Movies about the exploits of teens – especially sexual exploits – are normally cash cows for the studios and because the audience tends to be young and not terribly discerning they can be shot on the cheap, ensuring a quick profit. See e.g., American Pie, Superbad, et al.
But while movies about teens are cheap and easy to make, movies starring actual teens are a much more expensive proposition for the simple fact that most teens are tough to work with. Whether it’s because they’re moody, difficult, inconsistent or just because of workplace restrictions on hours , using an actual teen in the role of teen can inflate a picture’s budget before a single frame of celluloid is shot, which is why most films about teenagers have not a single teen in the cast and in the place of the teens, cast actors well into adulthood. See the recent example of Youth in Revolt starring Michael Cera, who was roughly 20 at the time of filming.
Below are 16 of the more egregious examples of an adult being cast in the role of a teen, from the smallest gap to the widest. You should bear in mind that in compiling this list that most characters ages are never revealed in the film and usually have to be inferred, but since this isn’t rocket science and the shuttle isn’t going to burn up on launch if we Dutch the numbers a little, we can make do.
Note that Anthony Edwards isn’t the only overage actor in the ROTN cast, which is rife with problems. After all, Ted McGinley was 26, Curtis Armstrong 31, and Donald Gibb 32 at the time the movie came out. However, they were overlooked because as they were athletes, and upperclassmen, it’s possible that they were in their fifth year of college and therefore not playing teenagers, whereas Edwards, as a newly-minted college freshmen, clearly was.
3. Six Years – Ralph Macchio at 22 as Daniel LaRusso, 16 in The Karate Kid (1984)
At the start of TKK LaRusso does not have his license, and as the common age for licensing in the mid-80s was 16, it’s assumed that LaRusso passes from 15 to 16 over the course of the film. Also, it is worth noting that Pat Morita, who earned an Academy Award nod as Daniel’s mentor, Mr. Miyagi, played even farther above his age than Macchio played below. Morita was born in 1932, and therefore would have been but 13 at the time the Manzanar Internment Camp closed, hardly of an age to have a wife and son who could have perished in the same camp while he was off fighting in WWII, as his character did.
5. Seven Years – Joseph Gordon-Leavitt at 25 as Brendan Frye, presumably 18, in Brick (2006)
Brick was not the first instance of JGL appearing as a teen even though he’s an adult. Among the more notorious – or notoriously shocking roles – was as the sexually-compulsive Neil in The Mysterious Skin.
Like Revenge of the Nerds, nobody played their age in American Pie, with Jason Biggs being three years older than his character, Sean William Scott five older than his, and Shannon Elizabeth a whopping eight.
Isn’t it sad to think that if anybody remembers poor Judge Reinhold at all it is because of the scene in this movie where he masturbates while fantasizing about Phoebe Cates coming out of the pool? It’s kind of like Ned Beatty trying to live down the fact that he’s got a ‘purty mouth’ and squeals convincingly like a pig.
When I made this list I tried to base the gap between character and actor on the age of the actor at the time the film was released and ignored sequels. This was dubbed – by me – the ‘McFly Rule.’ This rule was necesary because in the case of the Back To The Future series, the character of Marty McFly technically ages but a day throughout the series while the actor playing him, Michael J. Fox, added five and fairness dictated leaving the sequels out.
10. Eight Years – Sissy Spacek at 23 as Holly, 15, in Badlands (1973)
11. Nine Years – Sissy Spacek at 26 as Carrie White, 17, in Carrie (1976)
Note that Carrie is another example of all the teens in a movie being played by adults. P.J. Soles was approximately eight years older than her character, Norma, as was Nancy Allen as Sue; William Katt and Edie McClurg were approximately seven years older than their characters and Amy Irving five. Of the principle cast, John Travolta was the closest in age to his character as he was a mere four years older than Billy Nolan, the procurer of the pig’s blood.
12. Nine Years – Denise Richards at 27 as Kelly Van Ryan, presumably 18, in Wild Things (1998)
It’s interesting to note that the woman who played Richards’ mother in the film, Theresa Russell, is but 14 years older than Richards.
We learn in the movie that ‘nobody puts Baby in a corner,’ but only now do I realize it’s because Baby was closing in on thirty and probably too old for standing in a corner anymore.
In this film P.J. proved the rule that if you show your goodies or have sex in a horror film, you’re sure to die.
15. Eleven Years – Alan Ruck at 29 as Cameron Frye, presumably 18, in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)
See the note about ROTN under Number 1, about Anthony Edwards.
Negative Three Years – Laurence Fishburne at 14/15 as Mr. Clean, 17, in Apocalypse Now (1979)
I wanted to include Laurence Fishburne here as some sort of honorable mention because while he didn’t play a teen as an adult, he did play a teen as a teen, though, as he was 14/15 at the time his scenes were filmed in Apocalypse Now, he was as much as three years younger than his 17 year-old-character. I thought that accounted for something, even though by the time the was released in 1979, Fishburne had exceeded his characters age. And life span.
Assuming that everyone in the movie Grease playing a high school kid was playing a senior, at therefore 18 years old, then the cast of Grease is the Grand Campion of all at adults playing teens. All told the principle cast of Grease is 100 years older than the characters they played, or an average of 9.1 years.
The Pink Ladies
Didi Conn 26, Olivia Newton John 29, Dinah Mannof 30, Jamie Donnelly 30, Stockard Channing 34
Kelly Ward 21, John Travolta 24, Michael Tucci 28, Barry Pearl 28, Jeff Conaway 28
Eddie Deezen 20