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Movie roles that were too mature for child actors

Being an actor isn't child's play—even for a child actor. Throughout Hollywood history, children have been called upon to act in mature, harrowing, sexual, or obscene situations, and over the years, some of these movies have sparked major controversies because of the ethical questions surrounding the practice of placing underage actors into disturbing scenarios. Let's take a look at some of the most famous examples of mature movie roles taken by underage actors.

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Dakota Fanning (Hounddog)

In 2007, the coming-of-age drama Hounddog starring Dakota Fanning (I Am Sam, Man on Fire) made major waves upon its release—and not in a good way. The plot centers on Lewellen, an Elvis Presley-loving girl growing up in a very broken family, and the movie shocked critics and viewing audiences alike when it went further than typical tales of neglect and emotional abuse. In one scene, Fanning's character is raped by an acquaintance, sending her on a downward spiral of despair and illness.

Even though the scene contains no actual nudity and only the 12-year-old Fanning's face and hands are shown, the backlash was intense from viewers, critics, and activist groups. The film failed to find a wide release, and only earned $131,000 against its $3 million budget. Fanning herself responded to the criticism, dismissing the furor surrounding the scene. "It's a movie and it's called acting," she argued. "I wanted to do the film because I thought it might help one person that has happened to and help them overcome adversity in their lives."

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Natalie Portman (Léon: The Professional, Beautiful Girls)

Natalie Portman made her big-screen debut in the 1993 thriller Léon: The Professional as 12-year-old Mathilda, whose situation goes from bad to worse when her abusive parents—and innocent little brother—are murdered by a corrupt DEA agent (Gary Oldman). She takes refuge with a neighbor (Jean Reno), who happens to be a hitman. Once she discovers Léon's occupation, Mathilda begs him to teach her everything he know, so that she can get her revenge. He reluctantly agrees, and the two enter into a strange mentorship that's tinged by an uneasy chemistry between the duo.

The love Mathilda has for Léon is arguably the least disturbing part of the movie; The Professional isn't Lolita with sniper rifles and hand grenades. Instead, watching the precocious Portman glibly smoke, practice killing, and even hold a gun to her own head is quite shocking when you realize the actress herself was only twelve when she filmed the part. This wouldn't be the last time Portman played a mature role, either—at just 15, she'd play a similar "old soul" when she co-starred in the ensemble film Beautiful Girls.

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Macaulay Culkin (The Good Son)

While there have been plenty of "evil children" in thriller and horror films over the years, perhaps none are as evil as the role Macaulay Culkin played in 1993's The Good Son. There's no supernatural element driving his penchant for murder, he's just plain bad. When the good-hearted Mark (Elijah Wood) is sent to visit his extended family during winter vacation, things turn decidedly dark after he meets his cousin Henry (Culkin). It soon becomes evident that Henry is deeply troubled, and he begins to act out his psychopathic tendencies—causing a freeway pileup and later attempting to murder his little sister, his cousin Mark, and even his own mother.

It's hard to decide what's more disturbing—watching a 12-year-old try to kill everyone that crosses him, or trying to ignore that the same actor played the kind but mischievous Kevin in Home Alone. Because of this, The Good Son isn't particularly scary; you almost expect Henry to gleefully shout, "Come and get me!" when he runs off into the woods during the third act. Perhaps worst of all, the little sister Henry attempts to kill twice was played by Culkin's real-life sister Quinn, who was only eight when The Good Son was filmed. That experience must have made for some interesting family therapy sessions later.

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Kirsten Dunst (Interview with the Vampire)

This list wouldn't be complete without Claudia from 1994's horror hit Interview with the Vampire. In Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles books, the little girl was only five years old when she was turned into a vampire by Lestat. The producers obviously couldn't cast a real five-year-old in the violent role, so they cast Kirsten Dunst—who was only 11 when Interview was filmed.

Not only is the role disturbing because of the amount of anger, violence, and near insanity Dunst conveys, but also because Claudia completely embodies the idea of an "old soul." The child vampire is really an adult woman mentally, trapped for eternity in the body of a little girl. To her credit, Dunst really did an amazing job portraying this dichotomy, and all of Claudia's conflicting emotions that come with it.

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Claire Danes/Olivia Hussey (Romeo & Juliet)

When the source material for your movie is a classic Shakespearean tale about star-crossed teenage lovers, you don't have much option but to cast actors young enough to convincingly play the part. In at least two famous film adaptations of the play, the directors chose to cast actual teenagers as the leading lady—leading to some raised eyebrows among viewing audiences when those actresses are then shown topless in bed or later committing suicide.

In the case of Franco Zeffirelli's 1968 adaptation, actress Olivia Hussey was only 15 when she was cast in the part of Juliet, and her Romeo (Leonard Whiting) was 17. In the modernized 1996 version Romeo + Juliet from director Baz Luhrmann, Juliet was played by Claire Danes, while the part of Romeo went to Leonardo DiCaprio. DiCaprio was 21 at the time, and the original casting of a 14-year-old Natalie Portman was nixed in favor of Danes, who was 16.

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Jacob Reynolds (Gummo)

When it comes to disturbing scenarios and child actors, perhaps nothing can top the experimental 1997 dystopian art film Gummo, written and directed by Harmony Korine—also featured on this list for 1995's Kids. In Gummo, the broken lives of several residents of Xenia, Ohio are chronicled following the effects of a devastating tornado. Korine eschews traditional storytelling methods and instead presents audiences with an interconnected series of scenes that offer a glimpse into depravity, demoralization, and the depths of poverty.

Jacob Reynolds—who was 13 years old at the time of filming—plays Solomon, one of two fictional young Xenia residents featured in Gummo. He and his friend Tummler (Nick Sutton) pass the time with killing cats, huffing glue, paying for sex with a girl with Down's syndrome, and other disturbing hobbies. While most critics panned the film for its pervasive graphic content, Gummo was lauded by a few filmmakers, including famed director Werner Herzog—who particularly praised a bathtub scene (pictured above), which included an unexpected piece of bacon taped to the wall.

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Brooke Shields (Pretty Baby, Blue Lagoon)

As a girl, actress Brooke Shields appeared in two different movies which placed her front-and-center in controversies about children and on-screen sexuality. At age 12, she starred in Pretty Baby, portraying Violet, a 12-year-old girl living with her mother in a New Orleans brothel at the turn of the 20th century. Eventually, Violet is plied into the prostitution trade as well, and her virginity is even auctioned off to the highest bidder. After Pretty Baby's release in 1978, the film—and Shields' nudity in it—was criticized by many, and the movie was even banned in two Canadian provinces.

Just two years later, Shields appeared in another heavily sexualized movie, The Blue Lagoon. At age 14, Shields portrayed a shipwrecked girl growing up on an island with only her cousin (Christopher Atkins) for company. As they reach puberty, they eventually fall in love and even have a child. The Blue Lagoon has several nude scenes involving Shields which raised eyebrows, but the cast and crew claimed most of those scenes involved body doubles.

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Christian Bale (Empire of the Sun)

Long before his famous roles in American Psycho, The Machinist, or The Dark Knight trilogy, accomplished Method actor Christian Bale won critical acclaim at age 13, when he starred as Jim in the 1987 Steven Spielberg war film Empire of the Sun. The movie is essentially a coming-of-age drama set during Japan's occupation of China during World War II.

The subject material is difficult and brutally realistic, as we watch Jim go from a comfortable life with his family in Shanghai to a shattered existence, forced to grow up behind the barbed wire of a Japanese internment camp. Spielberg doesn't pull any punches with Empire of the Sun, and neither does Bale. Despite being just a child himself, Bale manages to deliver an emotional and commanding performance as a boy faced with the horrors of war.

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Tatum O'Neal (Paper Moon)

While Tatum O'Neal's role as Addie in the 1973 comedy-drama Paper Moon is a lot more tame than some of the other entries on this list, it definitely had its moments. In the film, the 9-year-old O'Neal teams up with Mose, a con artist played by her real-life father, Ryan O'Neal. Throughout the pair's cross-country journey, we watch the absolutely tiny Tatum smoke, drink, and con people out of their money like an old pro. When Mose starts to neglect her in favor of an "exotic dancer" named Trixie (Madeline Kahn), a jealous Addie even devises her own con to get Trixie dumped.

O'Neal earned widespread acclaim for her work in Paper Moon, and even won an Academy Award for the part—making her the youngest competitive Oscar winner in history. The film was widely praised, and even spawned a short-lived television series, where the role of Addie was taken by another actress on our list: Jodie Foster.

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Jodie Foster (Taxi Driver)

At just 12 years old and fresh off of her stint on the failed TV adaptation of Paper Moon, Jodie Foster stirred up quite a controversy when she appeared as the child prostitute Iris in Martin Scorsese's 1976 classic Taxi Driver. While not the central figure of the film, Iris still plays an important part when her path crosses with the troubled Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro). Iris attempts to escape her pimp by taking refuge in Bickle's cab; later, he tries to convince her to return home to Pittsburgh, and even offers her money to do so. In the climactic finale of the movie, Bickle kills her pimp and several others in a bloody shootout in order to "free" Iris.

Hiring a 12-year-old in such a role definitely raised alarms, but Scorsese took precautions—Foster was subjected to psychological testing before filming began, and her older sister Connie was used as a stand-in for sexually suggestive scenes. For her part in the film, Foster received an Academy Award nomination. Foster's Taxi Driver story wouldn't end there, however—she was later stalked by a fan who was obsessed with Foster and her role in the film. That stalker was none other than John Hinckley, Jr., who would later attempt to assassinate President Ronald Reagan in an effort to impress the actress.

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The entire cast of Kids

Harmony Korine makes a second appearance on our list, this time as the writer of the 1995 coming-of-age film Kids, directed by Larry Clark. The film centers on the lives of several teenagers—and their sex lives—during the height of the AIDS epidemic. Like Korine's Gummo, Kids doesn't shy away from showing teenagers in some unbelievably disturbing situations. The teens—including one infected with HIV—are shown having unprotected sex, deflowering adolescent virgins, using drugs, and engaging in other risky behavior throughout the movie. In the final scene, a girl is raped after she passes out on a couch during a house party.

The casting included several real New York street kids who had no prior acting experience, including star Leo Fitzpatrick, who was only 16 during filming, and the rest of the primary cast was rounded out by more teenagers: Chloë Sevigny, Justin Pierce, and Harold Hunter were the oldest at 19, Jon Abrahams was 16, and Rosario Dawson was the youngest at only 15 years old. Naturally, the NC-17-rated Kids made waves when it premiered—with some critics praising the film and others deriding it as "virtually child pornography."

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Chloë Grace Moretz (The Amityville Horror, Kick-Ass)

At just six years old, Chloë Grace Moretz started her acting career on a disturbing note when she made her big-screen debut in the 2005 remake of The Amityville Horror. In the film, she plays Chelsea, who befriends the ghost of a girl haunting their new home. Moretz later reported that her parents and the film's crew did their best to keep her from learning what the film was about, and she most definitely wasn't allowed to watch the movie when it premiered.

Just a few years later, Moretz would land the role she's perhaps best-known for: vigilante costumed superhero "Hit-Girl" in the 2010 movie Kick-Ass and its sequel, 2013's Kick-Ass 2. Compared to most little girls (and most superheroes), Hit-Girl is a hardened and nihilistic figure. Throughout the film, she kills with bloody and reckless abandon, and her dialogue is peppered with plenty of profane one-liners. Upon its release, Kick-Ass met with harsh criticism for the violence and swearing from groups around the world. It also received a well-deserved "R" rating from the MPAA, which meant that the 11-year-old Moretz was blocked from watching one of her own movies again.

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Linda Blair (The Exorcist)

The same year Tatum O'Neal made her debut with Paper Moon, another child star was also making waves. In 1973, 13-year-old Linda Blair took to the screen as the demon-possessed Regan MacNeil in The Exorcist, a film filled with disturbing, disgusting, obscene, and vulgar sequences. Widely recognized as one of the most horrifying movies of the 20th century, it was also one of the more controversial, with famed critic Roger Ebert even suggesting it deserved an "X" rating instead of the "R" it was given by the MPAA.

For Blair, the impact of The Exorcist lasted long after the movie left theaters; she broke her back while filming the bed levitation scene, an injury that would later develop into scoliosis. Blair also reported that while rumors that the content of the film scarred her psychologically were untrue, The Exorcist did affect her—primarily due to all the unwanted (and often negative) attention she received from the press and the public following its release.

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Thora Birch (American Beauty)

In the celebrated 1999 drama film American Beauty, Thora Birch plays Jane, the insecure daughter of main character Lester (Kevin Spacey). While much of the film focuses on Lester's obsession with Jane's cheerleader friend Angela (Mena Suvari), a major subplot involves Jane and her budding romance with next-door neighbor, Ricky. In one scene, Jane undresses in front of her bedroom window—knowing that Ricky is filming from his room next door. Because Birch was only 16 at the time American Beauty was filmed, this meant she had to get permission from her parents,

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Sue Lyon/Dominique Swain (Lolita)

The character of Lolita from Vladimir Nabokov's classic novel is a prime example of a child placed into an extremely mature situation. In 1962, Stanley Kubrick adapted the novel into a movie, one which had a more symbolic take on Nabokov's controversial subject matter. Middle-aged Humbert Humbert (James Mason) becomes obsessed with Lolita (Sue Lyon), the adolescent daughter of his landlord. Actress Sue Lyon was only 14 at the start of filming, which was controversial in itself during the early '60s. Even though Kubrick had to largely ignore or skirt around the sexual content of Nabokov's novel—instead using innuendo to allow audiences to read between the lines—the movie still proved extremely controversial when it premiered.

More than 30 years later, Lolita was up for a remake—this time by director Adrian Lyne, with 15-year-old Dominique Swain in the title role. Even three decades later, Lolita was as controversial as ever, especially since Lyne's version stayed much closer to Nabokov's work. The movie had such problems finding an American distributor that it ended up premiering on Showtime's cable network instead, and critics in England even tried to get the film banned.