New Year’s resolutions are a time to work towards a transformation of your body and/or your life. To honor these goals, this month we’re going to look at transformative roles in film. This week we look at some prominent examples of actors playing characters that are much younger than the actors’ actual age.
It’s one thing to mentally prepare to play a character in a movie or a play. It’s another thing to physically transform yourself in order to better identify with the role. Some transformations are only skin deep; extensive makeup or prosthetics may be sufficient to pull of the necessary look. Other transformations are more involved; many actors may take part in weeks, if not months, of preparations for a role. This can include intense training, specialized diets, and exhaustive exercise routines. The end result of an actor going through such a transformation is not only a more accurate visual resemblance, but also a confidence or familiarity with that character’s actions, skills, or demeanor.
Some films take advantage of an actor or actress’ timeless looks in order for that actor or actress to portray a character that is supposed to be much younger. However, these roles usually go more than skin deep. Being able to convince the audience that you are young also requires commitment to a certain physical presence while mimicking emotional immaturity. Many studios chose older actors to portray young people simply because their acting skills are more proficient at accomplishing this than a younger actor. Below is a look at a few such roles, and in each case we’ll look at how the actor completed the change to appear younger, and how effective their performance was for each respective film.
Emma Thompson in Sense and Sensibility
At the beginning of Jane Austin’s 1811 novel, Sense and Sensibility, the main character Elinor Dashwood is 19 years old. In the 1995 film adaptation of that novel, the main character was portrayed by Emma Thompson, who at the time was 35 years old. However, one of the considerations that the filmmakers made to cast Emma Thompson was to change the age of the character in the movie. The reason that the filmmakers decided to do this was because Emma Thompson wrote the screenplay herself. The producer of the film, Lindsay Doran, had wanted to make a film adaptation of the novel, and some of Thompson’s comedy routines had caught her eye. She appreciated Thompson’s use and control of historical language, and thought that she would do a good job adapting the classic novel for the screen. Thompson spent more than 5 years on the adaptation, and in the meantime she became an acclaimed actress herself. When it became time to cast the film, Doran decided to go with Thompson because she was so familiar with the material. They changed the character’s age to be 27, and Thompson would go on to be nominated for the Best Actress Oscar (she won Best Screenplay for her work).
Stockard Channing in Grease
It’s very common for older actors to play teenagers in film. When you think about all of the effort that goes into making a major motion picture, it makes sense. Older actors tend to be more mature, they may have more sophisticated acting skills, and if they may be more available to play a major role in a film. All of these reasons may have affected the casting of the 1978 smash hit. The film was supposed to focus around a group of high school kids, yet most of the actors portraying them were much older. Olivia Newton-John, who played Sandy was 30. Didi Conn, who played Fenchie, was 27, as was Jeff Conaway. John Travolta was 24. However, the oldest actor of the main character group was Stockard Channing, who at 33 years old when the film was made, was almost twice as old as the character she was portraying.
Ingrid Bergman in Joan of Arc (1948)
Joan of Arc films have a long history of using much older actresses to portray the titular character. The real Joan of Arc began her military efforts at the age of 17, and was killed at the age of 19. In Luc Besson’s 1999 film, The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc, Mila Jovovich was the actress who portrayed Joan of Arc and was 24 years old at the time. A 1994 two-part French retelling featured a 27-year-old Sandrine Bonnaire as Joan of Arc. Joan the Woman was a 1916 silent epic by Cecil deMille, and it starred a 34 year old Geraldine Ferrar as Joan. A 1928 remake features Maria Falconetti, who was 35. However, the most famous portrayal of Joan of Arc in film was by Ingrid Bergman in the 1948 film. At that time, she was 33 years old. Although Bergman’s age has become a source of criticism for this film in modern times, it was not a problem when the film was released. In fact, Bergman would go on to play Joan of Arc once more. Six years later she played Joan of Arc in her husband’s film, Giovanna d’Arco al Rogo, which was a fantastical take on the final moments of Joan’s life.
Leslie Howard in Romeo and Juliet (1936)
The story of Romeo and Juliet has been remade into a feature film countless times, and filmmakers have commonly used actors to portray the two main characters who are older than the actual characters are supposed to be. In Shakespeare's original play, Juliet is described as “not yet fourteen”, and we can assume that Romeo should be a similar age (less than 15?). In Baz Luhrman’s 1996 adaptation, Leonardo DiCaprio was 22 and Claire Danes was 17. In the 1969 version, Leonard Whiting plays Romeo and Olivia Hussey plays Juliet. When the film was released, Whiting was 19 and Hussey, 18. If you count West Side Story as a version of Romeo and Juliet, then Tony Wyzek is Romeo and Maria Nunez is Juliet. Both of the actors that portrayed these roles were 23 at the time. Finally, we have the 1936 film version of the time-tested story, where Norma Shearer plays Juliet and Leslie Howard played Romeo. Shearer was 34 years old at the time, and Howard was 43!
Gabourey Sidibe in Precious
In the novel Push by Sapphire, the main character Precious is a 16 year old girl. The movie version of the book took the character’s name as its title and featured Gabourey Sidibe as Precious. At the time the film was made, Sidibe was 26 years old. This was Sidibe’s acting debut - she was selected during an open casting call that featured more than 300 other respondents. The film was an unexpected success in theaters, and received a lot of critical acclaim. Critics praised Sidibe for being able to earn the audience’s empathy, and her interactions with her supporting cast made the film very emotionally impactful. Precious would go on to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, and Sidibe would be nominated for Best Actress.
Jesse Metcalfe in John Tucker Must Die
Another movie with older actors portraying teenagers is John Tucker Must Die. This film takes place at a high school, and yet much of the cast was in their 20’s. Brittany Snow, plays the main character Kate, and was 20 years old when the film was released. Ashanti, who plays a cheerleader was 26 years old, and Sophia Bush who plays another girl was 24 years old. The titular character is John Tucker, who was played by 28 year old Jesse Metcalfe. It’s also worth noting that Jenny McCarthy was cast as Brittany Snow’s character’s mother. At the time, McCarthy was only 14 years older than her “daughter”, and 6 years older than Metcalfe.
Wood Harris in Remember the Titans
Remember the Titans is based on the true story of coach Herman Boone who worked to integrate a Virginia High School football team. One of the players on the team was portrayed by Wood Harris, who was 31 years old at the time. Of course, his role in the film wasn’t the only role where a teenager was played by someone much older. Ryan Hurst and Ethan Suplee were 24 years old, the actor who portrayed the team’s quarterback was 25, and Donald Faison was 26. However, regardless of the age discrepancies, the film went on to find a lot of success in theaters. Wood Harris himself was recognized for his acting with nominations for supporting actor awards in both the NAACP Image Awards and the Blockbuster Entertainment Awards.
Barbra Streisand in Yentl
Yentl is based on a play that itself was based on a short story called Yentl the Yeshiva Boy. The short story tells the tale of a 16 year old Jewish girl who pretends to be a boy in order to receive an education after the death of her father. The film was released in 1983, when Streisand was 41 years old. Streisand had actually been trying to get the film made since 1968, but couldn’t get a studio to commit. The film was directed by Streisand, and many studios turned her down because they didn’t believe she had the talent to make this story profitably. Others were concerned about her age and ability to seem like a man. To prove them wrong, Streisand eventually dressed up as a man and visited producer Jon Peters home. Peters didn’t recognize her, and this convinced him to help her get the movie made. As a concession, Streisand changed the age of the character in her film to 26 years old. Streisand would go on to win a Golden Globe for her direction, and was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Actress.
Shirley Henderson in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
The Harry Potter films focuses on a group of teenagers. Unlike the other films on this list which feature teenage characters, the actors that played these characters were teenagers themselves. It helps that the first film intentionally cast child actors so that they could grow up on screen as each sequel was released. However, there is one notable exception to the casting in the Harry Potter films. That exception is Shirley Henderson who was cast to play Moaning Myrtle, a ghost who inhabits a girl’s bathroom at Hogwarts. Myrtle is supposed to be the ghost of a former student who died 50 years prior. Henderson was 37 years old when she portrayed the long-dead teenager. Henderson was able to pull it off thanks to a small stature and high pitched voice. She would play the same role again in Goblet of Fire, at which time she was 40 years old.
Jeff Bridges in Tron: Legacy
Jeff Bridges inclusion on this list is a unique one. He is the only actor here to be portraying a younger version of himself. We’ve seen a number of similar roles over the past few years as CGI and motion capture have allowed older actors to (somewhat) convincingly portray younger versions of themselves without use of extensive makeup. In the 1982 original film, Jeff Bridges portrayed the main character Kevin Flynn who gets sucked into a computer. The digital version of himself is known as Clu. Bridges was 33 years old at the time. For the 2010 sequel, Bridges resurrects the character when a file corruption happens which causes Clu to be resurrected as he once was. In 2010, Bridges was 61 years old.
Brad Pitt in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
David Fincher's 2008 fantasy film has a very unique premise where the main character aged backwards. The main character, Benjamin Button, is portrayed by Brad Pitt. Towards the end of the film, the character of Benjamin Button is older, and as a result, he becomes younger than the actor. To pull off the look, the film relies heavily on CGI and motion capture. The film’s special effects team approached this challenge by having different actors portray the character as he ages, and then adding Brad Pitt’s face (either older or younger). In this way, the character’s physical gait and body posture matches the actual age from birth, not his skin/body condition. For the scenes when the character is elderly yet looks young, they used an older actor with makeup on the body combined with Brad Pitt’s CGI motion capture grafted onto the face. Brad Pitt’s younger look was influenced by the films he made when he was younger and pictures of him as a child. Brad Pitt was nominated for an Actor for his performance, the film was nominated for Best picture, and it won Oscars for best art direction, best makeup, and best special effects.