When an actor is a child star, the road to fame and fortune can be fraught. For every child star that doesn’t tumble into a downward spiral, there are many more that have fame and success go to their heads and ruin whatever career they might have had. Some child actors, while not burning up in a tabloid-covered breakdown, merely slink away from the spotlight, never to be seen or thought of again.
Then there are these lucky few, the actors who may have gotten their start in front of the camera but have surpassed whatever measure of fame it brought them. These celebs have achieved so much and gotten so famous that we kind of forgot that they began when they were eight or 12 or 16. They outgrew the name “child star” and became fully-fledged celebrities in their own right!
20 Shailene Woodley
Before Big Little Lies and even before the ill-fated Divergent series, Shailene Woodley was briefly seen as Marisa Cooper’s little sister Kaitlin on The O.C.! Woodley was only in the first season of the show, as her role was late recast with the slightly older actress Willa Holland to fit more mature storylines.
19 Johnny Galecki
The Big Bang Theory lasted a staggering 12 seasons, but Johnny Galecki was an old pro, having been acting professionally since he was six years old! One of his best-known early roles may be in the Christmas fave Christmas Vacation as Rusty Griswold, but it’s easy to forget that Galecki was a child star all those years ago.
18 Ryan Reynolds
Yes, the Canadian heartthrob was not immune to the lure of childhood fame, first getting cast on the Canadian soap Hillside, which was aired on Nickelodeon in the US under the name Fifteen. Reynolds was cast as “Billy” for 13 episodes of the show, which ran from 1991 to 1993.
17 Scarlett Johansson
The former Mrs. Ryan Reynolds, Scarlett Johansson was also a child star in her own right before she became a butt-kicking member of The Avengers. At age 9, her first professional film role was in the movie North with fellow kid actor Elijah Wood, and her talent got her noticed, appearing in more small films before hitting the big time.
16 Joshua Jackson
Sure, we all knew him as the fresh-faced Pacey in the soapy Dawson’s Creek, but Joshua Jackson’s foray into Hollywood began much earlier! The biggest role Jackson got early in his career was when he was just 13 and cast in 1992’s The Mighty Ducks, a role that got him in with the family-friendly crowd before he graduated to more intense material.
15 Christian Bale
Christian Bale is a chameleon when it comes to his films, shedding and gaining weight and going full method when it comes to entering into a role. Perhaps the reason for that is that he started so early – his first major gig was when he was just 13 and appeared in Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun!
14 Jake Gyllenhaal
His road to fame didn’t really start until 2000’s Donnie Darko, but, with a family in the biz, it shouldn’t be a shocker that Jake Gyllenhaal first got on the big screen when he was 11 in 1991’s City Slickers. He ended up taking time off to pursue school for a while, but had he gone the child star route, who knows where he’d be now?
13 Keira Knightley
The rest of the world met Keira Knightley in Pirates of the Caribbean (the rest of us had known her in Bend it Like Beckham), but the British actress has been working since she was 8 in a British anthology series. At 14, when she was cast as a decoy Queen Amidala opposite doppelgänger Natalie Portman, she got her first agent.
12 Felicity Jones
Another Brit that has been in Hollywood longer than we thought, the Oscar-nominated Theory of Everything and Star Wars actress Felicity Jones first got in front of the camera when she was 12, appearing in the TV movie The Treasure Seekers (alongside Keira Knightley) and the TV show The Worst Witch.
11 Paul Walker
The late Paul Walker’s beautiful face and youthful appearance often had him cast as the “nice guy” or “good guy” type in a lot of his work, and it could be because the actor’s genuine personality seeped through in his performance! Walker debuted at 13 in the comedy-horror Monster in the Closet and later became a sitcom regular on the show Throb.
10 Katherine Heigl
She may not be getting much work now, but once upon a time Katherine Heigl was a blossoming teenager getting ready to wow Hollywood! Heigl began as a child model, so she had plenty of experience in front of the camera when she got her big break at 16 in 1994’s My Father The Hero (her first professional role was at 14 in the 1992 film That Night).
9 Rose Byrne
Rose Byrne is now mostly relegated to mom roles in films, but the hilarious Aussie was actually a child star when she began her career in her home country. She was 13 years old when she appeared in the 1994 movie Dallas Doll, and more TV roles in Australian television followed. Arguably her first biggest role on this side of the world wasn’t until 2004’s Troy.
8 Diane Lane
Diane Lane has been acting for decades, so it’s easy to forget – or not know at all – that she started out as a child actor! And boy, did she start with a bang! Her first performance was on stage opposite Meryl Streep when she was 12, and opposite Laurence Olivier when she was 13. The latter was so impressed by her performance he called her “the new Grace Kelly”!
7 Reese Witherspoon
Another child star alum from Big Little Lies, Reese Witherspoon has accumulated so many awards and so much prestige that you might not remember she was once a child actor. It was 1991 when she first graced the big screen in the coming-of-age drama Man on the Moon at the age of 14.
6 Elisabeth Moss
Before Mad Men, The Handmaid’s Tale, and Us, Elisabeth Moss was working in decidedly more family-friendly fare. She first began acting at just 7, did some voice work in children’s movies and TV, and at 13 even appeared in a Disney movie: 1995’s Escape to Witch Mountain! She’s come a long way, baby.
5 Ethan Hawke
Alongside another former child star, River Phoenix, Ethan Hawke got into Hollywood at 14 with 1985’s Explorers. The film was universally panned, and so Hawke took a hiatus from Hollywood. While he began his career as a kid, it didn’t take off until five years later with his role in Dead Poets Society. He has since scored two Oscar nominations and become a published author.
4 Jason Bateman
Unless you’ve been around for a while, it’s unlikely that you recall that funnyman Jason Bateman was once a child actor. The guy who we know best for his roles in movies like Horrible Bosses or Arrested Development actually got started when he was just 12 on Little House on the Prairie – complete with that terrible bowl cut.
3 Natasha Lyonne
Natasha Lyonne has been choosing pretty edgy roles as of late, in Netflix’s Orange Is The New Black and Russian Doll, so you can be forgiven if you don’t recall that she began her career as a curly-haired cutie in PeeWee’s Playhouse when she was about six! Her career (and her personal life) turned to darker roles as she matured.
2 Laurence Fishburne
How’s this for a random child star? Laurence Fishburne, the deep-voiced man of reason in Keanu Reeves-driven vehicles like The Matrix and John Wick was once a kid actor! He was just 12 when he appeared in One Life to Live and 13 when he was cast in the movie Cornbread, Earl and Me (seen behind the scenes here).
1 Christopher Walken
Another man who’s been working for so long that it’s difficult to remember that he actually began his career as a child actor, we have Christopher Walken. While he didn’t appear on the silver screen until he was 23, Walken got loads of experience working in TV since he was 10, appearing in a recurring role on The Wonderful John Acton.