The Teen Age Dilemma

This is a problem that’s played on my mind for a while now, but I’ve only recently started thinking about it in depth: Why is it that teenage characters are rarely, if ever, played by teenage actors?

It’s not hard to discover your favourite actor’s age with a little IMDB-ing but after some research I was shocked to realise the extent of films with actors playing roles up to 24 years younger than them (!!!). What’s worse is that some of the most influential and beloved films are culprits of this age deception…

Jennifer Grey (27) playing a 17 year old Frances in ‘Dirty Dancing’
Stockard Channing was 34 when playing the 18 year old Betty Rizzo.
Barbara Streisand (41) was 24 years older than her character Yentl (17).

I suppose I should be more forgiving, perhaps there was less opportunity to discover and cast talented young people to actually play a character their own age back in the 80s. But I can’t help but think that excuse is no longer valid. The teen classic that is ‘Mean Girls’ came out in 2005 and Rachel McAdams was still a grown woman when she played 16 year old Regina George. This can’t be a case of young people not being talented enough, have you seen how many aspiring youtube stars there are just gasping for a role in something like ‘Glee’? (Another culprit of casting stars with huge age gaps). If you want proof that teens are actually capable, and pretty damn good, at acting just look at ‘Skins’. Nicholas Hoult was a mere 17 when he starred in that and he turned out pretty well, going on to star in box office hits such as X-Men.

Now sure the actors may not look particularly old, but the problem is more subtle than that, and something I have a real issue with. Every other age group is portrayed accurately; old men are played by old men, twenty-somethings are played by twenty-somethings and well babies are played by babies… We are the only age group not to be cast accurately and I sure as hell find that infuriating.  Casting 30 year old women to play pubesent girls does have damaging effects, albeit not glaringly obvious ones. I for one know that I’ve gone through a lot of changes over my teen years – experimenting with makeup, hair and the dreaded increase of spots on my once perfect skin. The problem is that we don’t see any of this in mainstream film and television. A well established actress or actor with a hair and beauty team will never be able to accurately portray a hormonal teenager and it’s having detrimental consequences. Magazines and photoshop aren’t the only ones to blame for my generation’s ever increasing beauty ideals. Boys are now growing up thinking that’s it’s possible to have a fully grown beard by the time they’re 17 and no doubt are thoroughly disappointed when all that they get are a few baby hairs appearing on their chin. These expectations being subtly perpetuated are just feeding the idea of ‘perfection’, something that doesn’t really seem to exist.

If we’re going to criticise Vogue et al the film and television industry need to play their part too. It’s pretty simple actually, cast kids to play kids, you might be pleasantly surprised.

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2 thoughts on “The Teen Age Dilemma

  1. Whilst I agree with your complaints, there are some wider issues here that complicate what ought to be a rather straight forward situation.

    The BBC disability blog (1) recently revived a story that has been aired in the media for periodically over several decades. Should able bodied actors play disabled characters? Obviously Eddie Redmayne is the current focus of the recycle, playing the now wheeled Hawking, but this query has been raised about Kevin McHale (Artie; Glee, 2007 – present), Dustin Hoffman (RainMan, 1988) and Daniel Day-Lewis (My Left Foot, 1989). For those familiar with the contexts, it would be very difficult to ask already disabled actors to step up; McHale has regular fantasies of dancing, Redmayne plays a character who was initially able to walk unaided, and I am sure it would be extreme cruelty to put a severely autistic person through what Hoffman had to ‘endure’ in that movie. This (2) rather inane version of the same story (for god’s sake be a journalist and do your own research to give us a fresh approach!) in the formerly non tabloid The Guardian, the author berates ‘cripping up’. Does Frances Ryan understand Hawking’s story? – Has she even seen the film? For someone who ‘writes predominately on disability…’, she seems to lack the necessary understanding of the complexities of the plot.

    It has been many years since the practice of white actors blacking up was pushed from the mainstream, it appears to remain in the arts through opera, according to today’s Independent (3). Many years ago, I saw Anthony Hopkins blacked for Othello, and while it was very odd to have a white Welshman playing the black Moor, his powerful performance certainly carried it off. We are fortunate now to have a wealth of black actors in our UK A list who will fill theatres, and Patrick Stewart has played a white Othello in an otherwise all black cast as an alternate perspective. Being honest, I saw it because of Hopkins – a lesser known black actor might have been more deserving of the part, but then I would not have attended.

    And this is part of the bigger picture. Many a capable 17 year old woman could produce a great acting performance. Take Yentl. Hard to imagine a less interesting persona then that of Razzie-nominated Streisand in this role. Having produced one of the dreariest movies of all time, just about the only selling point at the time was Streisand’s name. Without her, the film not only would not have been made, but it would not have enjoyed commercial success. Sometimes you have to use stars to sell movies. Think Tobey MacGuire, Andrew Garfield & Emma Stone in Spiderman(s) or Emma Watson in The Perks… Actually a number of original cast members of Glee were around 30 when the programme began and Keiko Agena was 15 years older than her character in Gilmore Girls (just 5 years younger than her best friend’s mother!)

    Film and television products are massive investments. Acting in such is also no doubt hugely demanding – especially in the case of a long term, episode heavy TV series. Add into the equation the possible sex, drugs and other adult themed storylines, which may be unsuitable for younger actors and you begin to create a complexity of conditions around the product. I’m sure the last thing you need as a producer is to have to ask investors to provide for tutors and chaperones and allow for limited filming schedules for younger performers.

    Without doubt, taking on teens to play teens must be fraught with additional difficulties, compared to using older actors, but we know the benefits of going for greater authenticity. Many of the films we have most treasured over recent times have featured genuine teens. I am thinking Boyhood, The Fault in Our Stars and Moonrise Kingdom particularly. I am sure fans of the Harry Potter movies would agree. Young actors can be terrific in the right context, and are certainly deserving of the opportunities. Is the recent spate of open auditions for the next Star Wars a genuine attempt to find talented new faces deserving of a lucky break or just a shameless attention grab for the guaranteed free advertising? Will this and films like Boyhood change Hollywood’s jaded attitudes or will it be down to independent film and television productions to keep discovering the fresh talent the dominant studios end up milking during the actors fifteen minutes of fame?

    The screen presents us with constant illusion. Any half decent director can combine the right shots, make up, lighting, filers and CGI to create any body image out of the actor’s performance, so perhaps more proven actors will always gain preference over the newer. But we are left with questions. Andy Serkis can seemingly play any being. I mean is it right to have humans depicting apes where genuine apes are qualified to fill the role? And who would play Benjamin Button?

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  2. Well firstly I’m glad this post provoked so much thought! I agree on a lot of your points, however regarding the first one it seems to me that putting a disabled actor through a painful experience (i.e. Rainman) is grounds enough not to cast one unless they feel comfortable enough in the role. It does seem in some cases impractical to cast an actor with a disability and I appreciate how, particularly in cases such as autism, an able actor could offer a different perspective as long as enough research is done.
    In regards to your point regarding Barbara Streisand being the ‘main selling point’ for Yentl, I would have to say that if you need to cast a famous actor just to make your film interesting you ought to rethink it. Although perhaps this a slightly idealistic view.
    If teenage characters are being depicted in parts with ‘adult storylines’ such as sex, drugs etc. then it’s highly likely that said teenager has already been exposed to those things (as we know most have). I do however agree that the additional time for tutoring must be frustrating for film makers however if the actor really is the best person for the role then it might be worthwhile.
    I’m not saying that adult actors should never be cast as teenagers because that would be a little extreme, I’m just perplexed by just how much this is happening.
    Oh and I believe hiring an ape would cause absolute mayhem. Would you pay them in bananas?

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