Young Actors in TV Roles: Why Can't a Teenager Be Played by a Real Teen?

There's no reason why they can't find talented 18- to 20-year-old actors to play angst-ridden roles. It would make the stories that much more credible as the actors age in the course of the series length.
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A recent Los Angeles Times article recounted the fact that coming out on TV has been portrayed in the lives of even younger characters than before. While this is true and in fact notable, wouldn't it be even better if the performances were by actors much closer in age to their actual roles?

This is a common trait on series which feature younger people in lead or major supporting roles, regardless of the subject matter. Whether it be Gossip Girl, The Vampire Diaries, One Tree Hill, 90210 or earlier series such as Dawson's Creek the actors playing kids in high school are often in their mid-twenties and sometimes in their thirties.

For example, one of the actors mentioned in the Times piece, Trevor Donovan, who plays high school senior Teddy on The CW's 90210 is 32, and was introduced as a 16-year-old when he was already 30. Unlike Leonardo DiCaprio, whose boyish looks permitted him to credibly play a kid at 27 in Catch Me If You Can, Donovan's much more mature, handsome, almost Robert Redford look makes him appear no younger than a college senior in his best angle and usually more fit to be a surgical resident on ABC's Grey's Anatomy.

Similarly, Matt Lanter, who plays Liam on the same show, was 25 when he was introduced a couple of seasons ago. He was working as a bartender and seemed perfectly credible in that role until he was unmasked soon after as a 16-year-old. Say what? I don't think so. And Michael Steger, who plays Navid, was 28 when he started three years ago.

Additionally, Tom Welling of Smallville began at 24 playing the high-school attendee Clark Kent and looked more like a college jock.

Cory Monteith, Finn on Fox's Glee was 27 when the series started. Likewise, Mark Salling, who portrays Puck on the same show.

Does anyone really buy that Paul Wesley is the perennially 17-year-old Stefan on The Vampire Diaries? He was 27 when he began on the series and looked at best as if he were a first year law student. On One Tree Hill, Chad Michael Murray was 22 playing a sophomore in high school when he appeared much more collegiate. On Dawson's Creek, James Van Der Beek and Joshua Jackson played fifteen at 21 and 20 respectively, and with Van Der Beek's craggy good looks and Jackson's deep voice they in no way conveyed the image.

On Gossip Girl's first two seasons, Chace Crawford was 22 and 23 playing high school kid Nate, while Penn Badgley was 21 and 22 portraying Dan, both far too grown up appearing, though considering the liberties the kids are given to essentially do what they want irrespective of parental controls, perhaps it helps to suspend our disbelief when they utter dialogue with a mature tone. This is especially true of Ed Westwick, the show's Chuck Bass, who, though only 20 at the beginning of the series, effected a pomposity capable of being a corporate power broker, driving in limousines even while still in high school. It might have seemed even more ludicrous if he were scarred with acne.

It's well known that child labor laws cause studios to hire adult young folks to escape the necessity of shorter working hours and having a teacher on the set to conduct required schoolwork. But in that case, why not get actors who are much closer in age to the roles they are supposed to be instead of casting actors who are not only much older chronologically but in no way look the part?

Interestingly, on CBS' The Good Wife and NBC's Parenthood, the teenage boys are played by Graham Phillips and Miles Heizer, kids -- you won't believe it -- who are actually teenagers, and under 18 at that! Michael J. Fox was a very young looking 21, playing 17-year-old Alex P. Keaton on Family Ties, and, as he was small, helped convey the younger image.

Oddly, girls are usually cast closer to their youthful age, and even if they are already in their twenties it is at the lower end of the decade, as opposed to the mid-twenties, approaching thirty range with respect to the guys.

There's no reason why they can't find talented 18- to 20-year-old actors to play these angst-ridden roles and, as the networks and studios often prefer to keep the high school experience going as long as they can get away with, it would make the stories that much more credible as the actors age in the course of the series length.

Nothing against Trevor Donovan -- he's as good as anyone else on 90210, but it's hard to believe he's in high school, and that goes as well for the many other cases cited and on so many episodic series down through the ages.

Michael Russnow's website is

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