Spotted in a Long Island pizza parlor at age 11 by a modeling rep, Portman landed the role of an assassin’s sad-eyed sidekick in 1994’s The Professional one year later. Unlike most of her Hollywood peers, Portman (who uses a stage name to protect her family from media attention) took a break from acting — to study psychology at Harvard. She says her parents keep her grounded. ”I value my private life and security way more than getting parts by flashing my boobs on some magazine or being a sex symbol in films,” she told EW in 2000.
Leonardo DiCaprio was barely 16 when he began popping up on TV, and before he’d even hit 20 there were clear signs of the nuanced work to come. In fact, in 1993, it was impossible not to notice the kid who held his own against a tyrannical Robert DeNiro in This Boy’s Life as well as channeling a mentally-challenged boy in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. Three years later, the post-modern Romeo + Juliet made DiCaprio a budding hearthrob, a job title he virtually redefined following the colossal success of Titanic in 1997. DiCaprio spent years avoiding celebrity and making dodgy choices. Beginning with Gangs of New York in 2002, however, he found a rewarding niche as Martin Scorsese’s go-to leading man. Nice work if you can get it.
Born into an acting family in Oklahoma, Howard was The Andy Griffith Show‘s freckle-faced Opie at 6. By 19, he was the star of Happy Days. But Howard’s interest always lay behind the camera — he shadowed George Lucas on the set of 1973’s American Graffiti and soon thereafter enrolled at USC film school. ”I was disappointed by the scripts I was getting after Graffiti,” he told EW in 1999. ”So I had a decision to make.” Howard chose directing. Twenty movies and four Oscar nominations later, it’s clear he made the right call.
NEIL PATRICK HARRIS
You could argue it began with his Golden Globe-nominated feature film debut in 1988’s Clara’s Heart, but we all knew Harris as Doogie Howser, MD, the 16-year-old doctor giving his appendicitis-suffering girlfriend Wanda a pelvic exam. (It’s still traumatizing.) Today, he’s a Broadway vet, an Internet star (Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog), a three-time Emmy nominee for his work on CBS’s How I Met Your Mother, and the man you call to host the Tonys and Emmys and to open the Oscars. In other words, he’s still an overachiever.
At 3, Foster was the Coppertone kid. By 6, she was a regular on TV. And by 14, she was nominated for an Oscar for Taxi Driver. Foster left Tinseltown to attend Yale and later returned to acting feeling more centered. By age 29, she’d won Best Actress Oscars for The Accused and The Silence of the Lambs and directed her first film, Little Man Tate. ”Everybody tells you as a child actor that by the time you’re 18, it’ll be over,” she told EW in 2007. ”My mom got me … prepared for that …. My goal [was] to be in this for a really long time.”
Gosling got his first big break at age 12 on TV’s The Mickey Mouse Club (along with castmates Justin Timberlake, Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears, and Keri Russell). ”Those kids were prodigies,” Gosling said to EW in 2007, crediting the Disney show for surrounding him with other young performers he could relate to and instilling discipline. Now he is one of Hollywood’s best young actors and has scored an Oscar nom for 2006’s Half Nelson.
As a wide-eyed 11-year-old, Paquin became the second youngest Oscar winner in history, taking home Best Supporting Actress for her role 1993’s The Piano. Working steadily in arthouse films (Hurlyburly), blockbusters (the X-Men trilogy), and TV, she’s now a Golden Globe winner for her performance as telepathic waitress Sookie Stackhouse on HBO’s True Blood.
Child stars never came cuter than Schroder in the 1979 tearjerker The Champ. By 12, he was starring on Silver Spoons, and at 28 (as ”Rick”), he took a high-profile role on NYPD Blue. ”There was never a period in my life when I didn’t work,” the actor told USA Today in 1998. ”I’ve always done two movies a year; they may not be blockbusters, but they’ve been good, honorable work.”