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The Awkward History of Actors Trying to Play Teenagers in Movies

The star of ‘Dear Evan Hansen’ turns 28 this week. But Hollywood is littered with films featuring men who are way too old to pass for high-schoolers

If there’s one thing you probaby know about Dear Evan Hansen, which opens this Friday, it’s not that it’s based on the Tony-winning musical or that it’s a story about depression and suicide. No, more likely you’re aware that the film’s star, Ben Platt (who’s reprising his Tony-winning performance), is too old to be playing a teenager. Ever since Dear Evan Hansen premiered at the Toronto Film Festival a couple weeks ago, that’s all anyone can talk about: Platt, who turns 28 the day the movie hits theaters, is simply unconvincing as the anxious, medicated high-school student Evan Hansen. Writing in The Guardian, critic Adrian Horton didn’t mince words: “[T]he team behind Dear Evan Hansen put Platt in prosthetics and opaque, pasty makeup, along with a curly mop of hair, that strands the actor firmly in the uncanny valley. But the attempt to make Platt seem younger somehow renders him both older and inhuman — an act of near-sabotage so distracting it basically renders the movie unrecoverable.”

Almost thirtysomething Ben Platt as the teenage Evan Hansen

I’ve seen Dear Evan Hansen and concur: The movie has lots of problems, but one of the biggest is how weird it is for everyone involved to pretend Platt is a teen, which got me thinking about Hollywood’s history of casting actors in their 20s to play high-schoolers. On one level, it makes sense — you want someone who’s more mature and poised than most of us were when we were teenagers — but if the illusion doesn’t work, the disconnect can be bizarre, even creepy. So with that in mind, I decided to spotlight 10 well-known instances of older actors trying to play young — and in each case render a verdict on how believable the transformation was. 

But first, some quick ground rules. I based each actor’s age on how old they were when the film premiered, making 24 the cutoff for the youngest performer to be considered. Also, I’m only focusing on teen characters: Dustin Hoffman was 30 when The Graduate came out, but Benjamin Braddock is a college graduate and, therefore, no longer a teenager. As I put this list together — which goes from youngest to oldest — I was curious where Platt would land. Turns out, he’s not the oldest — although he might be the least convincing faux-teen. 

Back to the Future (1985)

Character: Marty McFly

Actor: Michael J. Fox

Actor’s Age (approximate): 24 years, one month

How Unconvincing Is He As a Teen?: At 24, Fox was a superstar: He was part of a hit sitcom in Family Ties, and he had the biggest movie in the world thanks to Back to the Future. (Shortly thereafter, Teen Wolf would arrive in theaters and also do really well.) “By 21, I was earning six figures a week,” he said in 2013. “By 23, I had a Ferrari. It was nuts. I never stopped to figure that out.” 

In the mid-1980s, the Canadian actor was the embodiment of the American teen, and his boyishness kept that from ever feeling cringey. Of course, what helped sell the illusion was that Fox is only 5-foot-4 — and that in Back to the Future he spent much of the film hanging out with Christopher Lloyd, who’s more than 20 years older. Anybody standing next to Doc Brown is gonna look like a kid. That said, by the time of Back to the Future Part III, he was nearly 30 — the idea that he could still pass for a teen was starting to get as convoluted as those movies’ plots. 

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)

Character: Ferris Bueller

Actor: Matthew Broderick

Actor’s Age (approximate): 24 years, three months

How Unconvincing Is He As a Teen?: When he was only 21, Broderick snagged a Tony for Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Play for Brighton Beach Memoirs, and all these years later, he remains the youngest winner in that category. Before he was cast as the title character in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, he’d played a teen genius in WarGames, but Ferris will always be his defining film role — he seemed to understand that confident smart-ass from the inside. 

Like Fox, Broderick has an eternal boyishness that made him an ideal actor to play high-schoolers, even in his mid-20s. Sure, he looks too grown-up — too composed — to realistically resemble your average teen, but that was also partly the point: Ferris is savvy and sneaky beyond his years, so it helped to have someone a little older portray him. And I have to say: It’s remarkable how much he still looks like Ferris.  

Grease (1978)

Character: Danny Zuko

Actor: John Travolta

Actor’s Age (approximate): 24 years, four months

How Unconvincing Is He As a Teen?: Because of its enduring popularity, Grease is often held up as the definitive example of Hollywood casting non-teens to play high-schoolers. Of course, Travolta was then in the midst of playing several memorable teen characters between Vinnie Barbarino in Welcome Back, Kotter and Tony Manero in Saturday Night Fever (which earned him a Best Actor Oscar nomination). But his role as Danny has always been a bit less believable, partly because he’s so much taller than Olivia Newton-John, which makes him seem even older. (Ironic, considering she was nearly 30 when Grease came out.) Plus, Travolta had a swagger that gave him a certain air of maturity — there’s none of the gangly self-consciousness of adolescence in the man. But even so, his buoyant personality gave Danny an endearingly kid-like demeanor. That cocky grin seems untouched by age, cynicism or disappointment.

Rebel Without a Cause (1955)

Character: Jim Stark

Actor: James Dean

Actor’s Age (approximate): 24 years, eight months

How Unconvincing Is He As a Teen?: With most of the actors on this list, you can compare how they look now, later in their lives, with their mid-20s selves. Sadly, that’s not the case with Dean, who died in a car crash shortly before the release of Rebel Without a Cause, one of Hollywood’s classic teen dramas. 

As Jim Stark, Dean came to symbolize the outsider, the rebel, the deeply tormented American youth, making that big-screen archetype sexy and compelling in the process. All these years later, whenever there’s a movie or TV show about the challenges of being a teenager, such as Euphoria, they’re (consciously or not) paying a debt to Rebel Without a Cause. Dean was such an intense actor that he’s not remotely convincing as a teen — his face is too mature, his rage too full-throttled — but that only made him a moody role model for young people who wanted to emulate his grownup, brooding demeanor.

Star Wars (1977)

Character: Luke Skywalker

Actor: Mark Hamill

Actor’s Age (approximate): 25 years, eight months

How Unconvincing Is He As a Teen?: Okay, technically, we’re never told specifically how old Luke is in A New Hope, but the internet feels pretty confident that he’s 19, so let’s go with that. At the time, of course, we didn’t know that Luke and Leia were twins, but in retrospect, it’s striking how much younger Carrie Fisher looks than Hamill, who was about five years her senior. She looks like a kid, where Hamill appears more grownup — even though he approached Luke like an adolescent. 

“One of my favorite films of all time is The Wizard of Oz, and [the script] sort of reminded me of it,” Hamill once said. “You know, if Dorothy were a boy instead of a girl getting swept off his boring desert planet, or Kansas, into a fantastical world where there’s a phantasmagorical collection of creatures and robots and villains and heroes.” Sure, maybe Hamill seemed physically too mature for the role, but the actor worked around that problem by making Luke extremely emotionally immature in Star Wars. Before Luke becomes a Jedi, he’s whiny and bratty, like an actual young person is when he’s anxious to get on with his life.

American Graffiti (1973)

Character: Curt Henderson

Actor: Richard Dreyfuss

Actor’s Age (approximate): 25 years, 10 months

How Unconvincing Is He As a Teen?: In George Lucas’ first blockbuster — the one that came before the Star Wars juggernaut Dreyfuss and Ron Howard played teenage pals preparing for life after high school. Howard was 19 — Dreyfuss was… a lot older, and you can tell while watching American Graffiti. Howard’s Steve is awkward and kid-like, but Dreyfuss’ Curt comes across as a full-fledged adult. 

It’s not creepy, but it is jarring, especially when you consider that, two years later, Dreyfuss was playing an accomplished oceanographer in Jaws — and, then, two years after that, obsessing over UFOs in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Where other actors on this list seem perpetually youthful, Dreyfuss has always felt like an old soul, which hasn’t always served him well. Back when he worked with Oliver Stone on W., he recalls the director commenting, “You’re so old. You look so old.” (“I needed that money, so I put up with it,” Dreyfuss said.) 

The Spectacular Now (2013)

Character: Sutter Keely

Actor: Miles Teller

Actor’s Age (approximate): 25 years, 11 months

How Unconvincing Is He As a Teen?: Back in 2013, when his film career was starting to catch fire thanks to The Spectacular Now, Teller said, with a laugh, “If I was more attractive, I’d be in TV. All the pretty people are in TV.” He was nearly 26 when his breakthrough film premiered at Sundance, but his performance as Sutter, a fun-loving, alcoholic teen trying to push down the darkness in his life, somehow magically managed to erase that age difference — not to mention the age difference between him and his co-star Shailene Woodley. (She’s about five years younger than him.) 

This was a period in which Teller was doing excellent work in everything from the Footloose remake to Whiplash, expertly depicting prototypical troubled young people at a time when a lot of teens were on medication. His immediacy and vulnerability made his characters seem unguarded — just the way teens are when they haven’t yet developed the armor that life demands of you. 

Spider-Man (2002)

Character: Peter Parker

Actor: Tobey Maguire

Actor’s Age (approximate): 26 years, 10 months

How Unconvincing Is He As a Teen?: Peter Parker is probably the most famous comic-book teen, but when he got his first major motion picture, he was played by Maguire, who at that point had already spent a career portraying nuanced young people in films like The Ice Storm and Wonder Boys. (In the latter film, his character is actually in college.) 

Nearly 27 when Spider-Man came out, Maguire relied on his boyish features to seem younger. It didn’t completely work — his Peter Parker definitely looks like he shaves, plus he’s seven years older than Kirsten Dunst, who was cast as love interest Mary Jane Watson. But for a lot of fans, Maguire became the definitive Spider-Man, idealistic and virtuous, nerdy but heroic. And if you think it’s odd that Hollywood would go with an actor that old to play Peter, keep reading: Maguire’s successor was even older.

Dear Evan Hansen (2021)

Character: Evan Hansen

Actor: Ben Platt

Actor’s Age (approximate): 27 years, 11 months

How Unconvincing Is He As a Teen?: Even before Dear Evan Hansen’s Toronto premiere, Platt (who’s the son of one of the film’s producers, Marc Platt) has had to battle criticism that he’s now too old to play a character he’s been portraying since the stage show was first being developed in the mid-2010s. “The [negative] reaction is largely from people that don’t understand the context of the piece,” Ben Platt said in August. “The fact that I created the role and workshopped it for three years, and did all of the out-of-town performances, and originated it on Broadway, and received the accolades that I did … and also not really understanding that were I not to do the movie, it probably wouldn’t get made.”

Unfortunately, Platt’s defensiveness doesn’t do anything to make his performance in the movie any less ugh-inducing. The makeup and hair team end up transforming him into what appears to be an undercover cop trying to infiltrate a high school. (You know the running joke in the Jump Street movies that Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill are obviously too old to pass for high-school/college students? Now imagine a whole film that plays that joke straight — or, worse yet, doesn’t realize it’s a joke.) The more Platt tries to be an adolescent, the creepier it becomes. This isn’t Dear Evan Hansen’s only flaw, but it’s the most visible since his character is on screen almost the entire time.

The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)

Character: Peter Parker

Actor: Andrew Garfield

Actor’s Age (approximate): 28 years, 10 months

How Unconvincing Is He As a Teen?: Before being cast as Spider-Man in the rebooted franchise, Garfield was probably best known for playing Eduardo Saverin, Mark Zuckerberg’s college chum, in The Social Network. Three years later, the actor was portraying Peter Parker, and he was nearly 29 when The Amazing Spider-Man came out. 

“I’d been reading the mythologists Joseph Campbell and James Hillman. And when I took on Spider-Man, I thought, ‘Holy shit! This is exquisite and terrifying and incredible. I have been given the responsibility of reaching my hand out from the big screen and putting it on [young boys’] shoulders,’” Garfield said a few years ago. “‘That is a gift for me and a big burden to carry. And I’m so up for it.’ I thought, ‘If I can infuse all this ancient knowledge and wisdom into [Spider-Man], it could be profoundly affecting for young people in the audience.’” 

Unfortunately, The Amazing Spider-Man and its sequel just never really clicked. Was it because Garfield was so profoundly not a teenager? Maybe, although he’s such a good actor it’s hard to blame him for those movies’ failure. (Also, like in the original trilogy, his onscreen love interest, Emma Stone, was five years younger than him, which didn’t help matters.) Let’s just put it this way: The recent Marvel Spider-Man movies were smart to cast Tom Holland, who only this summer turned 25. He actually looks like a kid.

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