Real Change for Child Actors? As Adults, They Have Box-Office Clout

McKenna Grace reprises her lead role as Phoebe in “Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire,” which led the weekend box office with $45 million. At 17 she is not yet a household name, but she laid some groundwork early: At age six she had a supporting role on the Disney Channel sitcom “Crash & Bernstein.” Later she received an Emmy nomination for her work in “The Handmaid’s Tale,” and portrayed the younger selves for the leads in movies like “I, Tonya” and “Captain Marvel.”

Her “Ghostbusters” co-star is Finn Wolfhard, who made his debut at 13 in CW’s “Supernatural” before starring in “Stranger Things” and “It.” Zendaya, star of “Dune: Part Two,” got her start as a Disney Channel regular. Her co-star, Oscar-nominated Austin Butler, cut his teeth at Nickelodeon.

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It’s a strange juxtaposition: Child actors are currently at the forefront of the uncomfortable but necessary conversation centered in Mary Robertson and Emma Schwartz’s documentary “Quiet on Set: The Dark Side of Kids TV.” At the same time, the ranks of our current movie stars are filled by the men and women who got their starts as boys and girls. (It should be noted that none of the actors in this article are associated with the abuses cited in the Max documentary.)

Dan Schneider and Jamie Lynn Spears in 2004
Dan Schneider and ‘Zoey 101’ star Jamie Lynn Spears in 2004Courtesy Getty Images

The four-part series “Quiet on Set,” which first aired on Investigation Discovery, covers the history of alleged psychological, physical, and sometimes sexual abuses experienced by underage performers while executive producer Dan Schneider was at Nickelodeon. (The showrunner left the network in 2018 and has since apologized for some of the inappropriate behavior and sexualized material written into shows like “All That” and “The Amanda Show.” He denies all direct abuse allegations.)

“Quiet on Set” came on the heels of similar conversations. In her 2019 book “The Life of a Wannabe Mogul: Mental Disarray,” Bella Thorne revealed she was molested during the time she co-starred with Zendaya on Disney Channel’s “Shake It Up,” and reported more inappropriate behavior from directors around that same time. (Thorne did not specifically blame the network.)

Another former kid actor for the Disney Channel, Christy Carlson Romano, starred on “Even Stevens” (which also gave us Shia LaBeouf). She now uses her popular “Vulnerable Podcast” to explore her and others’ industry experiences. Cole Sprouse, who starred in Disney Channel sitcom “The Suite Life of Zack & Cody,” has confirmed widespread sexualization of young girls when he was at the network.

Jennette McCurdy spoke extensively about the abuses she experienced on the sets of Schneider’s Nickelodeon series “iCarly” and “Sam & Cat” in her 2022 memoir, “I’m Glad My Mom Died.” The star of another Schneider series, former “Zoey 101” star and sexual abuse survivor Alexa Nikolas, appears in “Quiet on Set”; she also has been outspoken across social media platforms and started the Eat Predators movement, which protested outside Nickelodeon Studios the day after the docuseries’ premiere.

THE WIZARD OF OZ, from left: Terry as 'Toto', Judy Garland as 'Dorothy',  Billie Burke as 'Glinda', 1939
Judy Garland and Billie Burke in ‘The Wizard of Oz’Courtesy Everett Collection

As anyone who’s read the biographies of Judy Garland, Elizabeth Taylor, and Natalie Wood could tell you, the risks young actors face aren’t new. What’s changed is that the transition from child actor to adult star is no longer an outlier; it’s a career path.

Within the 10 biggest live-action hits of 2023 are one-time Mouseketeer Ryan Gosling; and Jacob Tremblay, who was nine when he received acclaim for starring opposite the Oscar-winning Brie Larson in “Room.” Kathryn Newton in “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” made her debut at age 3 on “All My Children.” And of course Ke Huy Quan won the 2023 Oscar for “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” long after achieving child stardom in “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” and “The Goonies.”

At Netflix, “Irish Wish” with Lindsay Lohan is currently #1. “Love Lies Bleeding” star Kristen Stewart was 12 when she starred opposite another former child actor, Jodie Foster, in “Panic Room.” Next week Kirsten Dunst and Jesse Plemons star in “Civil War.” Soon to come is Ryan Reynolds in “Deadpool 2” who, among many other things, is a former child actor in his native Canada.

An incomplete list of other upcoming films led by former child actors are “The Fall Guy” (Gosling again), “Joker: Folie à Deux” (Joaquin Phoenix), “Road House” (Jake Gyllenhaal), “Project Artemis” (Scarlett Johansson), “It Ends with Us” (Blake Lively), “The Watchers” (Dakota Fanning), and “Wicked” (Ariana Grande).

By comparison, the top 50 grossing films through 2000 had four leads who began working as children: “Cleopatra” (Taylor, with Roddy McDowell supporting), “West Side Story” (Wood), “American Graffiti” (Ron Howard), and “Titanic” (Leonardo DiCaprio).

Child actors have always been a part of movies, but in the 20th century most washed out as adults. Shirley Temple was five when she portrayed a saloon singer in a Mae West parody short, “Glad Rags to Riches.” Two years later she won a Juvenile Academy Award, but her adult movie career was faded out. Garland was seven when she began making the transition from vaudeville to movies, but her long career exhibited the damage done as a minor.

TITANIC, from left: Leonardo DiCaprio, Danny Nucci, 1997. TM & Copyright ©20th Century Fox Film Corp. All rights reserved./Courtesy Everett Collection
Leonardo DiCaprio and Danny Nucci in ‘Titanic’©20thCentFox/Courtesy Everett Collection

While he was by no means the first — Foster came long before — the industry may have started reconsidering child actors with DiCaprio and “Titanic.” After establishing himself with sitcoms “Parenthood” and “Growing Pains,” he emerged as an acclaimed film actor just as he turned 18 with “This Boy’s Life” and “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.” James Cameron’s massive 1997 hit established him as a permanent movie star.

Certainly, one reason we’re seeing child actors produce so many grown-up stars was the very creation of networks like Nickelodeon (purchased by Viacom in 1985) and Disney Channel (founded in 1983). Dedicated to kids’ programming, they became wildly popular; by the mid-’90s, Nickelodeon was the number-one cable channel in daily viewers. It created a previously unseen demand for very young actors.

Once they aged out, they could find opportunities in the then-growing worlds of TV, cable, and later, streaming. There was also a change in the roles young actors might play. Timothée Chalamet’s first role at 13 was a 2009 “Law & Order” episode that saw his character brutally murdered. But, as he told talk show host Ellen DeGeneres while promoting “Beautiful Boy” in 2018, “‘Law & Order’ was the mothership for so many actors.”

Finally, social media allows young actors to maintain that early investment by building out their online personas — and preparing themselves for a world in which it’s not uncommon for casting directors to request actors’ following counts along with their credits. Born in 2006, “Ghostbusters” star Grace is a digital native with 4.3 million TikTok followers. Surely, this weekend will add more.

This week, Schneider tried to leverage his own YouTube channel with a 19-minute video and tepid apology in response to the accusations of “Quiet on Set,” saying: “Me facing my past behaviors, some of which are embarrassing and that I regret … I definitely owe some people a pretty strong apology.”

It was no match for the immediate social-media reactions from former child actors, who said in no uncertain terms that they weren’t having it. “He’s embarassed?” said Nikola in a 47-minute video responding to his video apology, which she posted to her YouTube account.

Sitting in front of her mic, an orange “Sickelodeon” logo loomed large in the background. “You are awful,” she continued. “Not embarrassed enough to reach out to the people that you actually harmed… You exploited children!”

Another response video came from Jack Salvatore, a child actor on “Zoey 101” who later worked as a production intern on “iCarly” and in the writers’ room on “Sam and Cat” and “Victorious” — all Schneider shows.

“We could talk about sometimes he would bring out a shotgun to scare one of the writers when they were working at his house,” he said. “We could talk about the high-level conversations I wasn’t supposed to hear about how Nickelodeon didn’t want to recommend antidepressants for Jennette McCurdy after her mom died, for fear that she might commit suicide and make Nickelodeon look bad.

“This is an entire industry built on hope and dreams and adrenaline and wish fulfillment,” he continued. “And that could be a very dangerous thing for megalomaniacs to wield.”

History suggests that half-hearted apologies do little to ensure that the Dan Schneiders of the world remain shamed and banished. Far more effective may be the fact that it’s no longer unusual for child actors to become major stars, with multiple platforms available to them if they want to speak out. Ultimately, that may arm them with Hollywood’s most valuable asset: Power.

Alison Foreman contributed to this report.

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