A brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess and a criminal. Of all of The Breakfast Club‘s spot-on descriptions of high-school "types," the brain, otherwise known as the geek or nerd, is the most widely seen in American teen movies. From flicks as far-reaching as Mean Girls and Grease, which are also generations apart, no high school story is complete without the requisite nerd. Often, there’s a whole squad of dorky kids hanging out in the background somewhere near the Goths (another classic staple of these kinds of movies, though sadly not as widely featured nowadays).
Although frequently the subject of makeover montages, much of the time the nerd role is cast according to a particular actor’s general vibe. Often, the real life person is near-indistinguishable from his or her onscreen character. Even when it’s embarrassing to admit it, the actor tends to learn a lot from their nerd character. He or she might even find their career subsequently scuppered by the role. This is what the most famous movie nerds look like in real life.
Napolean Dynamite is thrilled to be typecast
It’s difficult to imagine anyone but Jon Heder playing the titular character in Napolean Dynamite. The movie, which instantly became a cult classic thanks to its insanely quotable dialogue and weirdly off-kilter every-man vibe, was a showcase for the then virtual unknown. It even led to him starring alongside comedy kingpin Will Ferrell in ice-skating farce Blades of Glory. To this day, though, Heder is still most well-known for playing Napolean Dynamite.
In fact, he’ll probably never truly escape the role (for which he was famously paid just $1,000). In a since-removed 2012 interview with Heder, Time Out‘s Ashley Greene notes right off the bat that the actor looks nothing like his most famous character. Heder, who had a lot of input developing the character, based him partially on his own brothers, who were constantly complaining as kids.
However, looks may be deceiving, as the actor himself is a self-confessed outcast, telling the site that he doesn’t mind being typecast as the nerd. "I love playing those outcasts and weirdos because it’s who I am in real life," he revealed. As an aging Scoutmaster, however, he finds the sheen has worn off as his teenage charges don’t really care that he’s Napolean Dynamite anymore.
Booger is king of the nerds
The quintessential nerd movie is still, arguably, Revenge of the Nerds. An ’80s classic that prevails in spite of slightly dodgy sexual politics, the movie is the ultimate, well, revenge story for those who felt marginalized during their high school experience. Actor Curtis Armstrong, who played Booger, acknowledged in a chat with Entertainment Weekly to mark the 30th anniversary of its release that Revenge of the Nerds has yet to fade from the public consciousness. And, considering its rabid fan-base, it’s doubtful it ever will.
Armstrong revealed that he had written a biography for his character back in the day, only to stumble upon it years later and realize that he’d actually based Booger on himself. "I was insecure growing up. I didn’t have dates or anything like that; I was not good around girls. But I had other ways of defending myself other than being crude and picking my nose. When I look at it now with some distance, I realize all I was doing was writing about myself," he admitted.
Being a famous nerd has worked out well for the actor, though, as he went on to executive produce long-running TV game show King of the Nerds with the legendary Robert Carradine.
Josie definitely isn’t grossie anymore
Drew Barrymore has been acting since before she could walk, but one of her most beloved and iconic roles is as tortured high school nerd turned plucky reporter Josie Geller. Barrymore’s youthful struggles with the perils of addiction and fame are well-documented, but it’s in Josie that all of that pain is laid devastatingly bare for the world to see — not least in the film’s most heartbreaking moment, when a prom-ready Josie is pelted with eggs by a cruel classmate.
In a career-spanning interview with The Guardian, the actress opened up about how she never related to her peers growing up, even when the whole world was captivated by her presence on the silver screen. Never Been Kissed was the first movie Barrymore made with her production company, Blossom Films, meaning it’s intensely personal for the actress.
Barrymore related to Josie because the actress was no stranger to rejection following her highly publicized personal difficulties, including being blacklisted as a teenager. Thankfully, she managed to bounce back and is now a mother with a career as an actress, writer, director, and producer. As she reiterated to Glamour, she’s not Josie Grossie anymore.
Laney got a real high school experience
Of all the movie makeovers of dumpy geeks, the revelation that She’s All That‘s Laney Boggs is actually pretty is widely considered to be the most egregious. As memorably lampooned in Not Another Teen Movie, Laney’s only crimes are wearing glasses, having paint-covered overalls, and her hair being in a ponytail.
In an interview with The Daily Beast to mark the film’s 15th anniversary, director Robert Iscove revealed that they considered everybody from Leelee Sobieski (who starred as a nerd who befriends Josie in Never Been Kissed) to The Fast and the Furious‘ Jordana Brewster for the role. "She had to be beautiful, self-deprecating, funny, withdrawn, and all that," he explained of what was required for Laney.
Rachael Leigh Cook, who was eventually cast, admitted that she was a bit nerdy in high school, but not to the extent her character is. The movie was hugely special for her, though, as aside from being her big break, it also served as the actress’s only real high school experience. "I didn’t get to go to prom. I remember when we were shooting the prom scenes thinking, ‘This is good enough. I’ll take this’," she told Today in 2017.
The cool kids were NICE to Eugene?!
Eugene spends most of Grease being picked on by the T-Birds, only to discover right at the end of his high school experience that he could have been a jock all along (and gets pied in the face for his trouble). Actor Eddie Deezen, who portrayed hapless Eugene so brilliantly in the movie, has actually made a career of playing nerds, from leading a debate team in Midnight Madness to experimenting as a teenage scientist in Surf II.
He went deep on nerd-dom with VICE back in 2012, proudly espousing its history as he sees it. "We all live in three universes. You have your own universe, the universe of me. Next, we are all here and this is the physical universe. Then there is everybody else’s universe. The nerd is too stuck in their own universe," he explained.
Deezen even proudly listed his own nerdy credentials, from wearing glasses to being useless with women. He also revealed how, on the set of Grease, the actors portraying T-Birds, and even rival gang-banger Crater Face, were actually super nice to him.
McLovin looked too young for a fake ID
For many of the actors on this list, being cast in the nerd role was their big break. That is none more true than in the case of Christopher Mintz-Plasse, who made his big-screen debut as Fogell (aka McLovin) in 2007’s Superbad. Most notably, Mintz-Plasse’s mother had to remain on set during his sex scene because he was underage. And since the movie, he’s made a habit of popping up in the likes of Pitch Perfect and Neighbors playing variations on that same character. Maybe the truth is he just is that kid.
As the story goes, casting director Allison Jones knew Mintz-Plasse was right for the role after receiving a head-shot of him taken on what appeared to be a camera-phone. "You could tell he was a kid who probably had seen the inside of a locker," she told the New Yorker in 2015. Mintz-Plasse’s audition for Superbad was actually his first audition ever. Although, as he told Collider, he was more like Jonah Hill’s character, Seth, in high school admitting, "I had a dirty mouth." Also unlike McLovin, however, Mintz-Plasse admitted to not having a fake ID (he was 18 at the time) due to looking "about 15."
Kevin G. picked himself right back up
Kevin Gnapoor is one of the most memorable elements of Mean Girls, a teen movie chocked wall-to-wall with memorable moments. After getting into a spot of bother at the school talent show thanks to his racy rap, math nerd/badass MC Kevin G. finds teen love with prickly Janis Ian. In reality, life didn’t go so smoothly for actor Rajiv Surendra.
As he detailed to MTV, the actor figured Mean Girls was his big break and set about aiming even higher. He dedicated his whole life to getting the leading role in the epic Life of Pi, only to be denied even a shot at the audition. He learned from the experience in a big way, however, realizing that he now has nothing to fear (not even tigers).
"I realized that if I could put all my eggs in one basket, lose it all, and fall apart — fall flat on my face — and then pick myself back up, I could do it again. And the next time I’m not going to be afraid of failing, because I already failed," he enthused.
Hermione isn’t afraid to be herself
The Emma Watson we know and love nowadays is an articulate, vocal feminist and women’s rights activist unafraid to speak out about whatever issues are currently troubling her. Back when the world-conquering Harry Potter series began, however, the young Watson was terrified of admitting just how much she related to bookworm Hermione. "I feel as though I spent a long time trying to pretend I was not like Hermione. And, of course, I was rather like Hermione," she admitted in a lengthy chat with legendary feminist Gloria Steinem.
In a subsequent discussion with another feminist icon, Bell Hooks, for Paper magazine Watson further expanded on how she really was that nerdy girl in her schooldays. "I was the girl in school whose hand shot up to answer the questions. I was really eager to learn in an uncool way. In a super uncool way, actually. And then the character of Hermione gave me permission to be who I was," she said.
Although the actress initially tried to separate herself from the role, as Watson grew up she realized that she’d learned an awful lot from playing Hermione. Rather than wishing to be cooler than her, Watson sought to replicate the character’s strength, intelligence, and bravery. She wanted to be worthy of her, instead of the other way around.
Lilly wants the men of Hollywood to shut up and listen
It’s yet another sad fact of Hollywood that, where a nerd role such as McLovin or Napolean Dynamite can make a man’s career, a similar character for an actress can sink it. Such is the case with Heather Matarazzo’s Lilly, the plucky, mouthy sidekick to Anne Hathaway’s drippy Mia in The Princess Diaries. Matarazzo was limited by her role in the hit movie. As she told The Guardian, she continuously heard how ugly and plain she was the older she got.
Matarazzo let rip in a since-removed post entitled "What The F*** Is F***able?" where she called out Hollywood’s sexist treatment of actresses. In discussion with MTV, she explained that once she took the power back, everything changed for her, from the roles she went out for to the way she perceived herself as a person. Matarazzo also called for more female representation in Hollywood, both behind and in front of the camera.
In tribute to her most iconic role, Matarazzo even hosts a podcast called, you guessed it, Shut Up and Listen.