It seems like few actors make the trek from child star to adult star successfully in Hollywood, but they’re out there. You just may have forgotten about their earlier work. Some of the stars on this list took a hiatus at some point in their careers — out of sight; out of mind. Others worked on early projects we forgot all about or never saw in the first place. Not to mention, the simple act of growing up and looking different has rendered some of today’s stars nearly unrecognizable from their younger selves.
Who rubbed elbows with Leonardo DiCaprio back in the day? Who dabbled in showbiz just to "get out of the house?" From fond memories to horrible experiences, the lives of child actors can be as controversial as the storylines they enact. You may think you know when and where an A-lister came from, but we’re about to blow your mind as we celebrate those oft overlooked child stars whose careers successfully matured in Tinseltown.
The different faces of Christian Bale
You would be forgiven for forgetting that Christian Bale was a child star. After watching him in 2000’s American Psycho, many film fans believed they were seeing a star in the making, but this star had been burning for years at that point.
In 1987, Bale captivated audiences with his performance in Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun. He was just 13. For his work, the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures gave him the first award for best performance by a juvenile actor. Following that role, however, it wasn’t all smooth sailing for Bale. The young actor found the pressures of the industry challenging. During the press junket for Empire of the Sun, Bale was reportedly combative and difficult. He took some time off and returned in 1989’s Henry V.
While Bale went on to enjoy a commendable career throughout his teenage years, appearing in films such as Newsies and Little Women, it wasn’t until American Psycho that he became a household name. Playing the murderous Patrick Bateman was a departure for Bale — showcasing the type of dramatic transformation we’ve since become accustomed to seeing from this incredible talent.
Ryan Reynolds: Canada’s golden boy
Ryan Reynolds is one of the biggest actors in the industry these days. His fans often look back to his early work on TV in Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place or on film in National Lampoon’s Van Wilder. But Reynolds’ fame goes back further than that, at least, in Canada it does.
In 1991, he starred in the Canadian teen drama series Hillside (Fifteen in the United States). Cast when he was 14 years old, Reynolds played Billy Simpson – and earned about $150 an episode. Even though the money made him feel like a "gajillionaire," it wasn’t enough to keep Reynolds acting. In an interview on Live with Kelly and Michael, Reynolds said he quit the biz after Hillside. "I hated it then," he said. "I just did it to kind of get out of the house. After that, I ended up working at a warehouse and I worked at a restaurant for two years."
According to Reynolds, the time off allowed him to gain some perspective, and it may be the reason he’s such a well-adjusted star now instead of "a child actor with some depraved drug addiction."
Joaquin Phoenix turns over a new leaf
When Joaquin Phoenix started acting, he didn’t even use the name Joaquin, so connecting the dots between the adult actor and the child star is a bit of a challenge. There’s also River Phoenix, the older brother of Joaquin, who was an enormous star and teen idol that cast a shadow over any work Joaquin did as a kid. A couple of years before River died of a drug overdose in 1993, Joaquin took time away from Hollywood. It wasn’t until the turn of the century that people began paying close attention to his work. In 1999, he co-starred in 8MM with Nicolas Cage, and then, of course, there was Gladiator in 2000. While those roles may have been the ones that got people talking about Joaquin, let’s dig into his career as a child actor, back when he went by the self-given name of "Leaf."
He landed his first role on Seven Brides for Seven Brothers alongside River and went on to appear in a number of popular TV shows and films as a kid, including Hill Street Blues, Murder, She Wrote and Parenthood. After that last film, he reportedly moved to Mexico, took a break from showbiz, and watched as River refined his superstar status, reported Hello!. After about a six-year hiatus, he returned to acting as Joaquin and became the recognizable star we know today.
Remember Hayden Panettiere
You probably recall Hayden Panettiere‘s role as Claire Bennet on Heroes, but there’s a good chance you saw her before – you just may not have put the pieces together because she was so young when her career launched.
Panettiere starred on the soap operas One Life to Live and Guiding Light from the age of 5 until she was about 10, then landed her most recognizable childhood role as Sheryl Yoast, the spunky daughter of a football coach, in 2000’s Remember the Titans. Despite her scene-stealing performance in the Denzel Washington film, it was easy to assume that Panettiere was a relative newcomer in the industry when Heroes rolled around. It wasn’t that she looked much different. It’s just that she didn’t land a lot of high-profile roles between Remember the Titans and Heroes. Aside from a small recurring role on Malcolm in the Middle, she suffered through some growing pains in Hollywood, but the star of Nashville definitely figured it out.
Johnny Galecki: The boy who saved Christmas
Nowadays, everyone knows Johnny Galecki as the star of The Big Bang Theory, but this is an actor who’s been in our lives for many years, even if people tend to forget that. Sure, fans may remember Galecki playing David Healey as a teenager in Roseanne, but he had earlier roles as well. If you’re a Christmas movie fan, there’s a very strong possibility that Galecki played an important role in your childhood. Yep, he’s Rusty in 1989’s National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, which is still a seasonal classic. Oh, and Prancer too, but even Galecki admits that was "a very odd experience." Still, many fans don’t associate current Galecki with holiday Galecki. Why?
Well, puberty, for starters. Even in the few short years between Christmas Vacation and Roseanne, Galecki grew from a nervous little kid to a messy-haired heartthrob of sorts. In a strange way, since both Galecki’s early films went on to become cult classics, a subsection of fans may have no idea the guy who plays scientist Leonard Hofstadter on The Big Bang Theory has actually been an annual tradition in their households for decades.
Flipping out about Jessica Alba
Though she may be distancing herself from Hollywood these days, Jessica Alba is still a household name for film fans. She blew up as a teenager in 2000 with her starring role in TV’s Dark Angel, but she had been in the industry for years before that show.
As a kid, Alba landed her first film role in 1994’s Camp Nowhere and nabbed a recurring gig on The Secret World of Alex Mack. Around this time, she also started shooting what would become her big break — playing free-spirited Maya Graham on The New Adventurs of Flipper. According to GQ, she acted in the series from age 12 to 15, but as she matured, her good looks began gaining more and more attention — a career development the actress supposedly grew to loath. She told the men’s mag that she has struggled to convince moviemakers to "[get] past my hotness" and consider her for more substantial work. — something "other than wearing a bikini and getting caught by the paparazzi."
Jason Bateman: From superstar to superstar
We’re all very familiar with Jason Bateman’s more recent work. Since Arrested Development‘s 2003 debut, he’s been a bright light in the industry, but his journey in Hollywood began long before that.
Back in 1982, Bateman played James Cooper Ingalls in Little House on the Prairie. After that, he took on a role in the TV series Silver Spoons, which then led to a starring role in It’s Your Move, followed by the mid-1980’s hit, The Hogan Family. Bateman’s role as David Hogan thrust him into teen-icon status, which only intensified when he starred in Teen Wolf Too. The ’80s were a good time to be Bateman, but the ’90s were not as kind, which may explain why you forgot about his awesome early career.
Bateman said the nineties almost ruined his life. "It was like Risky Business for 10 years," he told Details (via Us Weekly). "My parents were out of town, they left me a bunch of money, the car, and the house, and I didn’t know when they were coming home. I’d worked so hard that by the time I was 20, I wanted to play hard. And I did that really well." Thankfully, the star of the Ozark series and the Horrible Bosses films clearly found some healthy work-life balance later in life.
The sad truth about Eliza Dushku
When Eliza Dushku first appeared on Buffy the Vampire Slayer as teenager Faith, many fans thought she was a fresh face in Hollywood, but think again. Dushku got her career rolling by playing the precocious Alice Bloom in That Night in 1992. The next year, she played alongside another child star, Leonardo DiCaprio, in This Boy’s Life. Those early experiences led to a film that would change her life in more ways than one.
In 1994, Dushku played Dana Tasker, the daughter of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jamie Lee Curtis in True Lies. While her performance in the movie helped forge a long career in the industry, Dushku’s time on set was forever tarnished when she was allegedly assaulted by a crew member at age 12. Sadly, the only reason many fans now remembering Dushku’s past as a child actor is because of her troubling connection to this film. The actress revealed her traumatic history via a Facebook essay in January 2018, in the "hope that speaking out will help other victims and protect against future abuse … finally calling my abuser out publicly by name, brings the start of a new calm."
The mighty Jake Gyllenhaal
Much of Jake Gyllenhaal’s massive fanbase became attached to the star after his incredible performance in 2000’s Donnie Darko. Though he had acted before, notably in October Sky (a role that got him an Independent Spirit Award nomination) it was his leading role as Donnie Darko that made him a household name. But Gyllenhaal’s acting résumé goes back much further than those flicks.
Way back, when he was 11 years old, Gyllenhaal played Danny Robbins in 1991’s City Slickers. Though that role obviously didn’t make him a superstar, it did open some doors. From there, Gyllenhaal took on parts in A Dangerous Woman and Josh and S.A.M., but he eventually took time away from acting to finish his degree. In another timeline, however, Gyllenhaal might have been a huge child superstar. According to The Guardian, he landed a big role in 1992’s The Mighty Ducks, but his parents decided not to allow him to take the part, which would have required him to be out of town for two months.