Maybe they’re young at heart: Adults playing teens onscreen

Here are our picks for the most memorable performances with the biggest age gaps between star and character. Did they pull it off?

Can a mop of curly hair, a backpack and an outfit that looks like a mother’s choice for school picture day send a 27-year-old actor back to his senior year of high school?

That will be the question facing filmgoers when Ben Platt reprises his performance as the titular awkward teenager in the film adaptation of the heartbreaking Broadway musical Dear Evan Hansen, due September 24 in US theatres.

When the first trailer was released in May, initial reactions to Platt’s attempt to shave off a decade were, well, less than rosy.

“Raise your hand if you felt personally victimised by Ben Platt’s wig this morning,” writer Jorge Molina tweeted, prompting comparisons to the scene-stealing wig Sarah Paulson wore in The People v. O.J. Simpson.

But that part of his look, at least, was the real thing. Platt set the record straight in a now-deleted Twitter post. “I’m v flattered that ppl think my locks are a wig and I hate to burst bubbles,” he wrote. “But sadly those are my own.”

Platt is hardly the first full-grown adult to return to his locker and letterman jacket days for a film, and nowhere near the oldest, though some of them — *cough* Tobey Maguire — look like they should be carrying briefcases instead of backpacks. (Child labour laws make it easier to cast actors over 18 as high school students than to work around regulations for younger actors.)

Here are some of the most memorable attempts by 20- and 30- somethings to pass as teenagers. Who makes the grade, and who should have dropped out?

John Travolta as Danny Zuko in Grease

Danny’s age: 18

John Travolta’s age: 23

Travolta’s not-so-malevolent gang leader might look a few years older than the “he was sweet, just turned 18” Sandy pegs him for, but it works because he’s a youngster compared with the fellow “high schoolers” around him. Olivia Newton-John was 29; the show-stealing Stockard Channing, at 33, was old enough to play Rizzo’s mother. Grease (1978) became the highest-grossing musical film up to that point, so audiences clearly weren’t too concerned — and Travolta’s schoolboy rhapsodising over Newton-John in that skintight black bodysuit seemed all too real.

Emma Thompson as Elinor Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility

Elinor’s age: 19

Emma Thompson’s age: 36

If you remember that Thompson’s character is supposed to be 19 in the Jane Austen novel on which the 1995 film is based, her matriarchal, self-possessed Elinor won’t fool you for a second. Kate Winslet, who was 20 when she played Elinor’s 16-year-old sister, Marianne, emphasises the gulf. But if it’s been a while since you’ve read the novel and just assume that Elinor is in her late 20s or early 30s, you might give Thompson a passing grade. After all, her intellect and frequent apologies on behalf of the impassioned, though imprudent, Marianne make her closer to a mother than a sister.

Alan Ruck as Cameron Frye in Ferris Bueller's Day Off

Cameron’s age: 17

Alan Ruck’s age: 29

Actors pushing 30 don’t have a great track record of pulling off 17-year-olds, and Ruck, despite imbuing Cameron with pitch-perfect humour and sensitivity as Ferris’ wingman, is no exception. Matthew Broderick, who plays Ferris, helped distract from the true discrepancy — he was 24 when the 1986 film was released — but not enough to sell the subterfuge. Luckily, this was one case where the movie was so good that nobody seemed to care.

Shirley Henderson as Moaning Myrtle in Harry Potter

Myrtle’s age: 14

Shirley Henderson’s age: 37

All hail the power of pigtails! (And a 5-foot stature.) Is it creepy, in retrospect, for a fully grown woman to play a giggly 14-year-old ghost flirting with a prepubescent Daniel Radcliffe in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)? Sure. (It would be weird enough to have an actual 14-year-old playing Myrtle, who would have been in her 60s had she not had a fateful encounter with a basilisk.) But honestly, watching the film when I was growing up, I’d never have guessed she was old enough to be Harry’s mother.

Tobey Maguire as Peter Parker in Spider-Man

Peter’s age: 17

Tobey Maguire’s age: 27

Maguire, unfortunately, is about as successful at passing for a teenager as Peter Parker is at concealing his identity as the title character in Spider-Man (2002). When his character is bitten by a radioactive spider during a class field trip to Columbia University, the actor looks more like he should be a teaching assistant in the lab than a high school student. But he’s far from the only (relatively) over-the-hill Peter Parker, though things turned around in 2015 when a 19-year-old Tom Holland was cast as Marvel’s new Spider-Man.

Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany's

Holly’s age: 19

Audrey Hepburn’s age: 31

Sure, Hepburn’s doe eyes and elflike features shaved years off her appearance, but she was clearly a woman in the 1961 film based on the Truman Capote novel. (Though Capote’s first choice for Holly, Marilyn Monroe, then 35, was even older.) Yet Hepburn embodies the novel’s striking, self-sufficient young bohemian, and Holly’s free spirit is as alive in her as in a recent high school grad — even if she never looks like one in her sleek, sophisticated black gown.

Jennifer Grey as Baby in Dirty Dancing

Baby’s age: 17

Jennifer Grey’s age: 27

No one puts Baby in a corner, and no one was about to tell Grey she was a decade too old to play the doctor’s daughter who gets tangled up with Patrick Swayze’s bad-boy dance instructor in Dirty Dancing (1987). It helped that Swayze, who played 25-year-old Johnny Castle, was 34 at the time, but Grey’s small stature (she’s 5-foot-3), wild curls and big brown eyes made it entirely believable that she was 17.

Rachel McAdams as Regina George in Mean Girls

Regina’s age: 16 or 17

Rachel McAdams’s age: 26

Do you want to call McAdams’ Regina George an impostor to her face? Mark Waters, the director of Mean Girls (2004), initially passed over McAdams for the part because he didn’t think she could pull off a teenager, but then he decided it would make sense if Regina grew up a little too fast. Our take: Even if Regina looks more like she should be gatekeeping for a sorority than a school-lunch table, it works for a conniving character who’s always a few steps ahead of her classmates.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

Written by: Sarah Bahr
© 2021 THE NEW YORK TIMES

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