Home Acting These Actors Played Much Younger Characters Onscreen

These Actors Played Much Younger Characters Onscreen

Darren February 19, 2024

One of the strangest aspects of cinema is when actors play much younger characters onscreen. Of course, if you’ve been a movie fan for a long time, it’s something that you’ve seen countless times. For example, how many times have we seen high school quarterbacks with the body of a Mr. Universe? Usually, studios want established stars and legal adults so that they can work with more freedom.

It’s often obvious when an actor is much older than their character because of their physique. But sometimes they surprise us because they actually look the part and it’s shocking to discover their real age. Let’s look at actors who played much younger characters onscreen. Some of these roles will surprise you with how big the age discrepancy truly was.

Orlando Bloom

Bloom became one of the biggest movie stars on the planet when he played Will Turner in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise beginning in 2003. Pirates lore informs us that the young blacksmith-turned-pirate is only 18 in the first film. This is much younger than Bloom’s real age, who was 26 when director Gore Verbinski selected him.

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Slash Film

However, there was some controversy because Keira Knightly was 18 when she took the role of Elizabeth Swann. Some people didn’t think it was appropriate to cast them together because they had a big age difference. Ultimately, The Curse of the Black Pearl became one of the decade’s most iconic movies (via Movie Web).

Ncuti Gatwa

It’s fair to say that Gatwa is having a moment right now. The English actor became a household name when he played Eric in Sex Education. This earned him one of UK TV’s most iconic roles of Dr. Who. However, it was the former show that saw Gatwa play a much younger character.

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He was 27 when he began playing the 15-year-old Eric which is slightly strange. However, he is one of the most convincing teenagers on this list and gave the part everything. Gatwa also became a queer icon for his efforts and helped Sex Education to become a breakout success (via Teen Vogue).

Emilia Clarke

Game of Thrones catapulted Clarke into worldwide fame after she starred as Daenerys Targaryen in the hit fantasy show. However, the character’s backstory is a little bit disturbing. George R. R. Martin created the dragon princess as a 13-year-old. The show wisely aged her up to 16 because of the show’s violent adult content.

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The Hollywood Reporter

But Clarke was 25 during the filming of season one and she was about 34 when the show finished. This meant that she was over 10 years older than her character. Nonetheless, it didn’t faze fans because she became one of the show’s most popular stars. Clarke is now a major Hollywood star after she made the step up to movies (via The Hollywood Reporter).

Joe Keery

Some actors have the charisma to turn supporting characters into fan favorites. That’s exactly what Keery achieved when he played Steve in Stranger Things. Everybody loved his unexpected friendship with Gaten Matarazzo’s Dustin. However, many fans didn’t realize that Keery was significantly older than Steve.

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Steve is supposed to be 17 years old during the events of the first season so he’s at least seven years younger than Keery. Then Keery turned 30 in season four, leaving his teenage years far behind him. Despite the gap, most people agree that he’s one of the most convincing teenagers in the series (via Screenrant).

Lucas Black

The Fast And The Furious: Tokyo Drift is a cult classic and remains one of the most random episodes of the franchise. There are some brilliant moments in the Japanese-set action thriller but one aspect was hilarious. This was the movie’s effort to convince viewers that Black’s character was a 17-year-old.

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Black played high schooler Sean Boswell but he didn’t look the part. The 25-year-old had the physique of a man much older so he didn’t suit playing much younger characters. Nonetheless, most fans looked past this because they didn’t watch this movie for social realism (via Best Life).

Florence Pugh

Pugh emerged as one of Hollywood’s best actresses over the past few years with some powerhouse performances. The British actress takes risky roles but pulls them off with aplomb. This sometimes sees her play much younger characters like Amy March in Greta Gerwig’s Little Women adaptation.

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The Midsommar star was 22 when she starred as the petulant 12-year-old. This forced audiences to suspend belief but she was compelling enough in the part to make it work. She was a member of an all-star female cast including Saoirse Ronan and Emma Watson. But Pugh did enough to stand out on her merit (via Vox).

Tobey Maguire

Everybody knows that Andrew Garfield was much older than his character in The Amazing Spider-Man. But it’s easy to forget that Maguire was also older than the canon Peter Parker in 2002’s Spider-Man. Maguire was 27 when he played the 17-year-old superhero in his most iconic role (via Byliner).

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Some actors don’t convince audiences when they play much younger characters. However, Maguire was perfect in this role because had a nerdy demeanor that made him a very believable teenager. His trilogy was a massive success and he even renewed the part in 2021’s Spider-Man: No Way Home when he was 41.

Emma Thompson

Sense and Sensibility remains one of the most acclaimed Jane Austen adaptations. The 1995 film included a clutch of Britain’s best actors including Kate Winslet, Alan Rickman, and Hugh Grant. But it was Thompson who raised eyebrows because she played the precocious Elinor Dashwood.

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The Telegraph

The problem was that Austen wrote Dashwood as a 19-year-old but Thompson was 35 at the time. We’ve seen dramatic age gaps in many productions but this was excessive. Some critics said that it changed the dynamic of the character. However, Thompson earned a Best Actress Oscar nomination (via Huffington Post).

Tom Welling

Many television actors play much younger characters but some push the boundaries of belief. That’s what Smallville showrunners did when they decided that Welling was the perfect choice to play a young Clark Kent. There was no universe where Welling looked like a 14-year-old but that’s what they claimed.

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He had a better physique than a prime Tom Brady but somehow he’s just entering puberty? Yes, Welling’s character had superpowers but he’s not going to be able to hide when he looks like that. It also enters complex territory because it asks audiences to fetishize a young teenage character (via BuzzFeed).

Jennifer Grey

Dirty Dancing is one of the most beloved romantic movies ever. Fans love the sizzling chemistry between Grey and her co-star Patrick Swayze. It’s one of those movies that spawned so many parodies but nothing touches the original. However, Grey and Swayze were both significantly older than their characters.

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She played 18-year-old Baby, a high school graduate when she was 26. Meanwhile, Swayze was 34 during filming which made him a decade older than his character. This didn’t bother audiences because it became a huge success and remains a classic today (via HITC).

Bianca Lawson

There aren’t many 31-year-olds who can pass for 16 but Lawson was one of them. At least, that’s what studios believed when they cast her as Maya in Pretty Little Liars. We’re not sure that she’s the most believable teenager on the planet but the actress knows about playing much younger characters.

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She took it to the next level on American Horror Story when she was 32. Remarkably, her on-screen character was only 15 as she showed that age is just a number. We’re expecting Lawson to continue playing teenagers when she’s in her forties. This woman is aging backward on TV (via Essence).

Jesse Metcalfe

Most Metcalfe fans knew him as the hot gardener from Desperate Housewives. They sat up and took notice when he took the starring role in John Tucker Must Die. But the laughable part of this was that he was playing a teenage boy. We’ve seen so many factors play much younger characters but this was ridiculous.

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All of the high school students in that film could have been college post-grads. The movie attracted derisive reviews and Metcalfe never got another chance to be a big star. However, it retains a cult appeal and there are still many people who enjoy it. There’s no denying that they like the eye candy it provides (via E-News!).

Rachel McAdams

Even Mean Girls director Mark Waters didn’t think that McAdams could be a convincing 16-year-old. However, she made a mockery of this by starring in one of the most iconic teen movies ever. This is a film that every girl has rewatched and quoted a million times. McAdams played a huge role by bringing the horrible Regina George to life.

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Some actors fail miserably when they play much younger characters. But McAdams didn’t have any problems because she had the right combination of charm, charisma, and petty malice. Furthermore, it helped that Regina was trying to appear older than she was. In the end, it was a brilliant decision (via The National News).

Darren Barnet

It’s always weird when older actors play much younger characters. But it’s even stranger when a studio casts an older male alongside a younger woman. Barnet starred as Paxton Hall-Yoshida in Never Have I Ever when he was 31. Meanwhile, his on-screen persona was only 18 (via Teen Vogue).

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Teen Vogue

The strangest aspect of this was that his character had an on-screen relationship with Maitreyi Ramakrishnan’s Devi. However, the actress herself was only 20 so there was a huge age gap. Critics said that this was creepy and they also criticized the showrunners for their lack of casting consistency.

Chase Stokes

Outer Banks became a sleeper hit on Netflix because audiences enjoyed watching hot teenagers on treasure hunts. The formula was simple but it was effective. The main characters were 16 or 17 years old but it won’t shock anybody that the actors were older. Stokes was 28 when he took the lead role of John B.

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This meant that he was 30 when they began filming season three of the show. Madison Bailey and Madalyn Cline were only six years older than their characters. However, the least convincing is Austin North who came straight from the Lucas Black school of 16-year-olds (via Harper’s Bazaar).

Keanu Reeves

Many joke that longtime leading man Reeves never appears to age. There’s something about him and Paul Rudd that’s almost disconcerting. This helped him in the early days of his career. One of his favorite roles was when he played slacker Ted in Bill And Ted’s Excellent Adventure (via The Atlantic).

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The New York Times

Bill and Ted were teenagers in this first movie before they went on their time-travel journey. But Reeves was a 22-year-old at the time so he was older than his character. Nonetheless, he reprised the role several times and it became a fan-favorite. It was a creative and wholesome story so no wonder it stood the test of time.

Winona Ryder

Girl, Interrupted was one of the most polarizing movies of 1999. This was when Ryder was one of Hollywood’s biggest stars. Several dramatic stories emerged from the production including her poor working relationship with Angelina Jolie. Another interesting aspect was her age during filming.

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Her character, Susanna, is roughly 18 years old but Ryder isn’t that young. She was 27 when she won the leading role and made it her own. Ryder joined the ranks of actors who successfully played much younger characters. She was perfect in the part and made it one of her most iconic parts (via Bright Side).

Cole Sprouse

Riverdale lasted for an impressive seven seasons before it finally ran out of gas. The teen show starred several actors who played much younger characters. Sprouse is probably the most dramatic example because he was 24 when he first appeared as the 16-year-old Jughead Jones.

Los Angeles Times

This meant that he was in his thirties when the show concluded. However, let’s give him some credit because he’s one of the most convincing fake teenagers we’ve seen. Sprouse has this ageless look to him that helped his character. When he wore the right clothes he passed for an angsty teen (via Vulture).

Nicolas Brendon

Buffy remains a cult classic and one of the most iconic shows of the nineties. Sarah Michelle Gellar was 17 when she took the titular role and became a star. But one actor played a much younger character in the supernatural teen drama. We’re talking about Brendon who began playing Xander when he was 26.

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The US Sun

This meant that he was a decade older than his high school student character. Nonetheless, Xander became a fan-favorite despite his five o’clock shadow. Brendon continued to play Xander into his thirties as he lived vicariously through the sarcastic teenager (via The Guardian).

Nicola Coughlan

Coughlan is making a career out of playing much younger characters. The Irish actress became a breakout star after she won the role of Clare Devlin in Derry Girls. She was 31 but this didn’t stop her from transforming into a 16-year-old schoolgirl. Coughlan and her co-stars attracted global attention for their hilarious performances (via Pop Buzz).

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After Derry Girls Coughlan moved onto another Netflix hit when she starred in Bridgerton. This time she was the 18-year-old Penelope Featherington as she showed that she was drinking from the fountain of youth. It seems like Coughlan never wants to grow up but who can blame her for this?

Leonardo DiCaprio

DiCaprio has always had a baby face so that’s why it’s easy to believe him when he plays much younger characters. He took this to another level when he starred in Catch Me If You Can. This hit movie about a young con man was one of his lightest efforts. DiCaprio was 28 during filming but his character, Frank Abagnale Jr., was 15 at the start of the movie.


To be fair, Abagnale ages throughout the movie as we see his chaotic life progress. However, it’s amazing how convincing DiCaprio is as a teenager on the big screen. His relatively slight frame and soft features help to make him appear to be the real deal. Even now, he still has a young face (via Empire Online).

Shirley Henderson

Harry Potter fans watched Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson grow up in front of them. It’s fair to say that they wouldn’t associate the magical franchise with actors playing much younger characters. However, there was one dramatic exception that many people didn’t realize.

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The Sun

Moaning Myrtle is the ghost of a teenage girl who haunted a restroom in the second movie. 37-year-old Henderson played this eerie phantom in one of the weirdest casting decisions ever. It’s a massive compliment for a director to tell a mature woman that he wants her to play a 15-year-old girl (via The Sun).

Gabrielle Union

Bring It On was one of the most polarizing movies of 2000. Some critics thought that it was a generic teen sports comedy. Others appreciated how it broke social boundaries and raised issues. However, we don’t care about any of that because we’re interested in older actors playing younger characters.


Union was the most dramatic example of that in this cheerleading film. She was the oldest member of the high school cast at 27. There’s no denying that she looks young but it’s a little bit of a stretch to believe this. Nonetheless, she gave it her best shot as she tried to recapture the magic of youth (via Vogue).

Taylor Kitsch

Friday Night Lights turned many of its cast members into bonafide stars. Kitsch was one of these breakout performers because he was brilliant as Tim Riggins, the Dillon Panthers linebacker. This hard-living teenager attracted older women and drank too much but remained charismatic.

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Vanity Fair

However, he was 26 when he began playing Riggins so it won’t shock anyone that most teen boys don’t look this way. His co-star Minka Kelly was also 26 when she starred as Lyla Garrity. These were two of the most high-profile actors who played much younger characters in the show (via Southern Living).

Andrew Garfield

There are many examples of older actors playing much younger characters but this is arguably the most famous in recent years. Garfield played Peter Parker in The Amazing Spider-Man and tried to convince everybody that he was a teenage boy. He was touching 30 at the time so it involved a massive suspension of belief.

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The Hollywood Reporter

Meanwhile, his co-star Emma Stone was 22 so she was only six years older than her character, Gwen Stacey. Compared to Garfield, they were effectively the same age. Despite this, Garfield did a decent job as the New York superhero but the movies didn’t have the same gravitas as Tobey Maguire’s (via People).