It’s a slippery slope to place a child star in a highly controversial role. Take Linda Blair’s breakout performance in 1973’s The Exorcist, for example. The movie was so horrifying, that even the famed film critic Roger Ebert thought it deserved an X rating instead of the R for its "brutal shocks, [and] almost indescribable obscenities." Audiences were stunned by the young star’s portrayal of a girl possessed by the devil, and according to Blair, even made up stories about her being "mentally disturbed" as a result of the flick. "I never was because I never bought into the whole Devil thing," she would explain years later to USA Today. Revealing that the "outright lies" hurt her and led her to turn to drugs and alcohol, the mental toll these roles can take on an impressionable kid are almost as bad as the characters themselves.
While it’s easy to brush off Blair’s harrowing experience on ’70s audiences not being as liberal as today’s viewers, public backlash is still the norm when child actresses take on parts involving sexual or macabre scenarios. Let’s find out which former child stars can now look back at their experiences and say that they’ve learned from them, and which felt uncomfortable long after the credits have rolled.
Even Scorsese was uncomfortable directing this flick
Former Disney actress Jodie Foster took on an extremely risqué role at the age of 12 — reaching only 13 by the time of its release. The character was that of an underage prostitute, Iris, in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. The part snagged her an Oscar nom for "Best Actress in a Supporting Role," but it raised many eyebrows along the way. According to The New York Times, the Los Angeles welfare board was "not so sure that Jodie should play the part … she had to undergo a four‐hour interview with a Los Angeles psychiatrist, who ruled that she was mentally equipped to handle the part."
As it turned out, Foster was mature well beyond her years. When The New York Times asked her how she played the part so authentically, the then-13-year-old actress simply said, "Well, I’ve never been [a prostitute]. And I’ve never observed or talked to a teenage prostitute. But listen, kids aren’t stupid anymore, like they used to be. Everybody knows what hookers are."
It was only after many years and a highly successful career that the Panic Room star addressed the elephant in the room. On to The Graham Norton Show (via Independent), the actress revealed, "They were very uncomfortable about my character. Nobody knew how to direct me."
Natalie Portman’s first role resulted in twisted fan mail
Oscar-winner Natalie Portman made her Hollywood debut as a child actress at the age of 12, playing Mathilda in Leon: The Professional. Her character is an orphaned girl who befriends an assassin and learns the tricks of his trade while forming a "platonic" relationship with the man. If the idea of a child assassin isn’t controversial enough — get a load of what she had to wear. Per The New York Times, Portman donned "the bobbed hair, black choker and striped jersey that make her look like a mini-Parisian streetwalker and certainly like a pederast’s delight." Cringe.
While it may seem bizarre that a grown man would form such a bond with a pre-teen, the original cut of the movie is even more brazen. According to Variety, the uncut version sees the leading characters edging closer towards a romantic relationship. Shown to an L.A. audience before its initial release, this version "tested disastrously."
Portman addressed the role at the 2018 Women’s March (per Access Hollywood), expressing how she felt sexualized by it. Describing a "rape fantasy" sent to her in a fan letter, as well as a radio station’s "countdown" to her 18th birthday, Portman concluded, "The message from our culture was clear to me. I felt the need to cover my body and to inhibit my expression and my work in order to send my own message to the world: that I’m someone worthy of safety and respect."
Protesters were concerned for this child actress
Acclaimed child actress Dakota Fanning grew up in the public eye, starring in wholesome roles such as the young Melanie in Sweet Home Alabama, and Fern in Charlotte’s Web. Yet, a year after playing the adorable Fern, the blue-eyed 12 year tackled her first controversial role as Lewellen in Hounddog. The part of the Elvis fanatic included some very mature scenes, such as the horrifying rape of her character. The reviews at the time noted the public backlash of the role, and as Slate wrote, "Protesters of the film may be genuinely concerned that acting out a rape scene in a film is traumatic to Fanning."
Fanning didn’t take too well to her critics. She lashed out in a press conference in Los Angeles (via Today), "When it gets to the point of attacking my mother, my agent … my teacher, who were all on the set that day, that started to make me mad … They hadn’t seen the movie."
At the end of the day, the young, but seemingly mature beyond her years starlet felt she was leading audiences to harrowing discussions worth talking about. In an interview with The New York Times, Fanning, at just 12 years old, mused, "There are so many children that this happens to, every second. That’s the sad part. If anyone’s talking about anything, that’s what they should be talking about."
This star thought kissing Brad Pitt was ‘disgusting’
Kristen Dunst was already a veteran child actress with five years of credits to her name when she landed her breakout role in Interview with the Vampire. A 10 years old, Dunst played Claudia, a girl who gets turned into a vamp while she’s still an adolescent — with her body staying the same as she mentally grows.
With the mental maturity needed for the role, the actress found herself in some risqué scenes, including some with Brad Pitt, who is 19 years her senior. Although she pulled off the part with ease, several years later Dunst admitted to Interview (per The Age) that she wasn’t too keen on the intimate scenes with the Hollywood hunk. "Kissing Brad was so uncomfortable for me," she said, adding, "I remember saying in interviews that I thought it was gross, that Brad had cooties. I mean, I was 10."
With her now-thriving Tinseltown career under her belt, the Virgin Suicides actress later described some hilarious on-set memories with the heartthrob. "I remember Brad would watch lots of Real World episodes. He had this long hair," she dished to Bullet. "He was just a hippie-ish cool dude. Everyone at the time was like, ‘You’re so lucky you kissed Brad Pitt,’ but I thought it was disgusting." We bet looking back at it now, the celeb must be at least a little bit smug.
Thirteen, the teenage nightmare based on real events
When 2003’s Thirteen came out, it was every parent’s worst nightmare. As CBS News put it, "Thirteen has provoked debate and shocked parents with its realistic tale of two 13-year-old girls’ loss of innocence through sex, drugs, and shoplifting." Yikes. The icing on the cake? The story wasn’t even entirely fiction, as it was loosely based on child actress Nikki Reed’s real life.
The star, who was 15 at the time of the movie’s release, told the New York Daily News about her tumultuous childhood. "It was the worst time for me, really destructive, like slapping myself across the face but loving it." Reed co-wrote the script with Catherine Hardwick, a Hollywood production designer who was dating her dad at the time. Hardwick also spoke to the outlet, confirming the young star’s decline into rebellion. "When she started changing from 12 to 13 years old, I saw her losing her joy … It really freaked me out. I wanted her to get back to creative, rather than destructive, things." And so, the duo created Thirteen.
Co-starring along with Evan Rachel Wood, who was a year older than her, the girls’ controversial roles were met with positive feedback from their peers. As revealed in the New York Daily News, Reed even received emails from teens asking for "advice on makeup and boys." It turns out, it was actually a heartwarming end to a totally controversial film.
Jeremy Irons became obsessed with his underage love interest in Lolita
Vladimir Nabokov’s controversial ’50s novel, Lolita, shook audiences upon its release. According to The New York Times, the author sent the book to publishers, with none of them wanting to touch it. This included The New Yorker, "with whom Nabokov had a first-reading agreement." Following the story of a middle-aged European man "who seduces a 12-year-old American girl," the book was downright shocking.
Finally gaining artistic recognition as a literary piece, the novel was made into a film not once, but twice. However, it’s the second, 1997 version that raised eyebrows — primarily due to the child actress who played its titular character. Dominique Swain was only 14 years old when she took on the controversial role. According to The Telegraph, Jeremy Irons, who played her seducer, Humbert Humbert, even vocalized how uncomfortable he was shooting sex scenes with a minor. "I just tried to become obsessed by her. All right, I did become obsessed by her."
Although audience’s mouths were left agape at the erotic scenes with a minor, it turns out, the producers (thankfully) found a way to keep things morally correct. Per New York Daily News, a 19-year old body double was used, so the film did not violate the Child Pornography Prevention act of 1996. A total relief.
This child actress’ adult actor dad supervised her controversial role
Audiences were quick to raise their eyebrows at Mena Suvari’s part in American Beauty, playing the teenage love interest of Kevin Spacey, surrounded by rose petals in his dreams about her. But perhaps his daughter’s character, played by Thora Birch, should have been considered the more controversial role? Birch, who was 17 at the time of the film’s release, appeared topless in a scene. So, how exactly did that fly?
In an interview with The Berkshire Eagle, some 15 years after the film’s release, Birch said her parents "weren’t jumping up and down" with joy at the scene, but gave her permission, anyway. "To shoot the scene itself was definitely a nerve-wracking moment," Birch said. It showed the character in a "vulnerable" light, but "not sexual," she said. "Some people got upset."
To make things even more awkward, it’s the young actress’ dad that had to supervise the scene — and he wasn’t exactly totally innocent to what was happening on set, either. Per Daily Star, Jack Birch was actually an adult film star, having starred in Deepthroat with Linda Lovelace in the ’70s. Mega awkward.
Two A-List actresses kickstarted their careers with this shocker
Larry Clark’s 1995 film Kids is probably one of the most controversial films ever made — especially for its time — as it utilized actual teens in a gritty, urban setting. Two of the child actresses were Cloe Sevigny and Rosario Dawson, who actually made their acting debuts with their controversial roles that saw them actively indulging in sex, drugs, and alcohol. In fact, after losing her virginity, Sevigny’s character contracts HIV, having to act out the utterly jarring and isolating revelation on her own.
Per an oral history of the film given by the crew and actors for Rolling Stone, Dawson revealed the mindset of the young stars-to-be on set. "There maybe was a bit of shyness in all of us, and I think it made us relax."
Yet with all the shyness and innocence, no one was expecting the backlash that the film received. According to Yahoo! Entertainment, the movie was "met with accusations of pornography, exploitation, as well as an NC-17 rating from the MPAA." Years before his sexual assault scandal, it was Harvey Weinstein of all people who jumped through hoops to get Kids distributed. According to Rolling Stone, Weinstein himself revealed that he started "a distribution company strictly for the purpose of putting Kids out." Although absolutely horrifying to watch, Kids was a blunt testament to teenage youth of its time.
Claire Danes depicted Juliet with a maturity beyond her years
It’s easy to view Shakespeare’s plays as classical versions of everyday romance, yet when placed in contemporary settings, they seem ridiculously more jarring than usual. Baz Luhrmann’s modern retelling of Romeo and Juliet was perfectly adapted for its audience. Depicting gang violence and teen suicide, it made the bard’s timeless tale all the more tragic and disturbing. What’s even more shocking is the child actress who played Juliet, Claire Danes, was only 16 years old at the time.
The controversial role was incredibly hard to cast, for that exact reason. In fact, Natalie Portman also auditioned for the part. When the film came out, Portman revealed in an interview, "It was a complicated situation … at the time I was 13 and Leonardo was 21, and it wasn’t appropriate in the eyes of the film company or the director, Baz."
So, how did Luhrmann’s gaze fall on Danes when he had so many actresses audition for the role? Opening up to VPRO Cinema, he explained it was actually fellow director Jane Campion who turned his eyes to the young star. "She said, ‘She’s so mature for her age’, so I met her. I mean, I auditioned a lot of other young actors … I met her and what was amazing … I met Claire Danes and what was great was although she was still very young, like Juliet, she was wise beyond her years."
This Pretty Baby starlet was truly practically a baby
A 12-year-old Brooke Shields caused an absolute uproar in 1978 when she played the controversial role of a child prostitute in Pretty Baby. Labeled as "child porn" both by the cover of People magazine and popular gossip columnist of the time, Rona Barrett, the movie sparked complete outrage among audiences, even becoming banned in the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Saskatchewan.
Rolling her eyes at her critics, the then-child actress declared to People at the time, "It’s only a role. I’m not going to grow up and be a prostitute. If I were in a Walt Disney movie people would never ask me if the part would affect my life." Point proven. Although Shields wore a body stocking for all almost all of her nude scenes, the film’s director, Louis Malle, was also verbally butchered, even drawing comparisons to author Vladimir Nabokov’s fictional character, Humbert Humbert, in Lolita. Malle refuted the criticism, stating to People, "Anybody who calls it child pornography has not seen the d**n thing … nymphet and Lolita rub me the wrong way."
As for Shields, does she regret starring in the controversial flick? "It was the best creative project I’ve ever been associated with," the starlet exclusively dished to Vanity Fair in 2018. "The best group of people I’ve ever been blessed enough to work with."
Alicia wasn’t clueless at all about this controversial role
Two years before she starred as the iconically ditzy Cher in Clueless, Alicia Silverstone made quiet ripples in the water with a little flick called The Crush. Similar to that of teen thriller Poison Ivy or Lolita, but without the worldwide recognition, The Crush starred the then-15-year-old Silverstone falling in love with an older man — a plot point to which Variety suspected led to the film’s R rating.
It was the starlet’s feature film debut, and as she would tell Fango (via The Georgia Straight) at the time of the film’s release that she wanted to follow in the footsteps of another child actress who got her big break in a controversial role. "I want to follow Jodie Foster, ’cause she started young, but she didn’t begin by doing some silly, small thing — she started with serious, intense movies, and just kept growing."
And grow she did, as that same year the blonde-haired beauty would go on to land the leading part in an iconic music video that made her a household name — Aerosmith’s "Cryin‘."
This star’s real-life story was just as poisonous as her role
Drew Barrymore had a pretty unconventional upbringing as a child. As explained by The Guardian, the child actress rose to the spotlight starring in Steven Spielberg’s E.T., with the harsh realities of fame quickly following in unison. "At seven, she’s a film star pouring Baileys over her ice-cream, at 11 she develops a [drinking] problem, at 12 she’s a drug addict, at 13 she cuts her wrists and is hospitalized, and at 14 she’s legally divorced from her parents." It sounds totally unbelievable, but it was real life for the formerly troubled celeb.
The upside to such a concerning reality? Her bad girl image landed her some iconic parts, such as the titular role in 1992’s girl-gone-crazy thriller, Poison Ivy. Only 17 at the time of the film’s release, the controversial role saw the actress "playing a character close to her own public image – sexy, trashy, dangerous," as described by The Guardian.
Despite Barrymore’s wild child reputation, she claimed she had a good head on her shoulders. In an interview with MORE Magazine (via ET) in 2015, the star recalled, "Even if I was a bad girl at moments here and there, I was never a bad person." Considering she totally turned her life around and made her career as long-lasting as its been, she’s got a point.