The journey from child star to respected adult actor is a perilous tightrope walk, with so many opportunities for missteps along the way. Frankly, it’s a miracle that any actor manages it at all. There are some actors who have a smooth, slow transition from childhood to adulthood on screen, so much so that there isn’t a clear line of demarcation between the two periods of their career. This is often the case for women, who are frequently given more mature material at a much younger age. And while there are plenty of strong adult performances from former child actors, it’s especially fascinating to look at the ones that really mark their development as performers with an exclamation point and make viewers take notice.
Freddie Highmore, “Bates Motel” (2013-2017)
Freddie Highmore as a child was the definition of an earnest, sickly sweet English schoolboy, one whose innocence almost seemed a relic from a bygone era. He found success in films like “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and “Finding Neverland,” but there’s a very limited window of time in which a young actor can hope to capitalize on those sorts of roles, and it was unclear what acting opportunities would be suited for him as he grew older. No one probably would have guessed that he would turn up in his late teens, tall and lanky with a chillingly malevolent grin, to play the young version of Norman Bates from “Psycho” in AMC’s “Bates Motel.” Morbid and incredibly unnerving, his performance here immediately erased any memory of his precocious childhood career.
Anna Chlumsky, “Veep” (2012-2019)
One of the biggest crimes in all of Hollywood is that we went so long without Anna Chlumsky getting the meaty roles that she deserves. After an incredible performance as Vada Sultenfuss in the early 1990s tearjerker “My Girl,” Chlumsky went a while without having her talents properly utilized. But good things come to those who wait, because eventually we got her as Amy Brookheimer on “Veep,” a role that was seemingly tailor-made for her. A political staff who is consistently the smartest person in the room and frequently on edge because of it, she brings an acerbic, deadpan sense of humor as well as the ability to completely obliterate her enemies with one well-placed cutting remark.
Elle Fanning, “20th Century Women” (2016)
dir. Mike Mills
During Elle Fanning’s career as a child actor, there was little distinction between her and her older sister Dakota. They looked remarkably similar and were both taking the same sort of roles just a few years apart from one another. But then as Elle reaches her teen years, we start to see a separation as she pursues roles that she’s more personally drawn to. And with her ethereal, quietly poignant performance in “20th Century Women” at age 18, she fully emerges as an actress in her own right, not just as Dakota Fanning’s little sister. It’s clear that she already has an eye for the sort of understated, contemplative indie dramas that she’ll so often gravitate towards.
Leonardo DiCaprio, “Gangs of New York” (2002)
dir. Martin Scorsese
When Leonardo DiCaprio was young, he seemed poised to have a really well-respected acting career, with an Oscar nomination at the age of 18 for “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?” and rave reviews for his powerful performance in “The Basketball Diaries.” Then “Romeo + Juliet” and “Titanic” came out in quick succession, and all of a sudden he wasn’t an actor anymore, he was a teen idol. It took a while after that for him to be taken seriously as an actor by a lot of audiences, and his “grown-up” career didn’t really begin in earnest until 2002, when he was 28. Then he’s cast by Martin Scorsese to star alongside Daniel Day-Lewis in “Gangs of New York,” and with his role as Amsterdam Vallon he seizes the opportunity to shed his teen heartthrob image once and for all.
Shia LaBeouf, “Honey Boy” (2019)
dir. Alma Har’el
For a while, Shia LaBeouf felt like just another example of the Disney child star gone bad: drugs, arrests, bizarre art installations, the works. But then, after some time out of the spotlight, he comes back swinging with something as rich and deeply personal as “Honey Boy.” Having written the screenplay as an attempt to process the trauma of his years as a child actor, LaBeouf also plays the character based on his own father, warm and gregarious but also manipulative and wildly resentful of his young son’s success. It’s a brave and nuanced performance, one that tells the audience who he is both as a person and an actor.
Saoirse Ronan, “Brooklyn” (2015)
dir. John Crowley
Saoirse Ronan was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for “Atonement” when she was only thirteen years old, so it’s hard to imagine that at any point in her professional career she wasn’t taken seriously. After spending her teen years developing a varied portfolio, she comes out with her first major adult piece in “Brooklyn.” In her portrayal of an Irish girl emigrating to the United States in the early 1950s, she perfectly captures the aching loneliness of being an ocean away from everyone and everything you know. Ronan brings her entire soul to the characters she plays, and that’s made abundantly clear in her performance here.
Natalie Wood, “Rebel Without a Cause” (1955)
dir. Nicholas Ray
Natalie Wood got her start in Hollywood as a little girl and by 1955, she was eager to show moviegoers that she had grown up. Although Nicholas Ray, the director of “Rebel Without a Cause,” felt that she came across as too young and innocent to pull off the role of the rebellious Judy, she went on a one-woman campaign to convince him otherwise. (This may have worked too well, as the 16-year-old actress and 43-year-old director were rumored to have a short-lived affair.) But in the end, she achieved her objective: she got the part, and introduced the world to a vibrant, charming on-screen persona that would define her career for years to come.
River Phoenix, “My Own Private Idaho” (1991)
dir. Gus Van Sant
In a way, it feels silly to talk about River Phoenix’s transition into an adult career. Partially because it would be cut tragically short as Phoenix died at age 23, but also because even his very first performances as a child already had such a unique air of maturity. There was never the sense that he was a child actor who had the potential to become great once he had some experience, which is metric by which we judge a lot of kid performers: he was already there. But in terms of the development of his career, “My Own Private Idaho” stands out as the sort of vaguely experimental independent film that he was drawn to. His performance as the narcoleptic hustler Mike is nuanced and vulnerable, and serves as a clear example of the type of work he was capable of as an adult.
Nicholas Hoult, “True History of the Kelly Gang” (2020)
dir. Justin Kurzel
Nicholas Hoult got his big break as Hugh Grant’s painfully awkward pre-teen sidekick in “About a Boy,” a character type he would quickly shed in his teen years. His career trajectory has been fascinating to observe, as he bounced from teen drama to indie sci-fi to major blockbuster and back again. But it seems that only recently he’s settled into the role that he was born to play, that of the sardonically charming English villain in the vein of Alan Rickman and Jeremy Irons. His good looks with a hint of cruelty and a biting sense of humor are put in good use in “The Favourite,” but they reach their full potential in “True History of the Kelly Gang.” In it, he plays a vicious and debaucherous English constable in Australia who makes trouble for Ned Kelly, and his brief time on screen is utterly captivating.
Christian Bale, “American Psycho” (2000)
dir. Mary Harron
When your feature film debut is one of the greatest ever child performances, as Bale’s is in “Empire of the Sun,” it’s difficult to know where to go from there. He works continually throughout his teen and young adult years, always good but nothing particularly outside the box for a floppy-haired 1990s actor. Then when he’s 25, he’s cast as the lead in “American Psycho,” and it’s as though all of his weird manic energy finally finds a home. He’s brilliant here, capturing both the arrogant, status-obsessed yuppie and off-kilter serial killer with equal style. Thus, the almost disconcertingly intense Bale we all know and love is born.