Like most parents, Hollywood has a hard time seeing its children grow up. Yet there comes a time when every child star decides to leave the nest of safe, family-friendly movies to become a more serious thespian. With the passage of time all actors must work their way into adult-oriented fare, though the transition isn’t always an easy one. Here are 15 actors who took on tough, edgy roles and removed the child star stereotype to varying degrees of success.
The one part of War, Inc. that received praise was Hilary Duff’s performance. In the film, the former Lizzie Maguire star played an oversexed Central Asian pop singer named Yonica Babyyeah. A scene in particular that marked the end of Duff’s child star reputation involved her character inserting a Scorpion into her pants and performing a striptease to the shock and horror of co-star John Cusack (and no, we’re not making that up). Though the film has largely been forgotten since its release, said “scorpion scene” and Duff’s performance have given War, Inc. a degree of cult notoriety.
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Macaulay Culkin first tried to shed his Home Alone image with The Good Son, a 1993 film that took his child star persona and bent it into a murderous psychopath. The film was a major success for the then 13-year old Culkin, who was nominated for an MTV Movie Award for Best Villain. Ten years later, an adult Culkin once again attempted to bring some edge to his reputation by taking the starring role in Party Monster. In said indie Culkin played real-life New York party promoter Michael Alig, a man whose 80’s era success ended with drug addiction and murder. That film, though less commercially successful, received praise from critics like Roger Ebert who called Culkin’s performance “fearless.”
Chloe Grace Moretz
After establishing herself as Hollywood’s favorite child with strong turns in Diary of a Wimpy Kid and 500 Days of Summer, Chloe Moretz began going out for more adult fare. In 2010 she played a foul mouthed, 10-year-old vigilante assassin in Kick-A$$ and a vampire destined to be 12 years forever in Let Me In. In 2011 she was cast as gun-toting, thirteen-year-old runaway in Hick and took a similarly latchkey role in the crime film Texas Killing Fields. This year she will continue her trend of dark, complex parts with Carrie, the third adaptation of Stephen King’s novel (pictured above). She will also be reprising her role as Hit Girl for Kick-A$$ 2.
Drew Barrymore spent the majority of the 1980s trying to shirk a child star stigma caused by films like E.T. Following a well-publicized battle with drug addiction (that caused the media to paint her something of a “wild child”) Barrymore took the lead in the sen-sual thriller Poison Ivy. The film cast Barrymore as a sociopathic teen who attempts to seduce her best friend’s father and murder her mother. The film was a success and though it didn’t catapult Barrymore back into instant stardom, it did help the actress achieve notoriety as a 90s sexual icon (an image Barrymore has since tried to stray from).
Though she’s an Academy Award winner now, Anne Hathaway was once just another child star in films like The Princess Diaries and Ella Enchanted. In 2005, the actress attempted to get rid of her goody-goody image once and for all by starring in Havoc. The film, about a group of affluent teens who get involved with Latin gangs, featured Hathaway playing a rebellious girl with a taste for sex, drugs and gang bangers. Though the film gained notoriety as Hathaway’s first adult performance, she would disown the Havoc when the producers recut it against director Barbara Kopple’s wishes. Later Hathaway would receive more widespread praise for a similarly adult-oriented turn in Brokeback Mountain.
In 2007, Daniel Radcliffe took the starring role in the Broadway revival of Equus. The play, about a psychiatrist attempting to treat a young man who suffers from a sexual attraction to horses, featured extensive nudity and sexual content. Due to Radcliffe’s status as a Harry Potter star, the role garnered a great deal of controversy for the then 17-year-old actor. This would not deter Radcliffe from reprising the role in 2009.
Neil Patrick Harris
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After his run on the hit series Doogie Howser, M.D., Neil Patrick Harris fell into a career slump. After taking a series of small parts in films like Starship Troopers, the actor found audience interest revitalized after a turn in Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle. The role, which Harris reprised over the course of three sequels, re-imagined the actor as a sleazy, drug addicted, womanizing version of himself. The parody showed off Patrick’s knack for edgy humor and landed him a similar role as Barney Stimson on the hit TV series How I Met Your Mother.
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Lindsay Lohan’s child star days are long behind her, though one cannot blame I Know Who Killed Me for killing that reputation. The 2007 horror film was intended to be Lohan’s adult-oriented debut. In the movie she played a pair of twins, one a stripper and the other an aspiring pianist, who are being hunted by a mysterious killer. Despite sporting a novel premise, Lohan and the film were all but laughed off the screen by audiences and critics alike. To be fair, the movie was overshadowed by a media whirlwind surrounding Lohan’s struggle with addiction. This in turn helped fuel the negative publicity surrounding I Know Who Killed Me. It’s worth noting that Lohan has not headlined a major theatrical release since the film’s failure.
Christian Bale was something of an iconic child actor thanks to his turn in Stephen Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun and the cult musical Newsies. In 2000 Bale surprised audiences who knew him from these works by starring in American Psycho. The adaptation of the Bret Easton Ellis novel cast Bale as Patrick Bateman, an 80s era Yuppie who moonlights as a serial killer. The satire put Bale in various states of undress for sexually and violently graphic scenes. One especially memorable sequence involved a fully nude Bale pursuing a woman down a hotel lobby with a chainsaw. The role garnered the actor some of the best reviews of his career and helped put him in the running to play another unhinged playboy (though one less homicidal) in Batman Begins.
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Alyssa Milano is best remembered for her role on the sitcom Who’s the Boss, which is why by the time the mid-90s rolled around she was ready to be taken more seriously as an actress. With this in mind, Milano took the lead in a vaguely softcore adult videos-y vampire film by the name of Embrace of the Vampire. The film garnered a lot of criticism for being mostly about Milano taking her clothes off. The actress did little to dissuade these implications when she followed Vampire up with a lead role in Poison Ivy II: Lily just a year later. In hindsight, it’s easy to see the actress was attempting to shake up her career Drew Barrymore-style.
By the mid-1980s, Cosby Show actress Lisa Bonet was ready to shed the good-girl image of her popular character Denise Huxtable. Enter Angel Heart, a 1987 film noir starring Mickey Rourke and Robert De Niro. In the film Bonet plays a voodoo-practicing femme fatale whose father is being pursued by Rourke’s P.I. character. The film was shrouded in controversy due to a blood-drenched sex scene between Bonet and Rourke, one that had to be trimmed severely to avoid an “X” rating. Many blame the scene as a factor contributing to Bonet’s move from her spot on The Cosby Show to the spin-off A Different World. Rumor has it Cosby felt the actress’ post-Angel Heart rep would hurt his family-friendly show.
In 1976, child star Jodie Foster starred in two very, very different sorts of movies. The first, Freaky Friday, would be a family-friendly breakout hit for the actress. The second, Taxi Driver, would steep her in controversy while also garnering the actress rave reviews. In the film, Foster plays Iris, a thirteen-year-old prostitute who becomes the obsession of vigilante psychopath Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro). The film got a lot of criticism not just for casting Foster as a young sex worker, but for its ending that subjected the actress to an extended, gory shoot-out. Though many feared for Foster’s psychological safety, she emerged unscathed. The sophisticated role later helped Foster establish a diverse career without the child actress stigma surrounding her.
Elizabeth Berkley was best known for playing the smart, capable Jessie Spano of the hit sitcom Saved By the Bell. After the show’s end, the actress was determined to break her squeaky-clean image. She went out for the lead in Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls, won it and has likely regretted it ever since. In the film, Berkley plays Noomi Malone, a stripper with ambitions of becoming a famous Las Vegas dancer. Showgirls was controversial for its extensive nude and sex scenes, most of which revolved around Berkley. The sleazy film was the first movie to earn an NC-17 rating and became a huge bomb as a byproduct. While the film did establish Berkley as fearless actress when it came to nudity, she spent the majority of the 90s trying to distance herself from the role. Showgirls has since become a cult classic, one Berkley has fully re-embraced.
In the 90s, Leonardo DiCaprio began showing what he was really capable of as an actor. After establishing himself on sitcoms like Growing Pains, Leonardo DiCaprio gained roles in more sophisticated films like This Boy’s Life and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (a film that earned him an Academy Award nomination, pictured above). In 1995 the actor officially broke his child star stigma with The Basketball Diaries. Based on the memoirs of Jim Carroll, the film cast DiCaprio as a teen basketball star who descends into a nightmare of sexual angst and drug abuse. While DiCaprio would receive rave reviews for his work (along with co-star Mark Wahlberg), the film would gain controversy two years after its release. In 1997, right-wing lawyer Jack Thompson blamed the film for the Heath High School and Columbine shootings, causing many stores to pull it from shelves. Nevertheless, bigger and more mainstream roles in films like Romeo + Juliet and Titanic came for DiCaprio based in part on the film’s success.
Kurt Russell was one of Disney’s perennial child actors during the 1960s and 70s. This made him an unlikely choice when it came to casting Escape From New York, the 1981 post-apocalyptic action film from writer/director John Carpenter. While the studio funding it wanted Charles Bronson or Tommy Lee Jones, Carpenter was drawn to Russell’s take on the role. The actor combined elements of Clint Eastwood, Bruce Lee, Darth Vader and the title character of the exploitation movie The Exterminator. The iconographic cocktail of influences combined with Russell’s ability to conjure a tough-as-nails demeanor earned him the part. Snake Plissken and Escape From New York reinvented Russell as a action star and remain among Russell’s most memorable work to date. As such, the actor has been an outspoken critic of the Escape From New York remake currently going into production.