25 Child Actors When They Got Their Start Vs. Now
Making the transition from adorable sensation to an adult who's taken seriously isn't always easy.
They grow up so fast! Yes, even our favorite child stars, many of whom will forever live on in our collective consciousness as precocious teens and tweens. Some, like Neil Patrick Harris and Scarlett Johansson went from stealing scenes as precocious teens to ruling the industry as adults. Others went on to form underground bands, nab some pretty impressive college degrees, or even take the fashion world by storm. Read on to see what 25 of the most successful child actors are doing now—and what they look like these days. And for more Hollywood throwbacks, here are 25 Stars You Didn't Know Got Their Start in Commercials.
Sara Gilbert (Then)
Despite popping up in some TV movies and a commercial for Kool-Aid, Sara Gilbert didn't make it big until she was cast as Darlene Conner on Roseanne, which kept her busy from 1988 until 1997 and earned her two Emmy nominations. Though she was busy with the sitcom until adulthood, Gilbert also appeared in movies like Poison Ivy (1992) alongside Drew Barrymore. For more star facts, here are 33 Celebrity Names You Always Misspell.
Sara Gilbert (Now)
After attending Yale, Gilbert teamed up with Barrymore once again for Riding in Cars With Boys (2001) and popped up on shows like 24 (2002), ER (2004 to 2007), and The Big Bang Theory (2007 to 2010, and again in 2016), Bad Teacher (2014). She also created and executive produced the talk show The Talk in 2010, earning a Daytime Emmy for it. Currently, Gilbert both stars in and executive produces The Conners—the reboot of the sitcom that made her famous.
Neil Patrick Harris (Then)
Before he starred as the child prodigy doctor in Doogie Howser, M.D. from 1989 until 1993, a teenaged Neil Patrick Harris appeared in Clara's Heart (1988) alongside Whoopi Goldberg. He also had guest spots on Murder, She Wrote (1993) and Will & Grace (2000), and voiced Peter Parker on the animated series Spider-Man (2003). His biggest movie gig during the '90s was a role in Starship Troopers (1997). For some family-friendly shows to marathon, here are 13 Classic TV Shows the Whole Family Will Love.
Neil Patrick Harris (Now)
When you hear his name now, you almost certainly think first of the high-fiving, suit-wearing Barney Stinson How I Met Your Mother, which Harris played for nearly a decade, earning four Emmy and two Golden Globe nominations. Additionally, he had major roles in Gone Girl (2014) and Netflix's A Series of Unfortunate Events (2017) and has memorably played himself in the Harold and Kumar series. He's now an awards show staple, taking the reins of the Tonys four times, the Emmys twice, and the Oscars once. Also no stranger to Broadway, Harris won a Tony for his leading role in the musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch in 2014.
Tia Mowry (Then)
Along with her twin sister Tamera, Tia Mowry became a household name thanks to ABC's TGIF lineup. The two starred as long lost twins who find each other in the sitcom Sister, Sister from 1994 to 1999. Building on that recognition, they also co-led the Disney Channel Original Movies Twitches (2005) and Twitches Too (2007). Their younger brother Tahj was also a recognizable kid star, recurring on Full House and later leading his own Disney Channel sitcom, Smart Guy. For more talent that runs in the family, here are 17 Celebrities You Didn't Know Were Siblings.
Tia Mowry (Now)
Now going by her married name of Tia Mowry-Hardrict, this twin has had quite a varied career post-child stardom, embarking on everything from holiday rom-com TV movies (The Mistle-Tones, from 2012) to hosting her own Cooking Channel Show, Tia Mowry at Home to voicing several animated characters. She and Tamera also had their own reality show from 2011 to 2013, but she's probably best known as an adult actor for her role in the long-running sitcom, The Game. Most recently, Tia took on a role in the Netflix comedy series Family Reunion and made an appearance in an episode of A Black Lady Sketch Show.
Tamera Mowry (Then)
In addition to acting together in movies and TV, the Mowry sisters were also in a pop/R&B group called Voices. They only released one album, back in 1992, but real fame was still ahead for these twins.
Tamera Mowry (Now)
Going by her married name of Tamera Mowry-Housley, Tia's sister has also had her hand in a lot of different projects. Starting in 2013, she served as a co-host for the daytime talk show The Real, and only just announced in the summer of 2020 that she'd be moving on. She's also appeared in Melissa & Joey and several TV films, holiday-themed and otherwise.
Macaulay Culkin (Then)
Macauley Culkin is best-known, of course, for playing Kevin McCallister in the Home Alone series. But his acting career kicked off well before that. He appeared in Rocket Gibraltar in 1988 and See You in the Morning and Uncle Buck in 1989. Not for nothing, he also had a one-episode turn in a 1994 episode of Frasier. For more some big names who didn't hit it big until well after childhood, here are 40 Stars Who Didn't Become Famous Until After 40.
Macaulay Culkin (Now)
Between roles in Party Monster (2003), Sex and Breakfast (2007), and Changeland (2019)—not to mention a five-year stint doing vocal work on Robot Chicken—it's clear that Culkin tried hard to shake the child star persona after Home Alone. He's also a founding member of The Pizza Underground, a comedy rock band that primarily covers songs by The Velvet Underground…but puts a pizza-themed lyrical twist on every tune.
Scarlett Johansson (Then)
At the age of eight, Scarlett Johansson made her off-Broadway debut in Sophistry (1993) opposite Ethan Hawke. She had one line. The following year, Johansson's big-screen debut came as John Ritter's daughter in North (1994). After a few other films, including Just Cause (1995), Manny & Lo (1996), and Home Alone 3 (1997), she truly began making a name for herself with Robert Redford's The Horse Whisperer (1998). Wrapping up her notable teen roles, she also starred in The Man Who Wasn't There (2001) and Eight Legged Freaks (2002).
Scarlett Johansson (Now)
In 2003, Johansson had a one-two punch of hit roles, appearing in both Lost in Translation and Girl with a Pearl Earring and earning Golden Globe nominations for both. She then went on to collaborate with Woody Allen on three films—Match Point (2005), Scoop (2006), and Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)—before joining the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) as Black Widow for a nine-year run, beginning with Iron Man 2 (2010) and continuing through Avengers: Endgame (2019). The Black Widow solo film has been delayed due to the pandemic but is still supposed to his theaters this year. Oh, and she also has a music career. In both 2009 and 2018, she released collaborative albums with indie music darling Pete Yorn. For more celebrity stories, sign up for our daily newsletter.
Frankie Muniz (Then)
Though he made guest appearances on a 1998 episode Spin City, a 1999 episode of Sabrina, the Teenage Witch, and a 2002 episode of Lizzie McGuire, Frankie Muniz is best known for Malcolm in the Middle. At age 15, Muniz—who got his start in commercials—starred in the series alongside Bryan Cranston for seven seasons, from 2000 until 2006, in a role that earned him an Emmy nomination and two Golden Globe nominations. Other notable roles for Muniz include movies like My Dog Skip (2000), Big Fat Liar (2002), Agent Cody Banks (2003), and Racing Stripes (2005), as well as vocal work on shows like The Fairly OddParents.
Frankie Muniz (Now)
Starting in 2004, Muniz began competitive car racing, and did so up until a wrist injury forced him out of the game in 2009. (He returned to the track for just two races in 2011 before retiring for good.) In 2012, Muniz joined the band Kingsfoil, but left in 2014 due to scheduling conflicts. In 2017, however, he began managing the band Astro Lasso. He competed on Season 25 of ABC's Dancing With the Stars, coming in third place for the 2017 season, and then went on to become the host of Dancing With the Stars: Juniors. As far as acting, his biggest gigs have been single-episode appearances on Don't Trust the B—- in Apartment 23 and Preacher. Oh, and he also popped up in Sharknado 3.
Kenan Thompson (Then)
Some people are just born funny, as Kenan Thompson proves. He got an early start in sketch comedy when he debuted as a main cast member of the Nickelodeon show All That. That was 1994, the same year he appeared in his first film, D2: The Mighty Ducks. Soon, he and his All That costar Kel Mitchell were given their own show, called simply Kenan & Kel, and made a feature film version of one of their most popular All That sketches, Good Burger.
Kenan Thompson (Now)
In 2020, Thompson is the longest serving cast member in the history of Saturday Night Live, having joined the show in 2003. He continues to moonlight in film, racking up roles in Snakes on a Plane, Barbershop 2, Going in Style, and Trolls World Tour. Soon, he'll be pulling double duty on NBC, as he'll stay on board at SNL while also headlining his own sitcom, Kenan.
Christina Ricci (Then)
Christina Ricci made her film debut in the dramedy Mermaids (1990). After that, she took on roles like Wednesday Addams in The Addams Family (1991) and its sequel, Addams Family Values (1993). She also appeared in Casper and Now and Then (both 1995). Still, 1998 may have been her big break as a young adult. Just that year, she appeared in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Small Soldiers, and The Opposite of Sex.
Christina Ricci (Now)
Ricci starred in movies like Sleepy Hollow (1999) Monster (2003), Penelope (2006), and Speed Racer (2008). She also tried her luck on the small screen, taking on roles in Ally McBeal in 2002, Pan Am (2011), and Z: The Beginning of Everything (2017). (She also had an Emmy-nominated guest spot on Grey's Anatomy in 2006.) Then, she tapped back into her dark side as she took on the role of Lizzie Borden for two Lifetime projects, one movie and one TV show.
Mae Whitman (Then)
Mae Whitman's career started at the ripe old age of two when she did voiceover work for Tyson Chicken commercials, but her first big screen appearance didn't come until four years later, in 1994, as Andy Garcia's character's daughter in When a Man Loves a Woman. She frequently appeared in theaters throughout the mid-'90s, including playing George Clooney's daughter in One Fine Day (1996), the First Daughter in Independence Day (1996), and Sandra Bullock's little girl in Hope Floats (1998).
Mae Whitman (Now)
As a teen, Whitman starred on the Fox Family series State of Grace and then gained a new, more adult fan base as Ann Veal on Arrested Development. After a series of guest-star gigs in the late 2000s—on shows like Law & Order: SVU and Grey's Anatomy—Whitman finally returned to the spotlight on the ensemble family drama Parenthood, playing wild child Amber. She also made it back to the big screen (in movies like Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and The Perks of Being a Wallflower) and currently stars on the NBC drama Good Girls. At just 31, she's been working consistently for the past two-and-a-half decades. Not too shabby!
Anna Chlumsky (Then)
Though she had already been modeling with her mom in advertising campaigns, Anna Chlumsky got her big break when she starred as Veda in My Girl (1991) and its sequel, My Girl 2 (1994). In addition, she starred in Trading Mom (1994) as daughter to Sissy Spacek's character. Shortly after that role, she took a hiatus from acting to focus on college at the University of Chicago, majoring in International Studies.
Anna Chlumsky (Now)
After graduating, Chlumsky took non-industry gigs, such as working as a fact-checker for Zagat Survey and an editorial assistant for HarperCollins. After finding the work unsatisfying, Chlumsky went to acting school to try her hand as an adult. In 2009, she starred in filmmaker Armando Iannuci's In The Loop. Iannuci went on to create the acclaimed HBO comedy Veep, and tapped Chlumsky for the leading role of Amy Brookheimer. Over the course of the show's run, Chlumsky was nominated for five Emmys.
Thora Birch (Then)
After a commercial career, Thora Birch made her debut on the big screen in Purple People Eater (1988) at the age of six. This was before she rose to child stardom with roles in Paradise (1991), All I Want for Christmas (1991), Patriot Games (1992), Monkey Trouble (1994), Now and Then (1995), and Alaska (1996). It's likely Hocus Pocus (1993), though, that gave Birch the most memorable role of her childhood, as she is eternally a spunky little sister in the eyes of those who can't get enough of spooky movie. She wrapped up her teens years by playing her most adult role yet in Oscar-winner American Beauty (1999).
Thora Birch (Now)
As a grown-up, Birch starred in movies like Dungeons & Dragons and Ghost World (2001)—which scored her a Golden Globe nod, as well as Silver City (2004), Dark Corners (2006), and Petunia (2012). After that, she took a break to focus on academics, but has since resumed acting, largely taking on roles independent films. Most recently, Birch starred in The Last Black Man in San Francisco (2019).
Mary Kate Olsen and Ashley Olsen (Then)
The acting careers of Mary Kate (left) and Ashley Olsen launched in tandem. At just six months old, they were cast as Michelle Tanner on Full House. (Since the two are twins, they took turns portraying Michelle onscreen.) Over the course of the show's original eight-season run, viewers watched the sisters grow up before their own eyes. After Full House wrapped, the sisters Olsen went on to star in multiple films—including It Takes Two (1995), Passport to Paris (1999), The Challenge (2003), and New York Minute (2004)—before throwing in the towel on acting altogether (and all together).
Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen (Now)
At the age of 18, the Olsen twins became co-presidents of Dualstar Entertainment Group (the production company behind many of their films). They began building their personal brand by releasing home decoration and fragrances to the teen market. What's more, they've become fashion royalty, dropping everything from a Walmart collection (for young women) to a couture label, the Row. For their efforts, they've received five awards total from the Council of Fashion Designers of America. While Ashley (left) hasn't acted since becoming an adult, Mary Kate has appeared in a few projects, like the third season of Weeds (2007). Both twins opted out of appearing in the Full House reboot on Netflix, Fuller House.
Mayim Bialik (Then)
Even before taking on the lead role of Blossom Russo on the family sitcom Blossom, at the age of 15, Mayim Bialik had already had a pretty decent start. Thanks to movies like Beaches and Pumpkinhead (both 1988) as well as shows like Webster (1988), MacGyver (1989), and Molloy (1990), she was already pretty well known before reaching adulthood.
Mayim Bialik (Now)
Any fame Bialik experienced with Blossom pales in comparison to the massive success of The Big Bang Theory (2007–2019), which she joined in a guest role in Season 3 before being upped to main cast for the final eight seasons (out of which she earned four Emmy nominations). Fun fact: Bialik plays a doctor, neurobiologist Amy Farrah Fowler, on the show, and has an actual doctorate IRL. (Bialik received a PhD in neuroscience from UCLA in 2007.)
Joey Lawrence (Then)
Joey Lawrence is probably best known for starring on Blossom (as Joey Russo) alongside Bialik. But his acting career began before that, with the show Gimme a Break! (1983–1987). This was followed by a vocal lead role in Disney's Oliver & Company (1988). Arguably, the last major role of that era was the series Brotherly Love (1995–1997), which also featured Lawrence's real life brothers Matthew and Andrew Lawrence.
Joey Lawrence (Now)
Since then, Lawrence has appeared on the first season of the TV series American Dreams (2002), starred on Run of the House (2003), and held down Melissa & Joey alongside Melissa Joan Hart for more than 100 episodes, from 2010 through 2015. While Lawrence came close to taking home the trophy on the third season of ABC's Dancing With the Stars in 2006—he came in third—he didn't perform as well when it came to CBS's Celebrity Big Brother in 2019. (He came in ninth place overall.) Most recently, Lawrence had a five-episode run on Hawaii Five-0 and has also released some new music. (He had a couple of modest hits as a teen idol singer back in the day.)
Gaby Hoffmann (Then)
Thanks to some commercial work, Gaby Hoffman's acting career began when she was just four years old. Her big-screen debut came along three years later in Field of Dreams (1989), as Kevin Costner's daughter. That same year she also appeared in Uncle Buck, alongside fellow up-and-coming child star Macaulay Culkin. Other early projects included This Is My Life (1992), Sleepless in Seattle, and The Man Without a Face (both 1993), and Now and Then (1995). In 1994, NBC gave Hoffmann her own sitcom, Someone Like Me, but it only lasted six episodes.
Gaby Hoffmann (Now)
In more recent years, Hoffmann has appeared in films like 13 (2010) and Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus (2013)—though she has made more of a splash on TV shows including Louie and Girls. Though the Louie role lasted just one episode, Hoffman appeared for eight episodes on Girls (and even nabbed an Emmy nomination for her work). Still, Hoffman's biggest claim to fame as an adult is her role as as Ali Pfefferman on Amazon's Transparent, for which she has received two Emmy nominations.
Mandy Moore (Then)
Sure, Mandy Moore initially made her name as a pop star with hits like "Candy" and "I Wanna Be With You." But come 2001, she tried her hand at acting, starting with mean girl Lana Thomas in The Princess Diaries. The following year, Moore headlined the coming-of-age romantic drama A Walk to Remember. Aside from that, she also appeared in movies like How to Deal (2003) as well as Chasing Liberty and Saved!,both in 2004.
Mandy Moore (Now)
Flying under the radar—though working steadily—for the rest of the aughts, Moore swung into the pop culture zeitgeist as the long-haired Rapunzel from Disney's Tangled (2010) alongside Zachary Levi. For this movie, Moore and Levi performed the song "I See the Light" at the Oscars—where it was nominated for Best Original Song—and saw the tune win a Grammy. Moore later went on to do voice work in the animated hits Tangled: The Series and Ralph Breaks the Internet (2018). After a few minor acting projects, Moore hit it big with the age-defying role of Rebecca on NBC's This Is Us, delivering tears each week and snagging a Golden Globe nomination. In 2020, she released her seventh studio album, Silver Landings.
Maude Apatow (Then)
Maude Apatow (left), the eldest daughter of director Judd Apatow and actress Leslie Mann, has made a habit of starring in movies directed by her dad and starring her mom. She first appeared in an uncredited role in The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005) before appearing, at just 10 years old, in Knocked Up (2007). Five years, later she returned for Knocked Up's sequel, This Is 40 (2012). Sandwiched between those gigs was an appearance in Funny People (2009).
Maude Apatow (Now)
Now all grown up, Apatow has starred in The House of Tomorrow (2017) and Assassination Nation (2018), and played a recurring part on season 4 of HBO's Girls. Currently you can see her as a series regular on HBO's Euphoria, playing the childhood best friend of Zendaya's character. She also played sister to Pete Davidson's loosely autobiographical character in The King of Staten Island, directed and co-written by her dad.
Iris Apatow (Then)
Much like her big sister Maude, Iris Apatow has a tendency to pop up in dad Judd Apatow's films—playing the daughter of mom Leslie Mann in both Knocked Up (2007), when she was just five, and returning for its sequel, This Is 40 (2012). Again, like her elder sister, Funny People (2009) came between those films.
Iris Apatow (Now)
Aside from popping up in a small role in Sausage Party (2016), Iris made it to the big leagues when she booked a recurring role on the Netflix series Love—co-created by Judd Apatow and starring Gillian Jacobs and Paul Rust. Though the show has since been canceled by the streaming service, Iris appeared in 13 episodes between 2016 and 2018.
Miley Cyrus (Then)
Miley Cyrus' first acting credit was on dad Billy Ray Cyrus' show, Doc, for a few episodes between 2001 and 2003. After that, she had a small role in the film Big Fish (2003) before catapulting to teen fame on the Disney Channel series Hannah Montana. Other acting résumé lines include a small role in High School Musical 2 (2007) and bigger roles in Bolt (2008) and The Last Song (2010).
Miley Cyrus (Now)
After Hannah Montana, Cyrus seemed ready to do anything. This meant roles in movies like LOL (2012) and on shows like Two and a Half Men (2012) and Black Mirror (2019). Cyrus also used her music to drive home the fact that she was more than a Disney Channel star with tunes like "We Can't Stop," "Wrecking Ball," "Adore You," "Malibu," and "Younger Now"—snagging a Grammy nomination along the way throughout seven studio albums thus far. Elsewhere, Cyrus has also been a judge on The Voice for two seasons, once in Season 11 and once in Season 13.
Vanessa Hudgens (Then)
Vanessa Hudgens made her film debut in the controversial drama Thirteen (2003), but it was three years later when she became a huge star, thanks to a much more wholesome role: that of Gabriella in High School Musical. She reprised the DCOM role in High School Musical 2 and 3, the latter being the only one released as a feature film in theaters. She also released two pop albums and stoked teen interest through her relationship with costar Zac Efron.
Vanessa Hudgens (Now)
Like a lot of Disney stars, Hudgens seemed eager to show her range and prove herself as an adult actor. Roles in Sucker Punch (2011), Spring Breakers (2013), and Machete Kills (2013) followed her HSM days. She was a judge for a full season of the competition reality show So You Think You Can Dance and has carved out a niche for herself with Netflix Christmas romances, with The Princess Switch (and its upcoming sequel) and The Knight Before Christmas. She's also keeping her musical chops sharp with roles in the live TV productions of Grease and Rent, plus the forthcoming Netflix adaptation of the stage musical Tick…Tick… Boom! directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Elle Fanning (Then)
Elle Fanning actually got her start playing the younger version of older sister Dakota Fanning's character in I Am Sam (2001). In 2002, she did that same thing in the TV show Taken. The younger fanning had a bigger role in Daddy Day Care (2003), but really captured audience's hearts with roles in Because of Winn-Dixie (2005), Babel (2006), Reservation Road (2007), and Super 8 (2011).
Elle Fanning (Now)
Elle Fanning has continued to blossom into a sterling indie actress. In 2017, she took on role in How to Talk to Girls at Parties, The Beguiled, and Mary Shelley. The following year, she starred in I Think We're Alone Now, Galveston, and Teen Spirit. In 2019, her IMDB includes roles in A Rainy Day in New York, All the Bright Places, and Maleficent: Mistress of Evil. She also plays the lead role of Empress Catherine in the comedic Hulu history drama, The Great.
Dakota Fanning (Then)
At the age of 7, Dakota Fanning burst onto the scene in the film I Am Sam (2001), becoming the youngest nominee in Screen Actors Guild Award history. She followed that up with young career chock full of roles in major movies like Sweet Home Alabama (2002), The Cat in the Hat (2003), War of the Worlds (2005), Charlotte's Web (2006), The Secret Life of Bees (2008), Coraline (2009), and the Twilight franchise. During this time, Fanning also had one-off gigs on popular TV shows like ER (2000) to The Ellen Show (2001) and even Friends (2004).
Dakota Fanning (Now)
After childhood, the elder Fanning scored roles in Now Is Good (2012), Night Moves (2013), Effie Gray and Every Secret Thing (both 2014), and American Pastoral (2016). But her biggest role to date was in Ocean's 8 (2018). She played Squeaky Fromme in Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood in 2019 and will return as Sara Howard in the sequel series to The Alienist, The Alienist: Angel of Darkness.
Jaden Smith (Then)
Jaden Smith's first acting project was in 1998 (the same year he was born) when he appeared in dad Will Smith's music video for "Just the Two of Us." Then, from 2003 to 2006, the younger Smith then had a small role in the TV show All of Us (also co-created by his dad) before starring in The Pursuit of Happyness in 2006 (also alongside his dad). He also starred in The Karate Kid (2010) and After Earth (2013). Both films featured Will Smith.
Jaden Smith (Now)
More recently, Jaden Smith has struck out on his own. He had a main role on the Netflix series The Get Down (2016)—before it was cancelled after just one season—and also in the streaming site's anime series Neo Yokio. As for movies, he appeared in Skate Kitchen (2018) and is set to appear in Life in a Year sometime later this year. He has taken music more seriously, too, having released two albums, Syre (2017) and Erys (2019), in recent years.
Haley Joel Osment (Then)
Haley Joel Osment debuted on the big screen and the silver screen in 1994, appearing as Forrest Gump Jr. in…well, you know what, and popping up in The Larry Sanders Show and a TV movie. But his big break was indubitably 1999's The Sixth Sense, in which he played a disturbed little boy who claimed to "see dead people" and was hugely praised for his work. Roles in movies like Pay It Forward and A.I. Artificial Intelligence followed.
Haley Joel Osment (Now)
Osment continued to work off and on while still pursuing his education—he's a graduate of NYU's Tisch School of the Arts. As an adult, he's dabbled quite a bit in comedy, appearing in Silicon Valley, a couple of Kevin Smith films, and two IFC satire miniseries produced by Will Ferrell. Most recently, Osment showed up in an episode of the FX vampire comedy What We Do in the Shadows and played the boyfriend of one of Ted Bundy's exes in Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile. He also voices a character in the Kingdom Hearts series of video games.