Child actors face an uphill battle when it comes to their careers. Getting famous as a kid means that, for many fans, you will always be a kid. It’s not easy to progress from sweet, innocent, family-friendly roles to more serious ones, ones that will win you Oscars and Emmys. Usually, it takes a very specific role, or a very extreme one, to get over the jump from kiddie star to serious actor. Some child actors are able to make it and have long, prosperous careers — and others aren’t. Here are 17 former child stars who broke away from their “good kid” image to star in some super ~adult~ roles including nudity, violence, or usually — all of the above.
17. Selena Gomez
Everybody loves Selena Gomez. You’d be crazy not to — her songs are always hits, she’s been relatively scandal-free, and she’s definitely #stylegoals. She’s had that kind of glow up that we all secretly wish we could have had.
Selena got her start on Barney & Friends (alongside famous pal Demi Lovato), as one of the cute little kids who hangs out with the purple dinosaur at the school. She had several family-friendly roles after that, most notably on the Disney Channel’s Wizards of Waverly Place and a few of the network’s Disney Channel Original Movies. But when it came time to break into “adult” roles she went extreme — playing Faith in the racy flick Spring Breakers. The role was a total departure from her usual character, but it did the trick. After the movie came out, Selena’s image took a turn from a sweet little girl to bad ass woman.
16. Macaulay Culkin
For most of us, Macaulay Culkin will forever be Kevin McCallister from Home Alone or Miles Russell from Uncle Buck. He began acting when he was only four years old, and from the get-go he was cast in the funny cute kid roles. It took a nine-year break from acting and a resolve to not do anything fans would expect from him for Macaulay to get his big “adult” break. He played Michael Alig in Party Monster, a flamboyant club kid with a drug problem and a penchant for grisly murders. The movie wasn’t a commercial success by any means, but it definitely earned Macaulay a reputation as a credible actor, and not just a child star.
15. Lindsey Lohan
Lindsey Lohan became America’s sweetheart, after her role as Hallie AND Annie in The Parent Trap. The movie was obviously a huge success, and Lindsey continued to work with Disney on her next several films, giving us classics like Freaky Friday and Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen before hitting peak success with Mean Girls. Wanting to take on sexier roles, Lindsey started work on I Know Who Killed Me where she played a regular high school student turned stripper mixed up with a bad crowd. Work on the film and its release coincided with the beginning of all the drama and struggles in Lindsey’s personal life, and the end result was pretty awful, but still her portrayal of Aubrey remains of LiLo’s most ~adult~ roles to date.
14. Neil Patrick Harris
Everyone’s favorite Neil Patrick Harris began his career as child-prodigy doctor Doogie Howser on Doogie Howser, M.D.. The show lasted for four years, and NPH was a teenager by the time it wrapped. Excited about growing as an actor, but removing the “child” part, he took a role in the Harold & Kumar American stoner comedy film franchise. After finding success there, he was offered the role of womanizer Barney Stinson on TV’s How I Met Your Mother. Barney’s douchey and promiscuous ways were a far cry from Doogie’s buttoned-up, career-focused ones, but we definitely appreciate NPH’s more adult roles and would argue that TV wouldn’t be the same without them.
13. Hillary Duff
When most of us think of Hillary Duff, we think of her as Lizzie on Lizzie McGuire. The former teenage star has more or less maintained her wholesome image and appearance — her other major roles have been in Cheaper by the Dozen, A Cinderella Story and the teenage drama Raise Your Voice. But she did make one dramatic attempt to vamp up her image and to portray a more provocative side of herself. In 2007, she started work on War, Inc. as pop star Yonica Babyyeah. The role was definitely a departure from her normal goody-two-shoes roles, but it didn’t play that well with audiences, and she’s still America’s sweetheart.
12. Emma Roberts
Emma Roberts got her start in the Nickelodeon show Unfabulous as Addie Singer. Unfabulous ran for three seasons, and earned her several Teen Choice Award nominations. When it wrapped, she dabbled in music for a little bit, before moving on to other tween masterpieces like Aquamarine and Nancy Drew. Taking a page from her famous aunt’s (Julia Roberts) book, Emma decided it was time for more adult roles and attempted to shift the direction of her career. So, she played Madison Montgomery on season three of American Horror Story. Her plotline on Coven was definitely far darker than anything Nancy Drew ever went through. And way, way creepier.
11. Daniel Radcliffe
Daniel Radcliffe’s star rose entirely thanks to his portrayal of the boy-who-lived in the Harry Potter franchise. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was released in 2001, and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 was released in 2011, meaning that Daniel spent well over a decade wearing Harry’s round glasses and boasting his iconic lightning bolt scar. Understandably, when HP was all over, Daniel wanted roles that would separate him completely from the one thing he’d spent a decade doing. So he took on the lead role of Alan Strang in Eqqus at a major West End theater. Alan has a religious obsession with horses, which teeters on the edge of sexual, and Daniel appeared nude in one scene. The bid to show audiences that he was prepared to take on more adult roles seems to have worked, as many of the projects he’s completed since his theater run have definitely been more serious.
10. Joseph Gordon Levitt
Joseph Gordon Levitt basically plays one of two roles: a love-struck single guy in a rom-com (i.e. Tom in 500 Days of Summer or Cameron in 10 Things I Hate About You) or the skinny, brainy sidekick to a hero in an action movie (i.e. Rex in Rise of the Cobra or Arthur in Inception). However, he actually got his start as a child star playing Roger in Angels in the Outfield and Tommy in 3rd Rock from the Sun. He’s always struggled a little bit to move past his “nice guy” image, and while he seems to have accepted it more now, he wasn’t always so resigned to it. In 2001, he tried his hand at playing Lyle in Manic, a teenager who has some serious aggression and impulse problems. The darker role definitely helped highlight JGL’s talent, and eventually opened up some doors for him.
9. Anne Hathaway
Anne Hathaway had audiences falling in love with her after starring as Mia Thermopolis in Princess Diaries and Ella in Ella Enchanted. The princess roles definitely jump-started her career and helped her to build her name, but the actress wasn’t excited about settling for the same innocent roles for forever. So in 2005, she accepted the role of Allison Lang in Havoc. Allison is an L.A. teen who’s caught up in an upper-class gang and winds up getting very involved with a drug dealer and his crew. The role involved some nude scenes and dealt with much darker material then fans were used to seeing Anne do. And, in the end, it definitely helped changed her career’s track and was the first step in her eventual Oscar win.
8. Christina Ricci
Christina Ricci was a total ‘90s icon. She made her debut in Mermaids alongside Winona Ryder and Cher, and then went on to play Wednesday Addams in The Addams Family. After a string of hits, Christina decided that it was finally time to find roles that would allow her to grow and expand her career beyond being just another teen star. So in 1997, she re-invented herself as Wendy Hood in Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm. The movie is centered around two families and a key party, and Christina’s character engages in a lot of underage drinking and sexual activities. The whole thing was a far cry from anything else the actress had ever worked on, and it definitely changed the trajectory of her career.
7. Drew Barrymore
Drew Barrymore is one of those rare child actors who’s been able to maintain a very successful career well into adulthood. She got her start in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial at age 6, and then became even more notorious for her unruly behavior. The tabloids documented all of the drinking, partying and drug use the child star was engaged in, and by her tween years, she’d had a couple of rehab stints and a failed suicide attempt. Even though her personal life was very adult, her on-screen roles weren’t, and in an attempt to align the two she accepted the role of a teenage seductress, Ivy, in the thriller Poison Ivy. Drew’s character seduces her friend’s father and kills her friend’s mother. Taking on a role like that is one way to make a statement!
6. Ryan Gosling
Ryan Gosling broke into the industry by landing a spot on the holy grail of children’s TV: The Mickey Mouse Club. He first made his debut as a Mouseketeer in 1993, and after a wonderful two years he took other jobs on Goosebumps and Are You Afraid of the Dark?. Not content with riding the wave of his childhood success, Ryan auditioned for the role of Daniel Blaint in The Believer. The role was extremely dark — Ryan was a Jewish student who became a Neo-Nazi, and Gosling really looked the part. The film didn’t make a lot of money, but it’s often recognized as one of Ryan’s best-performed roles.
5. Christian Bale
You may not have known this, but Christian Bale was actually a child actor. His breakout role came in Empire of the Sun, which won him the (first ever) Best Performance by a Juvenile Actor award given by the National Board of Review. His follow-up roles were in Little Women and Newsies. But it was his role in Velvet Goldmine that was his first really ~adult~ part. Christian played a gay man who was part of the ‘80s glam rock scene. He had a sex scene with fellow actor Ewan McGregor and proved once and for all that he could do a lot more than just deliver newspapers. He later starred in American Psycho, which, let’s just say, had several ~adult~ elements to it.
4. Alyssa Milano
Alyssa Milano was a quintessential child star. Her first role was as Tony Danza’s daughter in Who’s the Boss, which lasted from 1988 to 1992. When the show wrapped, Milano was desperate to land any role that would separate her from her long-standing TV alter ego, and in 1995, she landed the role of Charlotte in Embrace of the Vampire. The role required her to appear nude on screen, and fans saw her in much more adult romantic situations then they ever had before. The movie panned with critics and audiences, but it was just enough to push Alyssa over the hump from cute child star to grown-up actress capable of more serious work.
3. Lisa Bonet
Back in the ‘80s and ‘90s, you would have been hard-pressed to think of a more family-friendly show than The Cosby Show. Perspectives on the family-friendly bit have changed over the last few years in light of accusations levied against Bill Cosby, but it would still be hard to argue that the show itself is anything but suitable for all ages. Lisa Bonet played Cosby’s daughter Denise Huxtable for years, and audiences watched her grow up on screen.
Facing some professional differences with the show after she became pregnant in real life, Lisa severed ties with the show, and its spin-off A Different World. She then accepted the role of Epiphany Proudfoot in Angel Heart. The film earned an X-rating and Lisa had a very explicit sex scene in it, which reportedly angered Bill who felt that her choices would affect his show’s continued success.
2. Elizabeth Berkley
Elizabeth Berkley became a household name thanks to her role as straight-A student Jessie Spano on Saved by the Bell. But before finding success on the ‘80s classic, Elizabeth had landed roles on other popular shows like Day by Day, Baywatch and Step by Step. She always played the same character, so after four seasons of Saved by the Bell, Elizabeth decided it was time to leave TV and try her hand at films. One of her first theatrical roles was as Nomi in the NC-17 film Showgirls. Elizabeth shocked fans with the number of topless and nude scenes she did, and the sex scenes and profanity ensured that a lot of the teen girls who loved her in Saved by the Bell weren’t able to watch her most adult role.
1. Dakota Fanning
Unfortunately for Dakota Fanning, she has one of those sweet faces that makes her ideal for a certain type of movie. Capitalizing on that vibe, Dakota got her breakout roles in I am Sam, The Cat in the Hat and Sweet Home Alabama. She was basically THEE child star of the ’00s. Knowing that this type of role was going to seriously limit her career in the future, Dakota accepted a role in The Runaways alongside former Twilight co-star Kristen Stewart. Dakota’s portrayal of Cherie Currie included a lot of drug use and she shared a kiss with Kristen’s character. She also took a role in Very Good Girls, in which she filmed a sex scene with Peter Sarsgaard. Her career’s got A LOT of variety.