Child Stars Who Became Successful Adult Actors

They made the notoriously bumpy transition look seamless.

child actors leonardo dicaprio
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Child stardom can be tough. You become known at a young age for an iconic role—and people will probably recognize you as that character for the rest of time. It can be tricky to transition to adulthood (and adult roles) when people want to remember you as a lovable youngster. And many a young actor has horror stories about how they were treated in Hollywood.

But with some luck, the right people around you, and the right opportunities, it's possible to successfully make the transition from child star to adult actor, as these stories show. Sometimes it takes a period away from the spotlight, and sometimes it takes one special adult role to convince everyone: Oh, that actor I used to love grew up, and they can really act! But when it works, it can make for a lucrative and sustainable lifelong career.

Elijah Wood

child actors Elijah wood

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Elijah Wood's first movie was Back to the Future Part II and, if you look back at some favorite '90s movies like The Good Son and Flipper, you'll see he had a prolific career as a teen. But his most notable role, obviously, is Frodo from Lord of the Rings, and he actually went on to star in several cool horror movies.

Sean Astin

child actors Sean astin

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The Samwise to Frodo's epic journey in Lord of the Rings, Sean Astin was previously most well-known for playing Mikey from The Goonies (and Rudy in Rudy, if you're into sports movies). He also made it into Stranger Things season 2!

Haley Joel Osment

child actors haley joel osment

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Hollywood's cutest little kid, Haley Joel Osment, was the best part of The Sixth Sense (and also had a small role as Forrest's son in Forrest Gump). He's starred on Broadway as an adult. You may also have seen him on your favorite shows, including The Boys, Silicon Valley, and What We Do in the Shadows.

Emma Roberts

child actors Emma Thompson

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The scream queen herself (with recurring roles on American Horror Story, a lead role in Scream Queens, and a big part in Scream 4), you'd be forgiven for forgetting that Emma Roberts first starred in Blow and then became famous as Addie in Unfabulous as a kid.

Mayim Bialik

child actors Mayim bialik

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While most younger folks know her as Amy on The Big Bang Theory (or a host on Jeopardy!), Mayim Bialik first won our hearts as Blossom from Blossom, who's living with her dad and two brothers in five glorious sitcom seasons.

Dakota and Elle Fanning

child actors Dakota Fanning and sister Elle Fanning

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The Fanning sisters started in Hollywood young, with Dakota starring in ER and Friends and both Elle and Dakota starring in I Am Sam. Both would go on to star in a lot of roles when they were older, including most notably The Great (Elle) and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (Dakota).

Lindsay Lohan

child actors Lindsay Lohan

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Lindsay Lohan's turbulent professional life is well-documented, but in case you're unaware: She starred as twins in The Parent Trap and then as a teen in Mean Girls; After a hiatus, she signed a multi-picture deal with Netflix and starred in Falling for Christmas in 2022.

Will Poulter

child actors Will poulter

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Will Poulter started acting when he was a teen, including in a Chronicles of Narnia movie as well as the Maze Runner films. As an adult, you may know him as the best part of Midsomar, as well as Dopesick and the third Guardians of the Galaxy movie.

Anna Paquin

child actors Anna Paquin

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We first learned about Anna Paquin when she became one of the youngest Oscar winners in history for her role in The Piano. She's worked a lot since—and, if you're like, "Where do I know her from??" it's her role as Sookie in True Blood.

Christina Ricci

child actors Christina Ricci

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Giving us magnificent deadpan as Wednesday Addams in the Addams Family movies, Christina Ricci would hit massive child stardom and go on to act in Casper and Now and Then. She has acted quite a bit, and you may have seen her in Yellowjackets and the series Wednesday.

Cole and Dylan Sprouse

child actors cole dylan sprouse

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The Suite Life of Zack & Cody stars actually started acting even younger (both splitting a single child role in Grace Under Fire; Cole also had a role as Ross' son in Friends). Both continued to act (Cole most notably in Riverdale and Dylan in Banana Split); Dylan also opened All-Wise Meadery in Brooklyn.

Anna Chlumsky

child actors Anna chlumsky

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After she played the lead in My Girl and its sequel, little girls like me wanted to be Anna Chlumsky when they were little. Chlumsky's biggest adult role was on the series Veep, in which she was Emmy-nominated, and she has also done voice work in the revived Rugrats.

Christian Bale

child actors Christian bale

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That's right, Batman was a child actor! Christian Bale was initially famous for Empire of the Sun and Newsies, but a sick-and-twisted role in American Psycho helped rebrand him as a serious adult actor. Many film roles followed, including in the fourth Thor film.

Ron Howard

child actors Ron Howard

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Ron Howard has had a long and fruitful career—and his trajectory is probably the gold standard for child actors. Opie from The Andie Griffith Show morphed into Richie from Happy Days and then morphed into the director of Apollo 13 and A Beautiful Mind.

Hilary Duff

child actors Hilary duff

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Teen idol and the erstwhile Lizzie McGuire, Hilary Duff has been a beloved actor—particularly among millennial women—for a long time. As such, her career has continued to flourish, including on Younger and How I Met Your Father (she produced as well!).

Neil Patrick Harris

child actors Neil Patrick Harris

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Doogie Howser! Neil Patrick Harris had a major resurgence, career-wise, when he starred as a (filthy, hilarious) version of himself in the first Harold & Kumar film. Then, he became Barney on How I Met Your Mother and worked prolifically since then.

Drew Barrymore

child actors Drew Barrymore

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By her own admission, Drew Barrymoore's young life was tough (she cited Steven Spielberg as a father figure—one of the few presences like that in her life—when the two worked together on E.T.). She worked a lot in the decades following, including Charlie's Angels, Scream, Donnie Darko, and more recently Santa Clarita Diet and a syndicated talk show.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt

child actors Joseph Gordon Levitt

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Gordon-Levitt was perfectly cast as the adult alien inside a child's body in Third Rock From the Sun, but his career didn't stop there. You may remember him from 10 Things I Hate About You, 500 Days of Summer, and The Trial of the Chicago 7 (and that's just a few!).

Kristen Stewart

child actors Kristen Stewart

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Perhaps you know her as Bella from Twilight? Stewart was cast alongside Jodie Foster in Panic Room when she was only 12. She has acted in many roles since the vampire series that made her famous, including in cool independent films and rom-coms like Happiest Season.

Mickey Rooney

child actors Mickey Rooney

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Mickey Rooney's career spanned nine(!!) decades, which has to be some sort of record. He was extremely popular as a teen and young adult as Andy Hardy, but later generations would know him as a popular TV presence on talk shows and dramas.

Kirsten Dunst

child actors Kirsten dunst

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If you've never seen the original Interview With a Vampire, Kirsten Dunst is probably the best part of it as Claudia, the child vampire who got turned when she was little. She made a name for herself as an adult too, including Spider-Man, Marie Antoinette, Fargo, and The Power of the Dog.

Keri Russell

child actors Keri Russell

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Felicity from Felicity! Scary spy Elizabeth in The Americans! Kate in The Diplomat! Keri Russell really can do it all, and there's a reason her career spans decades. But did you know she started as a Mickey Mouse Club show member?

Jason Bateman

child actor Jason Bateman

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Poor Michael Bluth in Arrested Development was first a character on Little House on the Prairie and The Hogan Family. Yes, Jason Bateman was a pretty prolific child actor, but had a hiatus in the '90s before being cast as Michael in 2003. And the rest was history.

Scarlett Johansson

child actor scarlett johansson

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One of the world's highest paid actresses started out her career at the tender at of 9. Her early roles included The Horse Whisperer and Ghost World, but it was her appearance in Lost in Translation that established her as an adult actor. Stardom (and eventually a superhero role with Marvel) would follow.

Jodie Foster

child actor Jodie foster

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Jodie Foster literally appeared in a Coppertone ad when she was 3(!!). She would go on to star in kid films (Freaky Friday) and then dramas (Taxi Driver), and then in her own right as a genuine adult actor in one of the best films ever (Silence of the Lambs).

Natalie Portman

child actors natalie portman

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Natalie Portman's long and storied career started when she was 12 in Léon: The Professional. She continued to act, but less, as she attended college, and her return to the acting world helped cement her new presence as an adult actor, including in Closer.

Ryan Gosling

child stars ryan gosling

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Ken, is that you?? The former Mickey Mouse Club member also starred in other kid-related fare like Goosebumps and Are You Afraid of the Dark? The Believer and (more popularly) The Notebook cemented him as a talented adult actor—and in the case of the latter movie, a romantic lead.

Kurt Russell

child actors Kurt Russell

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Um, how did I not know that baby Kurt Russell was adorable?? Yup, Russell was a Disney star in the '70s following his breakout role in The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters. Forging a relationship with filmmaker John Carpenter—see also: The Thing—would help him evolve to action superstar.

Daniel Radcliffe

child actors Daniel Radcliffe

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If you can believe it, Daniel Radcliffe started acting as Harry Potter when he was only 12 (and it wasn't his first role! He was in David Copperfield!). After that role made him a known entity to basically...everyone...he has taken on interesting and challenging roles since then.

Leonardo DiCaprio

child actors Leonardo DiCaprio

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Technically by the time he starred in This Boy's Life he was in his late teens, but Leonardo DiCaprio was starring in commercials even before then (including for Matchbox at 14, which he apparently credits as his first role). Of course there's a compilation on YouTube.

Judy Garland

child stars judy garland

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Judy Garland, with her sisters, performed in a vaudeville group before she was signed to MGM as a teenager—and iconic films including The Wizard of Oz would follow. An iconic (although troubled and tragically short) life in the public eye included films like A Star Is Born and Judgment at Nuremberg as well as a number of studio albums.

Elizabeth Taylor

child actors elizabeth taylor

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It's hard to understate how fast Elizabeth Taylor became a teen sensation after appearing in the film National Velvet. She disliked her career into the 1950s but with films including Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, she got a reinvention as an enormously bankable actor (and massively popular public figure).

Katherine J. Igoe
Contributing Editor

Katherine’s a contributing syndications editor at Marie Claire who covers fashion, culture, and lifestyle. In her role, she writes stories that are syndicated by MSN and other outlets. She’s been a full-time freelancer for over a decade and has had roles with Cosmopolitan (where she covered lifestyle, culture, and fashion SEO content) and Bustle (where she was their movies and culture writer). She has bylines in New York TimesParentsInStyle, Refinery29, and elsewhere. Her work has also been syndicated by ELLEHarper’s BazaarSeventeenGood Housekeeping, and Women’s Health, among others. In addition to her stories reaching millions of readers, content she's written and edited has qualified for a Bell Ringer Award and received a Communicator Award. 

Katherine has a BA in English and art history from the University of Notre Dame and an MA in art business from the Sotheby's Institute of Art (with a focus on marketing/communications). She covers a wide breadth of topics: she's written about how to find the very best petite jeanshow sustainable travel has found its footing on Instagram, and what it's like to be a professional advice-giver in the modern world. Her personal essays have run the gamut from learning to dress as a queer woman to navigating food allergies as a mom. She also has deep knowledge of SEO/EATT, affiliate revenue, commerce, and social media; she regularly edits the work of other writers. She speaks at writing-related events and podcasts about freelancing and journalism, mentors students and other new writers, and consults on coursework. Currently, Katherine lives in Boston with her husband and two kids, and you can follow her on Instagram. If you're wondering about her last name, it’s “I go to dinner,” not “Her huge ego,” but she responds to both.