I have to confess something. The Internet has, relatively recently, seen an explosion of "professional" list makers, because pop culture lists generate lots of page views and thus lots of ad views. As a result, it's becoming increasingly difficult for me to write about something that hasn't already been covered by someone else. Take this particular subject: there are at least a dozen lists and photo galleries, all written within the last couple of years, about adult actors who have played teenage characters. So why should I bother? The difference, as always, is in the depth and quality of the research. Most of those other writers are lazy. You'll see the same names over and over (Tobey Maguire in Spider-Man! Stacey Dash in Clueless!), they usually get the ages wrong (i.e. they'll cite how old each actor was when the film was released, not when it was actually shot), and those that purport to list the "oldest" actors aren't even close. (27-year-olds? Pshaw!) For you, dear reader, I always go the extra mile, so I've unearthed some rare and authentic examples.
- MARY PICKFORD, 33 years old in Sparrows (1926). Pickford was one of the biggest stars of the silent era. Born in 1892, her diminutive size and girlish looks routinely got her cast as adolescents. After she took a stab at a couple of adult roles, fans clamored for the return of the "Little Mary" that they knew and loved, so she took the lead in this corny drama about a teenage orphan who rescues a kidnapped baby.
- SHIRLEY HENDERSON, 36 years old in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002). Considering the care taken in hiring age-appropriate actors to play the young students of Hogwarts, it's odd that Henderson was cast as the ghostly Moaning Myrtle, eternally 14 years old. (She returned in Goblet of Fire at the age of 38 or 39. Myrtle was still 14.)
- FALCONETTI, 35 years old in The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). It's been called one of the greatest silent films ever made, and I see no reason to disagree. As Joan of Arc, who was burned at the stake at the age of 19, the actress born Renée Jeanne Falconetti is sensational.
- EMMA THOMPSON, 36 years old in Sense and Sensibility (1995). How could 36-year-old Thompson and 20-year-old Kate Winslet play sisters? Because in Jane Austen's original novel, it's explicitly stated that Thompson's character, Elinor Dashwood, is a mere 19 years of age.
- NORMA SHEARER, 33 years old in Romeo and Juliet (1936). People kind of forget about Norma Shearer when they think about the great stars of Hollywood's Golden Age. But the Oscar winner was right up there with the best of them. In Shakespeare's play, a line alludes to Juliet not yet being fourteen years old, so Shearer was fully two decades older than her character. Romeo's age is never stated; it's assumed that he's also a teenager, but some say he could have been in his early twenties. For this reason, I won't include Leslie Howard, the film's Romeo, in my assessment. Though he was a creaky 42 at the time.
- STOCKARD CHANNING, 33 years old in Grease (1978). Most of those other pop culture lists include this actress, who was pretty long in the tooth to play high school senior Rizzo. The rest of this musical's "teenagers" were over 20, but only Channing broke the 30 barrier. Rizzo must have had some tough summer nights.
- DOROTHY McGUIRE, 46 years old in The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965). As the Virgin Mary, screen veteran McGuire would not be replaced by a younger actress for the film's early Nativity scenes, even though it's commonly accepted that the real Mary – if there ever was one – was only 14 or 15 when Jesus was born.
- TERENCE STAMP, 31 years old in Una stagione all'inferno (A Season in Hell) (1970). Notice how I haven't listed any men up to now? Some boyish actors came close, at 29: Robert Carradine in Revenge of the Nerds; Alan Ruck in Ferris Bueller's Day Off; Sean Patrick Thomas in Save the Last Dance; Efren Ramirez in Napoleon Dynamite. But to find a truly 30-plus actor, we must delve into obscure territory. Terence "General Zod" Stamp played Arthur Rimbaud in this dramatization of the French poet's affair with the older Paul Verlaine. The actual relationship between Rimbaud and Verlaine ended when Rimbaud was 19, though the film – a real curio, which I haven't seen – purportedly follows Rimbaud up to his death at 37.
- AUDREY HEPBURN, 31 years old in Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961). Surprised? So was I. Not by Hepburn's age, but by the news that her character, Holly Golightly, was just 18-19. Well, at least she was in Truman Capote's original book. It could be argued that her age was silently bumped up to her early twenties for the movie, and in fact Capote himself favored a then-34-year-old Marilyn Monroe for the part. But as far as we know, the screen version of Ms. Golightly was also meant to under 20.