10 Child Actors Who Stole the Movie


As we may have mentioned a few hundred times in the past few weeks, we loved Todd Haynes’s HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce. But we have to admit that something was missing from the last two episodes, which aired Sunday: Morgan Turner. You may not know her by name, but the 11-year-old actress dominated every scene she appeared in as Mildred’s haughty, spoiled daughter Veda — a character so vile she earned a place in our roundup of literature’s most evil children. Although Evan Rachel Wood’s portrayal of a grown-up Veda was fine, as far as we’re concerned the character belongs to Turner. That got us thinking of other instances of relatively unknown child actors stealing the show from their big-name co-stars. Ten of our favorites are after the jump.

Tatum O’Neal in Paper Moon

It might have seemed like a cute idea at the time to cast Ryan O’Neal’s real-life daughter Tatum as his kid in Peter Bogdanovich’s Depression-era comedy. But who knew the little thing could act? Playing a pint-size, cigarette-smoking con artist/thief, Tatum was a total badass, displaying a cool intelligence belying her single-digit age. When awards season came around, she became the world’s youngest-ever Oscar winner, beating out her own co-star, Madeline Kahn. Sadly, O’Neal’s childhood was significantly darker than it appeared, and her future was a strange one that included scattered acting roles, dating Michael Jackson for a few years, a tell-all book that accused her father of abuse, and an ongoing drug problem that resulted in a crack-cocaine arrest in 2008.

Kirsten Dunst in Interview with the Vampire

The cast of Interview with the Vampire was stacked with mid-’90s hunks: Brad Pitt! Tom Cruise (pre-crazy)! Antonio Banderas! Christian Slater! So why is it that whenever we recall the film, the first image that comes to mind is of a fanged, tween Kirsten Dunst, her mouth dripping fresh blood? Then, of course, there was the infamous death scene. Interview with the Vampire was the film that rocketed Dunst to fame — and won her an MTV Movie Award for Best Breakthrough Performance — and she’s been on the A-list ever since.

Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense

It was the “I see dead people” heard ’round the world. Haley Joel Osment had only appeared in a few movies before he showed up in what some consider to be M. Night Shyamalan’s only film worth watching. Eleven years old when the film was released, Osment played an eight-year-old who could communicate with the dead. Bruce Willis was supposed to be the marquee star, but it was his young cast mate’s haunting performance that earned a Best Supporting Actor nomination, along with a slew of other laurels.

Hailee Steinfeld in True Grit

If you only watched the trailer for the Coen Brothers’ True Grit remake, you might assume that Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon are the movie’s leads. Hailee Steinfeld didn’t even merit a place with those two and Josh Brolin above the title on the film’s poster. And when Academy Award nomination time came around, the suits entered Steinfeld for Best Supporting Actress because they thought she’d have a better shot in that category. (Uh, Academy? Shouldn’t there be some better rules in place here?) In reality, the genuine newcomer was in practically every frame of the film, and her poised, powerful, but never showy performance became one of True Grit‘s biggest talking points.

Jonathan Lipnicki in Jerry Maguire

Tom Cruise. Renée Zellweger. Cuba Gooding, Jr. There were plenty of big stars and memorable moments in this wildly successful romcom about a sports agent who develops a conscience, post-nervous breakdown. In fact, the whole screenplay, with its “You complete me” and its “Show me the money,” seemed designed to be quotable. And yet, what sticks with us years later is little Jonathan Lipnicki’s comparatively small role as the son of Zellweger’s Dorothy. What can we say? He won us over with those oversize glasses, that spiky hair, and those endless fun facts. In case you weren’t already feeling old, chew on this: Lipnicki turns 21 this October.

Abigail Breslin in Little Miss Sunshine

Sundance darling Little Miss Sunshine featured one of the most impressive casts to ever come together for an indie comedy: Greg Kinnear, Toni Colette, Steve Carell, Alan Arkin, and Paul Dano played a dysfunctional family who embark on a roadtrip to take seven-year-old Olive (Abigail Breslin) to compete in a beauty pageant. All of the acting in the film is strong, but Breslin was its heart and soul, as a kid who lets her (super)freak flag fly in a competition where the glossiest second grader is bound to win. The final scene (above, although unfortunately dubbed in Italian) is priceless.

Elle Fanning in Somewhere

The buzz about Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere was that it would star Stephen Dorff playing, essentially, himself. And while it did deliver on that promise, we think it was Elle Fanning who delivered the most impressive performance. As the 11-year-old daughter of Dorff’s Johnny Marco, she is precocious and self-possessed — which makes perfect sense when you’re playing the smart daughter of a guy who spends most of his time chemically altered and/or staring at twin strippers.

Brad Renfro in Sleepers

There were five names above the title on the Sleepers poster: Kevin Bacon, Robert DeNiro, Dustin Hoffman, Jason Patric, and Brad Pitt. And no one could blame the marketing team for capitalizing on its big-name stars. But the adult characters’ childhood counterparts endured horrifying abuse at the hands of their reform-school guards. These were tough roles for the young cast, and they all handled it well — especially the late Brad Renfro, who played the younger version of Pitt.

Christina Ricci in The Addams Family

Although she had previously appeared in Mermaids and The Hard Way, chances are you didn’t know Christina Ricci by name when she showed up in 1991’s Addams Family movie. And while the stars of the film were formidable folks such as Anjelica Huston, Raúl Juliá, and Christopher Lloyd, Ricci’s pale, creepy Wednesday Addams made her a star. One of the strangest child actors of the early ’90s, Ricci was typecast for a while in spooky family films (Casper, The Addams Family Values) before moving on to more mature, but still left-of-center, roles in flicks like The Opposite of Sex, Buffalo ’66, and Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow. As for the kid who played Wednesday’s brother Pugsley, well, we don’t hear too much about him these days, do we?

Anna Paquin in The Piano

Now that she’s Sookie Stackhouse, it’s easy to forget that Anna Paquin was already a serious actress by the time she finished elementary school. Although Holly Hunter racked up the awards for portraying a mute pianist in Jane Campion’s New Zealand-set period drama, it was Paquin, playing the daughter of Hunter’s character, who stirred up the real buzz. At 11, Paquin became the second youngest person ever to win the Best Supporting Actress Oscar — after Tatum O’Neal, of course.