,” Gordon says. Context and conditioning matter, too: An audience might be more forgiving of an impossibly mature-looking “teen” in a CW series than it would in an indie film, and to a preteen, an 18-year-old and a 22-year-old might be almost indistinguishable. Most fans of The Karate Kid just won’t be bothered by the fact that Ralph Macchio was 22 when the movie was made—four years older than William Zabka, whose tougher-looking character bullied Macchio’s ostensibly teenaged Daniel LaRusso. “I think there are times when anybody can look at a human being and know that they’re not 15 or 16 or 18,” Gordon continues. But as long as the industry works the way that it does, we can count on more of those moments.
In a sense, there’s nothing more emblematic of movie magic than the actor who can convincingly retain their hold on adolescence, which most of us inexorably lose before we want to. When it works, it’s the ultimate special effect. “This is Hollywood, and everybody’s trying to remain forever young,” Lessall says. Starring in teen movies is one of the best ways to do so. As the 20-year-old Wooderson—played by an older-than-20 Matthew McConaughey—observes of high school girls in Dazed and Confused, “I get older, they stay the same age.” In most teen movies, the actors could say the same about the parts they play.
Thanks to Jessie Barbour for research assistance.