Can children, with little life experience as adults, reach the same heights of incredible performances as their older peers? Does their optimism and lack of self- consciousness leave them open for expressing themselves without fear? (Something that adult actors need to achieve to succeed.) These child performances prove that some children are just as capable as delivering incredible performances as adults.
1. Henry Thomas (Age 11) – E.T.
To make E.T. work, you needed a young actor who could form a connection with the animatronic puppet, to make the world believe E.T. was a living thing. Steven Spielberg is known for his ability to get great performances out of children (Drew Barrymore of course, also for E.T. and others in this list) Henry Thomas is able to create Elliot’s loneliness that transforms when he establishes such a heartfelt and passionate bond with his friend. Look at his incredible audition tape (auditions are not easy, even for adults. The reader usually doesn’t give you much emotion to feedback on. You have to muster the relationship/reactions yourself.)
2. River Phoenix (Age 15) – Stand By Me
River Phoenix was an actor taken from us far too soon. The depth shown in his early performances shows what he would have accomplished as an adult actor. He seemed wise beyond his years in his role as Chris Chambers, the boy unable to escape his label as a rebel. He portrayed insecurities and complexities with an adult-like wisdom, something very rare in a child actor.
3. Christian Bale (Age 13) – Empire of the Sun
Again proving his penchant for finding and working with child actors, Steven Spielberg discovered Christian Bale, one of the finest actors of our generation. Young Christian Bale carries this near three-hour movie, often having to act alone. Jamie goes from a young enthusiastic (but spoiled) boy, to a shell-shocked young man scarred by war. In his childhood performance, we can see the seeds of what an incredible actor he’d become as an adult.
4. Jode Foster (Age 12) – Taxi Driver
Jodie Foster, even at her young age, already had over 30 credits behind her, far more than even some of her adult contemporaries. It’s quite hard to believe she’s only 12 years old in this film. But she is indeed a young girl, a girl who is filled with both an adult-like world-weary cynicism and youthful vitality.While Taxi Driver has some hardcore material for a young kid, (she is, after all, playing a prostitute) Jodie Foster displays an almost uncomfortable acute understanding of her character Iris. Jodie Foster certainly more than holds her own with Robert De Niro.
5. Jamie Bell (Age 14) – Billy Elliot
For the title role of Billy Elliot, Jamie Bell brought his exceptional acting skills as well as dance skills for the confused and sensitive character. He truly captures the tough boy with a gift, the simmering anger of someone who just wants to break free.
6. Haley Joel Osment (Age 12) – A.I. Artificial Intelligence
As with other Steven Spielberg films, the job of the young actor is to carry the film. But not only does Haley Joel Osment (also known for his fantastic performance in The Sixth Sense) have to be the lead, but he also has a complex role in the film. He has to pretend to be a robot, a young boy playing a machine who comes grapples with human feelings, wanting to be something he is not. To understand and portray those abstract thoughts shows his talent at such a young age.
7. Saoirse Ronan (Age 12) – Atonement
Briony quickly becomes a character you love to hate, but Saoirse Ronan brings a powerful strength to Briony. Though she seems dreamy with wide-eyed innocence, Saorise gives Briony a fierce, calculating, and intimidating essence. Saoirse brings to life a dedicated but fanciful young girl who perseveres without knowing the consequences of her actions.
8. Natalie Portman (Age 11) – Leon: The Professional
Like Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver, Natalie Portman takes on a mature role with equally mature material. (there’s even a bit of pedophiliac sexual tension between Leon and her character…seen in the cut scene below) Left an orphan after her parents are killed, she is raging, she is wild, she is dark. This is a role with material that is far beyond most children’s understanding, but somehow at her young age Natalie Portman is able to create a fully realized young girl with a lot of demons inside.
9. Tatum O’Neal (Age 9) – Paper Moon
Tatum O’Neal plays a tough cookie in the Depression-era film, winning an Oscar for this role. She was nominated for Best Supporting, but really she is the lead actress. With her searing glares but inner broken spirit, and fantastic banter and chemistry with her real-life dad (Ryan O’Neal), she is deserving. (But yes, so was Linda Blair who was also nominated against her that year…) It breaks my heart to know what Ryan and Tatum O’Neal’s relationship was really like.
10. Hailee Steinfeld (Age 14) – True Grit
Haliee Steinfeld managed to bring strength and feistiness that Mattie Ross deserves with a rich undercurrent of vulnerability. A child trying so hard to grow up and be an adult for the sake of avenging her father. What is most impressive is that she completely holds her own against her famous co-stars, just look at this scene below with Jeff Bridges as an example. She doesn’t fade into the background, she stands out loud and proud.