With Jennifer Lawrence of “Winter’s Bone” and Hailee Steinfeld of “True Grit” partaking in Oscar-contending performances while still in their teens, it’s clear they’re the latest in a long line of talented thesps to start building their resumes and developing their talents at an age many of us spent in school.
It’s hard to find a kudos list this winter that doesn’t have a smattering of thesps who began pursuing careers as teenagers — or younger. “Black Swan” alone offers former child actresses Mila Kunis and Natalie Portman, not to mention Barbara Hershey and Winona Ryder. Other current contenders who got early legs up include Christian Bale (“The Fighter”), Leonardo DiCaprio (“Inception”), Jesse Eisenberg (“The Social Network”), Jake Gyllenhaal (“Love and Other Drugs”), Nicole Kidman (“Rabbit Hole”), Michelle Williams (“Blue Valentine”) and Juliette Lewis and Hilary Swank (“Conviction”).
Disney’s 1990s revival of “The Mickey Mouse Club” had a cast with no fewer than three who have been in this winter’s awards discussion: Golden Globes nominees Christina Aguilera (“Burlesque”) and Ryan Gosling (“Blue Valentine”), along with Justin Timberlake (“The Social Network”).
Building a career before you’re fully aware that’s what you’re doing can be a huge plus, according to Kirsten Dunst, who gave a memorable turn as a tiny bloodsucker in “Interview With the Vampire.” The “All Good Things” star feels her early work makes her more grounded today.
“I think it is an advantage to start when you’re very young, because you just do it because it’s fun,” says Dunst. “I wasn’t really ambitious about it as a kid, but as an adult it’s different because you have to struggle with things in an adult’s life like bills and being anxious.”
Stephen Dorff, who plays the lead in Sofia Coppola’s “Somewhere,” came into the industry as a young actor in commercials. He discovered the craft early and pursued it because he knew he’d found the thing he loved.
“I wasn’t acting because my parents made me do it, and I think that’s why I was able to avoid some of the problems you can see people get into now,” says Dorff. “I was acting because I wanted to do it, and I think that confidence I built then carries over now.”
Jeff Bridges, on the other hand, was encouraged by his showbiz family to join them in their work. He even made his screen debut at just six months old in “The Company She Keeps” before getting his first credited role at age 8 on his father Lloyd’s “Sea Hunt” series.
The Oscar winner for “Crazy Heart” was not immediately sold on the idea of following in his famous father’s footsteps.
“I never knew it any other way,” says Bridges, who plays the signature role of Rooster Cogburn in “True Grit.” “You know my parents loved show business and they wanted to get their kids involved in it, and I rebelled for awhile, but then I realized l loved it and was glad I’d been doing it since I was a kid.”
Sissy Spacek is convinced the most important lesson she learned in her early career was to work with the most talented people she could find.
“I left Texas with my guitar when I was just 17 and went to New York to write songs and play music,” says Spacek, who co-stars with Robert Duvall in “Get Low.” “Somehow I found myself on a set with Terry Malick working on ‘Badlands’ when I was 21, and it set the bar for the rest of my career.”
“Once you’ve worked with someone like that who gives everything to a film, you want to have that experience again — so I think you really try to find the best projects you can and get work on them.”
THESE KIDS WERE ALL RIGHT
Selected Oscar contenders with key childhood roles
• Christian Bale (“The Fighter”) – “Empire of the Sun”
• Jeff Bridges (“True Grit”) – “Sea Hunt”
• Leonardo DiCaprio (“Inception”) – “Growing Pains”
• Kirsten Dunst (“One Good Thing”) – “Interview With the Vampire”
• Jesse Eisenberg (“The Social Network”) – “Get Real”
• James Franco (“127 Hours”) – “Freaks and Geeks”
• Ryan Gosling (“Blue Valentine”) – “The All-New Mickey Mouse Club”
• Mila Kunis (“Black Swan”) – “That ’70s Show”
• Juliette Lewis (“Conviction”) – “Cape Fear”
• Natalie Portman (“Black Swan”) – “The Professional”
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