Casting grown adults to play teenagers is a practice that goes back decades. It’s because of child labor laws: actual teens have strict restrictions on how many hours they can work. With grown-ups there’s no such problem. As a result, some of the most well-known teenage characters of film and TV look suspiciously older than they should. However, the actual ages of the actors playing them may still surprise you.
20. Trevor Donovan – 90210
When Trevor Donovan joined the cast of the rebooted 90210 TV series in September 2009, he quickly became a popular character. He played tennis ace Teddy Montgomery, whose coming-out storyline struck a chord with viewers. And of course, he was also incredibly handsome. So good-looking, in fact, that one could overlook his being 31 years old while playing a high school junior.
19. Diana Ross – The Wiz
In The Wiz, an adaption of The Wizard of Oz, Diana Ross was cast as the young protagonist Dorothy. This caused utter chaos. The original director of the film dropped out when she was cast, thinking Ross was too old at 33, and was replaced by Sidney Lumet. And critics panned the movie, focusing on Ross’ age when they did. But still, The Wiz later attracted a cult following, so maybe it wasn’t that bad a decision.
18. Leonardo DiCaprio – Catch Me If You Can
In Steven Spielberg’s movie Catch Me If You Can the 28-year-old Leonardo DiCaprio plays famous conman Frank Abagnale… who was actually only a teenager when he committed his crimes. DiCaprio is famously baby-faced, but even that is pushing it a bit. However, to be fair, the real Abagnale looked older than his age, was very good at disguises, and fooled almost everybody.
17. Sissy Spacek – Carrie
Sissy Spacek was desperate to play the title role in the 1976 horror flick Carrie. So much so, in fact, that she smoothed back her hair with Vaseline and wore old clothes to her audition. She won the role of the telekinetic high school misfit, and it kick-started her acting career. She even received an Oscar nomination for Best Actress. All that, and she was a 27-year-old playing a 16-year-old!
16. Gabrielle Union – Bring It On
In Bring It On, the 2000 cheerleading comedy starring Kirsten Dunst and Gabrielle Union, Dunst was 18 years of age when she played her teenage character. Union, however, was not – she was 28! And even to this day, Union looks much younger than she actually is. She’s clearly using some amazing moisturizer, or has a picture of herself in her attic…
15. Tom Welling – Smallville
Plenty of actors have played the adult Superman, but in 2001 a series featuring the young Superman, Smallville, began to air. Only one problem: Superman was meant to be 14 at the start of the show, but he was played by 24-year-old actor Tom Welling. It got less obvious as time moved on and Clark Kent became an adult in-show, but only comic book science could explain the early disparity.
14. Malcolm McDowell – A Clockwork Orange
A Clockwork Orange is all about youth violence, so it may be surprising to some to learn that actor Malcolm McDowell was 28 years of age when he played the teenage delinquent Alex. However, that was far from the most memorable thing about the Stanley Kubrick movie. It caused an incredible furore when it was released in 1971, thanks to its disturbing images and sexual violence.
13. Cory Monteith – Glee
Cory Monteith was 27 when he began playing teenager Finn Hudson in the hit TV show Glee. But tragically, both character and actor ended up dying young. Monteith passed away from a drug overdose in 2013, aged 31, after many years of substance abuse. His character Finn was therefore killed off on Glee, with the episode “The Quarterback” serving as a tribute to him.
12. Ian Somerhalder – The Vampire Diaries
Actor Ian Somerhalder was 31 when he was cast to play a high schooler in The Vampire Diaries. True, the character was a vampire who was actually about 150 years old, but he was supposed to look 17. But on the other hand, the show was never very consistent with ages either. And almost all of the actors were playing younger!
11. Michael J Fox – Back to the Future Part III
The 24-year-old Michael J Fox was able to pass as the 17-year-old Marty McFly for the first couple of Back to the Future films. His cute little face certainly helped. But by the time Back to the Future Part III was made – and Marty was still 17 – the cracks were beginning to show. He was 29 by then. Sadly, the following year he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease.
10. Olivia Newton-John – Grease
Grease is a serial offender when it comes to adults playing teenagers. Most of the cast were older than their characters, including Olivia Newton-John. “I worried that at 29 I was too old to play a high-school girl,” she told the Daily Telegraph newspaper in 2017. “But John [Travolta] was charming and really wanted me to do it, and that was one of the deciding factors.”
9. Kit Harington – Game of Thrones
In the smash-hit fantasy TV show Game of Thrones, Jon Snow is supposed to be aged 17, but his actor Kit Harington is in his 30s. However, a lot of the Thrones characters had their ages revised upwards from their characters in the books. Daenerys was 13 at the start of the first book, as was Joffrey, Missandei was 10, and Jon Snow was not nearly an adult but just 14.
8. Tobey Maguire – Spider-Man
The famous teenage superhero was not quite so youthful in his first cinematic outing. Peter Parker, Spider-Man’s alter-ego, was in high school during the first Spider-Man movie, but Tobey Maguire was 27 at the time. Spider-Man movies have a habit of casting older actors to play the character: Andrew Garfield, the next Spider-Man, was 28.
7. Rachel McAdams – Mean Girls
Mean Girls is a classic teenage film, all about archetypal rites-of-passage problems, and yet actor Rachel McAdams wasn’t actually a teenager when it was made. When she played high school queen bee Regina George, she was 25. To make it even weirder, her mother was played by Amy Poehler, who is actually only seven years older.
6. Henry Winkler – Happy Days
One of the most famous teenagers to ever appear on television was not, in fact, a teenager at all. Henry Winkler was actually 28 when he was cast to play Arthur Fonzarelli, aka The Fonz, on Happy Days. The Fonz aged a little as the show went on, but obviously he was always going to be younger than Winkler, 39 in the show’s last season. However, the character became so iconic that no-one really minded.
5. Ross Butler – 13 Reasons Why
13 Reasons Why was the breakout “grownup” TV show for former Disney Channel actor Ross Butler. He was 27 when playing his teenage character, although to be fair, most of the cast were older than they looked. This was far from the show’s only problem, though. Ever since it started, it was dogged by controversy for its portrayal of teen suicide.
4. Stacey Dash – Clueless
Even after all this time, 1995’s Clueless is still a hit. Helping it reach cult status were the performances of its stars, including Stacey Dash as Dionne. Dionne was a witty 16-year-old… but Stacey Dash was actually 28 at the time. Not only that, she continued playing her in the Clueless TV series, and was 32 when that came to an end.
3. Shirley Henderson – Harry Potter
There was quite a remarkable age gap between actress Shirley Henderson and her Harry Potter character Moaning Myrtle. Henderson was 37 when she played Myrtle, the ghost of a murdered teenage Hogwarts student. She was the most senior actor to play a pupil. However, her high-pitched voice, her small frame, and camera trickery helped to disguise her real age.
2. Jennifer Grey – Dirty Dancing
Jennifer Grey played “Baby” in the hit dance film Dirty Dancing, but she was far from a baby at the time. She was 27 years old, and playing a teenager ten years her junior. Alas, Dirty Dancing turned out to be one of her last major roles. In the 1990s she had cosmetic surgery, and she found it hard to get work after that.
1. Stockard Channing – Grease
In one of the most famous examples age-gap casting, Stockard Channing was 33 years old when she played the teenage Rizzo in Grease. That meant she was was fully double the supposed age of her character. It’s pretty obvious that she’s not a teenager, but still, she did a good job.