Actual Teen, Adult Teen

We all know that actors don’t always play exactly their age.

There are many reasons for that, including the very practical reason that minors — those actors who are also teens — have more limitations when working than adults. Pay a 27 year old to play a 15 year old, and they can work more hours a day, not have an on set tutor, etc. Or, the role may span several years so the actor is only playing younger for a portion of that role.

Children are asked to make very grown up commitments and decisions that can influence their lives forever. I read Mara Wilson’s Seven Reasons Child Stars Go Crazy (An Insider’s Perspective), and thought, OK, why not hire adults to play teens, if it saves children and teens from those things? If a child or teen wants to act, they can always wait until they are older.

The Actual Teen vs Adult Teen Tumblr puts a different focus on the issue of adults playing teens: what that means to the public view of what a teen looks like.  The Tumblr was created by Ann Foster (on Twitter, she’s @annhepburn).

Some images from Actual Teen vs Adult Teen:

Joshua Jackson, a real teen (age 17) on the left, and a 23 year old playing 17 on the right:

 Joseph Gordon-Levitt, a real teen (age 17) on the left, and on the right as 24 year old playing a high school student:

 Rachel Bilson, a real teen (age 17) on the left, and on the right as a 25 year old playing a high school student:


Ann agreed to answer some questions about her Tumblr project.

Liz: Why did you start Actual Teen, Adult Teen?

Ann: It all began with Joseph Gordon-Levitt. (Note from Liz: I had selected JGL’s photo to highlight before I got back the answers from Ann!) Back when he (and I) were both 16, he appeared in the film 10 Things I Hate About You. I remember seeing that as a teen and responding very positively to how most of the cast — but especially him — really looked like the actual teens I was going to school with. It wasn’t until then that I became aware that so much pop culture has much older actors playing teens.

Flashforward to 2004, when I went to see the gorgeous film Brick, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt . . . still as a high school student. I’d responded so well to him in 10 Things I Hate About Youit was pretty bizarre to see him still playing a teen, when I knew he was my age and I’d already graduated from my undergrad by that point.

I find the phenomenon most striking with actors like JGL, who I watched grow up in other movies and TV shows. It’s like, “I know what you looked like as a 16-year-old and you, sir, are no 16-year-old.”

Also I got really freaked out when I learned that the Bianca Lawson playing 17-year-old Maya on Pretty Little Liars is the same Bianca Lawson who played 17-year-old Kendra on Buffy, 15 years ago. She has aged in this incredible, Benjamin Button manner.

Liz: Why do you think it’s important for people to know that adults are playing teens in film and TV?

Ann: I don’t think it’s important, so much as just informative. It started out as me wanting almost to prove a point, like, “You aren’t fooling anyone, 27-year-old ‘teens’! I’m onto you!” but it’s developed into this interesting sociological thing.

I know there are very good reasons to cast adults as teens — legal reasons, labour regulations, the ability to work longer hours and include more love scenes — but some of the examples I’ve found are just bizarre. Like, 30-year-old Trevor Donovan as “teen” Teddy on 90210 — who is he kidding? (Sidenote: I’m dying to find a picture of Trevor as an actual teen, but the earliest pics of him online are already in his very buff 20s)

So part of it is, I think, to help dispel the notion that teens and 25-year-olds look the same in real life.

Liz: What has surprised you most about the “adult teens” playing teens?

Ann: There seem to be three distinct groups of “actual teens”. There are the ones where their “actual teen” pics make them look little and squishy, like Daniel Sharman, Topher Grace, Nina Dobrev, Paul Walker, Leonardo diCaprio, and Michael J. Fox. If you’d cast their actual 16-year-old selves as teenagers, nobody would have believed it because they look 12.

Then you have people like Seth Green, Juno Temple, Freddie Highmore, Ralpha Macchio, Alyson Hannigan, Stacey Dash and Bianca Lawson who appear ageless and their “actual teen” photos are sometimes indistinguishable from their “adult teen” pictures even when they’re taken 10 years apart.

And then you’ve got people who look so obviously not like teens that they were clearly cast despite their age, like Stockard Channing, Tom Welling and Luke Perry.

Liz: What type of feedback have you gotten from readers?

Ann: I’ve had lots of really great feedback, but two messages have been especially thought-provoking for me. One, from a non-US reader, said she’d always just assumed American teens were very old-looking compared to teens in other countries, but now she knows it’s because the actors are all 25.

The other really interesting feedback came from a real, live teen who said she felt badly she looked so much younger than teens on TV, but this blog has helped reassure her that her appearance is what teens are *supposed* to look like. I hadn’t thought about this — for some people, constantly seeing older people (for instance, the entire cast of Glee) in high school settings, it can lead to some confidence issues.

Liz: So far, who is your favorite “Actual Teen” playing a teen role? Who is your favorite “Adult Teen”?

Ann: Ooh, good question. Other that Joseph Gordon-Levitt, I have a lot of affection for 16-year-old Anna Kendrick’s performance in Camp. I also have a soft spot for Zac Efron in the original High School Musical movie — he looked so little and sweet, back before he turned into a heartthrob and got big muscles. He has a shirtless scene in that film where you just want to squish his little cheeks.

My favourite adult teen is definitely Michael J. Fox. Much like Leonardo DiCaprio, actual teen Michael J. looks like he’s about 10. It blows my mind to imagine Marty McFly looking like that in the Back to the Future films.

Liz: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Ann: I just wanted to mention that if anyone has any suggestions they can always submit them through the Tumblr. As well, I’ve got a new respect for the fans of shows like Teen Wolf and Glee, who are able to identify the year any given picture of their favourite stars were taken. They’ve been really helpful with corrections when I’ve just estimated somebody’s age in a picture.

Liz: Thank you, Ann!

I’d like to also add as a viewer, it can be odd when an actor, such as Anna Kendrick, goes from an adult role in Up in the Air back to a teenager in Pitch Perfect.

The Actual Teen v Adult Teen Tumblr and the conversation with Ann have got me thinking:

Do we start, without realizing it, to think the adults are the “norm” in terms of attractiveness and beauty and maturity?

How much of a disservice do we do to real teens when the image presented again and again is the person who has already physically “grown up”?

One of the reason I like books is that they can be read without an image; the characters look like how I want them to look. Often, readers play a game about the books they read, a game of what actors they would want to see in what role. How many times are those actors actual teens, or the adult-teen? Even in that game, do we make the teens older, more mature, less children?

9 thoughts on “Actual Teen, Adult Teen

  1. At our house, we often make jokes about actors approaching middle age playing teenagers. (Yeah, the cast of Glee.) I’d never given any thought at all to what having older people playing teens does to teen viewers perception of themselves. What a great point.


    1. Gail, this tumblr has given me a lot to think about it. I’ve also been thinking about the makeup and dress and clothes; sometimes the actual teen looks young not so much because of their face (tho that is part of it) but also what clothes, haircut, makeup mean and do.


  2. “One of the reason I like books is that they can be read without an image; the characters look like how I want them to look.” YES. THAT.

    Oh, man. We *know* this, intellectually, but to SEE IT – man.

    Thanks for the thought provocation. ☺


    1. it’s really given me food for thought about “real” teens and who I see in my head and if maybe I, without meaning to, make the people in books “older”


  3. I hadn’t seen this tumblr previously, so thank you for highlighting it with this interview! I can’t wait to share it with our library’s teen staff (even if I’m, like, way behind the times and they’ve all found it already).


    1. it’s such a rabbit hole, because not only is it great to go thru the tumblr but you start thinking of other tv shows and movies and “what about…”


  4. It was interesting with the Harry Potter movies when they chose 11-year-olds for the first movie. I thought it might be a problem when the actors grew up faster than the characters, since they didn’t make a movie per year. This kind of shows why that wasn’t a problem. We’re used to older people playing teens.


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