Adults who played kids in movies and fooled us all

In the movies, children and teen characters often look nothing like they would in real life. Often these roles go to actors that are really at least a couple of years older than their characters, but there's a fine line: actors that are clearly too old for their roles usually result in mockery from critics and audiences alike.

However, there are many good reasons adults play underage characters. Complying with the strict regulations for hiring a child actor can slow down a film with a tight production timeline. If the role involves mature situations, casting an adult is usually the safest (or only) route. For example, Emilia Clarke was in her 20s when she was cast in Game of Thrones, while her book counterpart is in her early teens. While the character was "aged up" to 16 for the show, casting an actual 16-year-old would have been next to impossible. Finally, some roles just need the serious chops that usually only an older and more experienced actor can provide.

Whatever the reason, adults playing children onscreen is just a fact of life in Hollywood—one that most audiences have learned to accept, as long as the age discrepancy isn't too obvious. Some actors have even played their "child" roles so convincingly that we never had any idea they were actually adults. With that in mind, here's a look at some actors who managed to fool everyone.

Parminder Nagra in Bend It Like Beckham

In the 2002 sports romantic comedy Bend it Like Beckham, Parminder Nagra stars as London teen Jesminder "Jess" Bhamra, who joins a local women's football (soccer) team at the urging of her friends. Her natural talent for the sport shines through, and Jess is soon leading the team on its way to the league championship as she improves her football skills.

Jess becomes close friends with her teammate Jules (Keira Knightley), and a budding romance develops between Jess and her young and attractive coach, Joe (Jonathan Rhys Myers). Not everything is perfect, though: the league championship is the same day as her sister's wedding, Jules also likes Joe, and Jess' strict parents have forbidden her to play and don't realize she's on the team.

Although Bend it Like Beckham is just a sports-themed spin on the traditional teen romcom, the star of the movie wasn't even close to being a teenager herself. When she played the 18-year-old Jess in the film, Nagra was actually 26.

Stacey Dash in Clueless

Casting directors frequently "age up" slightly when picking actors to fill roles in teen movies, and Amy Heckerling's 1995 coming-of-age comedy Clueless is a pretty classic example of this. In fact, most of the main Clueless cast members were slightly older than the characters they played in the movie. At the start of the film, Cher (Alicia Silverstone) is 15 years old, while Silverstone herself was 17 at the time. Similarly, Josh (Paul Rudd) is a college undergraduate student, while Rudd was 25 during filming. However, the one Clueless star that really fooled audiences was Stacey Dash, who plays Cher's best friend Dionne.

If you've seen Clueless, you might have assumed Dash was around the same age as her onscreen classmates. In fact, the actress was actually 28 when she played the 16-year-old Dionne. What's more, Dash went on to reprise her role in 62 episodes of the Clueless television series spinoff from 1996 to 1999. While the teens do grow older during the course of the show—which culminates with their high school graduation—that still left Dash (then in her early 30s) playing an 18-year-old Dionne when the series drew to a close.

Calista Flockhart in The Birdcage

In the 1996 comedy The Birdcage, Robin Williams stars as Armand Goldman, an openly gay man who owns a drag queen club in South Beach. Near the start of the film, Armand learns that his son Val (Dan Futterman) is in love with the 18-year-old Barbara Keeley (Calista Flockhart), the daughter of a prominent Florida senator, and she worries about how her conservative parents will react if they learn the truth about Armand's lifestyle. For Val's sake, Armand agrees to pretend to be straight when the Keeleys come for a visit—even arranging for Val's mother to come pretend to be his wife. As you might expect, things don't work out quite according to plan. Although Calista Flockhart (and the rest of The Birdcage cast) were mostly a backdrop for the comedic talent of the late Robin Williams, Flockhart did a convincingly good job in her role as the nervous 18-year-old Barbara—which is quite impressive considering she was actually 31 during filming.

Harry Treadaway in City of Ember

One of the most impressive examples of adults cast as children from recent years comes from the 2008 fantasy film City of Ember, based on the similarly-named 2003 novel by Jeanne DuPrau. Saoirse Ronan plays Lina Mayfleet and Harry Treadaway plays Doon Harrow, the two main protagonists of the film. While their onscreen ages aren't explicitly mentioned in the movie, DuPrau fans will likely know that Doon and Lina are both 12 years old in her book. At the time, 13-year-old Saoirse Ronan was relatively close in age to the character she played in City of Ember—much unlike Treadaway. Although you'd never be able to tell from watching him on the big screen, he actually turned 23 while filming this movie.  

Everyone in The Craft

The surprise Hollywood success story of early 1996 was the supernatural horror film The Craft, which became an immediate sleeper hit, earning over $55 million at the box office. After its runaway success in theaters, The Craft went on to gain cult classic status as a quintessential '90s film. The movie focuses on a group of outcast teenage girls who practice witchcraft at their Catholic high school, using spells and curses against anyone who stands in their way. This coven of 16-year-old witches includes Nancy (Fairuza Balk), Bonnie (Neve Campbell), Rochelle (Rachel True), and newcomer Sarah (Robin Tunney).

While these leading ladies of The Craft enchanted audiences with their acting skills, their most amazing feat was creating a convincing illusion of youth. They may have been playing Catholic schoolgirls, but the magical age of "sweet sixteen" was long behind all of them. Robin Tunney celebrated her 23rd birthday while filming, with both Neve Campbell and Fairuza Balk close behind at 21. Even more impressive was the spell cast by Rachel True, who turned 29 just a few months after production wrapped.

Pauly Shore in Encino Man

Director Les Mayfield's 1992 teen comedy Encino Man was mostly panned by critics for its silly plot, but that didn't stop the film from becoming a huge success at the box office—earning over $40 million on just a $7 million budget. After an earthquake, geeky high schoolers Dave (Sean Astin) and Stoney (Pauly Shore) discover a frozen teen caveman (Brendan Fraser) in Dave's backyard. The boys name their cool new prehistoric buddy "Link," and take him to school with them. Naturally, crazy hijinks ensue.

It may be a teen comedy, but the stars of Encino Man weren't actually teens. At 20 years old, Astin was the youngest, while Fraser was 23 and Shore was 24. In this case, Shore's casting is a classic example of the "willing suspension of disbelief." In the early '90s, anyone who'd seen Shore's MTV show Totally Pauly already knew he definitely wasn't a teenager, but that didn't matter to Encino Man audiences. Why? Teens still flocked to theaters because they loved Shore's alter ego, The Weasel—who personified the SoCal surfer style, laid-back 'tude, and dude-speak slang. The Weasel was the "Spicoli" of the '90s, and Shore used the persona at every opportunity. This ageless character was a perpetual teenager, one teens could identify with—making Shore's actual age completely irrelevant.

Shirley Henderson in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Even if you've never read a single one of J.K. Rowling's wildly popular Harry Potter books, you're likely familiar with the minor character "Moaning Myrtle," though you might not have known her name. Myrtle is one of the many ghosts that haunt Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and her first big-screen appearance came during 2002's Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. In that film, Harry, Ron, and Hermione learn more about Myrtle (and how she died) during some uncomfortable encounters in the bathroom she likes to haunt. Her exact age isn't specified in the Harry Potter movies or books, but contextual clues suggest she was killed when she was around 13 or 14.

Believe it or not, Scottish actress Shirley Henderson was actually 37 when she first appeared as this distressed ghost in 2002's Chamber of Secrets. This makes her by far the oldest actor to portray a Hogwarts student onscreen. Ghosts don't "age," of course, so Henderson later beat her own record when she reprised the role of Myrtle in 2005's Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire at age 39.

Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot

In the 1989 biodrama My Left Foot, celebrated actor Daniel Day-Lewis portrays the early life of Irish writer and painter Christy Brown. Based upon Brown's autobiography of the same name, the film chronicles his life story from infancy to the threshold of adulthood. Brown was born with severe cerebral palsy, which causes tremors and other coordination problems in the arms and legs. In Brown's case, the sole exception to this affliction was his left foot—which he could control to an impressive degree, and spent years teaching himself how to write and draw with it.

Irish actor Hugh O'Connor plays a young version of Christy Brown near the start of the film, but Day-Lewis takes over later as Brown reaches adolescence, and won an Oscar with his utterly convincing performance. In manner and appearance, Day-Lewis truly embodied Brown in every way—despite actually being 15 years older than the character he was playing. You read that right: Daniel Day-Lewis was 32 when he played the 17-year-old Brown in My Left Foot.

Jon Heder and Efren Ramirez in Napoleon Dynamite

In 2004, the small indie comedy Napoleon Dynamite took the world by storm. This quirky cult classic takes a look at the awkward and awesome adventures of high school student Napoleon Dynamite (Jon Heder) as he navigates life in small-town Idaho alongside his friends Deb (Tina Majorino) and Pedro (Efren Ramirez). Filmed on just a $400,000 budget, Napoleon Dynamite earned over $46 million at the box office and turned Heder, Majorino and Ramirez into celebrities almost overnight.

Although the three main characters of Napoleon Dynamite are all 16 years old, only one of the primary cast members was actually a teenager: Majorino, who turned 18 just before filming began. Heder could probably still pass for a high school student today, so it may not surprise you to learn that the baby-faced actor/producer was actually 26 while working on Napoleon Dynamite. What we really want to know is how Ramirez keeps his youthful good looks. Not only was he nearly 30 during filming, but the mustache he grew for the part actually makes Pedro look even younger than he's supposed to be!

Jennifer Grey in Dirty Dancing

In the classic 1987 romance Dirty Dancing, recent high school graduate Frances "Baby" Houseman (Jennifer Grey) spends a summer with her affluent family at a resort in the Catskill Mountains, where she meets dance instructor Johnny Castle (Patrick Swayze). After Baby agrees to fill in for Johnny's dance partner Penny at an upcoming performance, she and Johnny grow closer as they practice together and help Penny out of a tough situation.

She may have been playing a fresh-faced 17-year-old, but Grey was no "Baby" when she appeared in Dirty Dancing. Although she definitely looked like a typical American teenager, the actress was actually 27 years old while playing Baby—which would become one of her most widely remembered roles.