It’s no secret that actors hired to play teenagers on TV are typically older than their characters; viewers, however, may not realize the key reason for that. Screen Actors Guild guidelines lay out some very specific regulations regarding minors on a film or TV set, in terms of how many hours they’re legally allowed to work and other restrictions. Hiring an actor over 18 pretty much lifts those restrictions, saving time, hassle and, most importantly, money.
When it comes to television teen dramas, viewers may have figured out that characters are usually high school sophomores when a new series launches, and there’s a very good reason for that, too: if the show becomes a hit, producers have a few more years to explore high school stories before shuttling the characters off to college. Then there’s the even worse scenario, which comes when producers simply choose to ignore the passage of time in the show’s storylines, leading to the awkward scenario of actors hitting their 30s while still playing teenagers.
For examples of this phenomenon, keep reading to learn about teenage TV characters who were actually adult actors.
Henry Winkler was 27 when he began playing Happy Days' Fonzie
Henry Winkler’s acting career was just beginning when he was cast as a ’50s greaser hoodlum in the 1974 film The Lords of Flatbush. That same year, Winkler was cast as a different leather-jacketed delinquent, Arthur “Fonzie” Fonzarelli in ABC’s ’50s-set sitcom Happy Days. While the character’s age was never specified, Fonzie hung around with Richie Cunningham (Ron Howard), who was still in high school, which would apparently make Fonzie a teenager. But as Winkler told USA Today, he was 27 when he was cast in the show.
The Fonz proved to be Happy Days‘ breakout character, propelling Happy Days to the top of the ratings and making Winkler one of television’s hottest stars. When the show ended its run in 1984 after 11 seasons, Winkler was pushing 40 and one of the most famous people in America.
However, portraying such an iconic character for so long left him typecast after the show concluded. “I literally could not get hired as an actor. People would say, ‘Oh, he is so talented — and funny! But he’s The Fonz,'” Winkler complained to USA Today.
Gabrielle Carteris lied about her age to play a teen on Beverly Hills, 90210
Gabrielle Carteris was significantly older than the 16-year-old she portrayed on the ’90s hit Beverly Hills, 90210. In fact, Carteris was a baby-faced 29-year-old when she landed the role of brainy Andrea Zuckerberg. Producers of the show, however, had no idea she was 13 years older than character. “I lied,” she revealed to Access.
According to Carteris, she asked a lawyer if she could sign the contracts “and lie about my age and still be able to do the show.” As long as she listed an age older than 21, she was told, it was legal. It wasn’t until she’d been on the show for awhile that a magazine managed to dig up DMV records and reported on her actual age, then over 30. “So, then they were printing it and I thought, ‘This is it! I’m gonna lose the job, there’s no way.'”
However, the show’s massive success protected her. As she told People, “My character was established enough that they did not fire me. But a producer did say to me, ‘You’re lucky we didn’t know your age when we hired you.'”
Jason Earles was nearly 30 when he was cast as Hannah Montana's older brother
Jason Earles is best known for playing the older brother of Miley Stewart, whose secret identity was the titular teen rock star in Disney Channel hit Hannah Montana. A 2017 report from Business Insider about Earles’ wedding lists his age as 40; given that Hannah Montana premiered in 2006, that confirms an Insider report that Earles was 28 when he was cast. Cyrus was just 13 when the show launched, making Earles a whopping 15 years older than his TV sibling.
In an interview with WZAP Radio (as reported by BlogTalkRadio), Earles played coy about being old enough to be Cyrus’ father, given that he’d recently stated his age as 31 in a 2007 USA Today interview. “The only thing you’ll get out of me, sir, is that I’m 18, 19 on the show,” he quipped when asked to discuss the wide gap between his age and that of his character. “I actually am a couple of years older than that in real life. But to me, age is just a number. It’s sort of all about how you feel.”
Gilmore Girls' Keiko Agena was 27 when she played 15-year-old Lane
As BuzzFeed recalled, actress Alexis Bledel was 19 when she first started playing Rory Gilmore on Gilmore Girls. The character was 15 at the beginning of the series, a fact viewers learned when they watched her celebrate her 16th birthday in an episode during the first season. Keiko Agena played Rory’s best friend, Lane, who was depicted as being the same age.
According to Refinery29, however, Agena was a wee bit older than her co-star — nearly a decade older, in fact, given that she was born in 1973. Gilmore Girls first hit the air in 2000, meaning Agena was playing a 15-year-old girl at age 27.
Lauren Graham — who played Rory’s mom, Lorelai Gilmore — recalled in an interview with Variety being “31 or 32” when she took the role, admitting she was initially reluctant to play the mother of a teenager because her friends feared it could “age” her and typecast her as a mom permanently. Interestingly enough, in real life this makes Agena significantly closer in age to her onscreen BFF’s mom than to Rory herself.
Bianca Lawson was in her 30s when she played a 17 year old on Pretty Little Liars
Pretty Little Liars featured four high school girls — played by Troian Bellisario, Ashley Benson, Lucy Hale, and Shay Mitchell — investigating the disappearance of a friend while battling a mysterious, unseen enemy who knows all their dirtiest secrets. Bianca Lawson joined the cast of PLL in 2010 as 17-year-old Maya St. Germain — at age 31, nearly 15 years older than her character.
As the Daily Mail pointed out, Lawson had been playing a teenager for well over a decade when she joined PLL. In fact, her first screen role was at 14, playing a student on teen comedy Saved By the Bell in 1994. More teenage roles followed, including a three-episode stint as a replacement slayer on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and a high schooler on Dawson’s Creek. Ironically, the only show in which Lawson didn’t play a teenager was The Secret Life of the American Teenager; she played a 23-year-old who was dating a teen boy. Lawson then reverted back to playing a teen in The Vampire Diaries and then PLL.
Charisma Carpenter was over a decade older than her Buffy the Vampire Slayer character
Charisma Carpenter played the haughty Cordelia Chase in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a character she reprised for the series’ spinoff, Angel. She was 27 at the time of the show’s launch in 1997, given that IMDb lists her year of birth as 1970. By the time the show ended its seven-season run in 2003, Carpenter was approaching her mid-30s.
While a 10 year age gap between actor and character is considerable, her Buffy co-star James Marsters managed to top it. Marsters, as fans will well recall, played vampire (and Buffy’s eventual love interest), Spike. Spike first appeared in the second season of Buffy in 1998. According to Express, Marsters was born in 1962; Basic math reveals that would have made him 36 years old during his first appearance on the show, while Buffy (played by Sarah Michelle Gellar, born in 1977) was 21 at that time. Her character, however, was still in high school.
Thanks to Marsters’ youthful good looks, most viewers had no idea that by the time Spike and Buffy finally hooked up in season 9, he was in his mid-40s.
Meredith Monroe was pushing 30 when she played a 16 year old on Dawson's Creek
Meredith Monroe played high school student Andie McPhee on teen drama Dawson’s Creek. As Insider pointed out, Monroe was significantly older than the character she portrayed, given she was 28 at the time and Andie was 16.
Despite being older than her cast mates, McDowell recalled her first day on the set as being “nerve-wracking.” As she told Entertainment Tonight, she recalled being “giddy with excitement” when she landed the role, but began “freaking out” as she flew to the set in North Carolina.
What really freaked her out was the weird reception she received from new co-star Katie Holmes. Recalling that James Van Der Beek, Michelle Williams, and Joshua Jackson were all “amazing” to her, “Katie really gave it to me. She said, ‘Oh yeah, you know we had somebody come in last year and they were going to be a new series regular, but we got rid of them after one or two episodes.’ I was like, ‘What?’ She said, ‘I’m just kidding! What do you want to drink?’ and I was like, ‘Oh my god, my heart just stopped.'”
Corey Monteith was 12 years older than his 15-year-old Glee character
As fans of Glee well know, breakout star Corey Monteith tragically died of a drug overdose in a Vancouver hotel room at age 31 (via Rolling Stone). Prior to his death, he was still starring on the mega-hit Fox musical set in an Ohio high school.
Glee made its debut in 2009, which would have placed Monteith’s age at 27 when the show premiered. That made him quite a bit older than the character he was portraying, 15-year-old football quarterback Finn Hudson.
Interestingly enough, Matthew Morrison (who starred as the school glee club’s passionate leader, teacher Will Schuester), was only a few years older than Monteith. Us Weekly identified Morrison’s age as 42 in a 2020 story about the accidental drowning of Glee star Naya Rivera. Crunch the numbers, and this reveals that Morrison was just 31 when he landed the role of “Mr. Schue” — leading to the somewhat bizarre scenario of a high school teacher who was just four years older than his pupil.
Ashleigh Murray was 30 when she played Riverdale's teenage Josie
Riverdale proved to be a surprise hit when it premiered in January of 2017. After all, who could have foreseen that one of the decade’s most popular teen dramas would be a dark, Twin Peaks-like mystery based on the goofy comic book series about crimson-haired teenager Archie Andrews and his iconic gang of teenage pals?
One of the spinoffs of the original comics was Josie and the Pussycats, a teenage rock trio headed up by Josie McCoy, who took to the stage costumed as cats. Riverdale took the concept and added some diversity by casting Black actress Ashleigh Murray as Josie, who had originally been white in the comics.
Not only was Murray’s skin color different than that of the original character, she was also significantly older than Josie. According to a profile in Elle published in 2018 — a year after the show’s debut — Murray’s age was listed as 30. As the profile’s author, Emily Tannenbaum, wrote in the first sentence, “Ashleigh Murray is too old for your bulls**t, but not too old to play 16-year-old Josie McCoy on Riverdale.” Hilarious.
Darren Barnet played a teen at age 29 in Never Have I Ever
One of 2020’s most critically acclaimed series, the Netflix comedy Never Have I Ever is the creation of The Office/The Mindy Project star Mindy Kaling. The series, inspired by Kaling’s own real-life experiences, centers on a first-generation Indian-American teenage girl named Devi, played by newcomer Maitreyi Ramakrishnan.
One of the show’s key storylines involves Devi and her friends — 15-year-old high school students — all making a pact lose their virginity. In Devi’s case, she sets her sights on schoolmate Paxton Hall-Yoshida, played by Darren Barnet. As Newsweek pointed out when the show debuted in May 2020, Barnet was 29 years old; his character, on the other hand, was just 16.
According to Elle, all the actors playing teens on the show were, in real life, slightly older than their characters. Ramakrishnan, for example, was 18, while co-star Ramona Young (who plays one of Devi’s BFFs, Eleanor Wong) was 21. However, Elle pointed out, “Barnet has by far the biggest age difference, as he’s more than a decade older than his high school junior character.”
Stranger Things' Joe Keery was 27 when he played teenager Steve Harrington
Fans of Stranger Things have literally watched the show’s young cast grow up onscreen, with the characters played by Millie Bobby Brown and the other kids said to be 12 when the series began. This is also the case for the show’s slightly older stars.
One of these is Joe Keery, portrayer of wisecracking Steve Harrington. According to PopBuzz, Keery was born in April of 1992, and was well into his 20s when he was cast as 17-year-old Steve. In fact, he was 24 when the series debuted in July of 2016.
The length of time between seasons and the Stranger Things timeline has resulted in a somewhat odd phenomenon: Steve seems to be aging at a slower pace than the actor who plays him. In the third season, which premiered in July 2019, Steve was 19; Harrington, on the other hand, was 27 at the time, having aged three years while his character was just two years older.
Chase Stokes played a teen in Outer Banks when he was 28
Viewers of Netflix’s teen-drama mystery “Outer Banks” couldn’t get enough of John B, the chest-baring leader of the gang of North Carolina teenagers known as the Pogues. Played by Chase Stokes, John B was characterized as being 16 years old, as were the rest of the Pogues. According to Men’s Health, however, Stokes is 27, making him more than a decade older than the character he portrays.
In an interview with Daily Blast Live, Stokes was asked to share his feelings about his new status as a “teenage heartthrob” thanks to the show’s success. “It’s weird, you know?” Stokes admitted. “I think as an actor, you know, just getting validated in your work is such a far-fetched concept.”
Stokes also opened up about what it’s been like to be recognized from the show, recalling walking down Hollywood Boulevard after doing some grocery shopping when “somebody just screamed, ‘John B I love you!’ and I almost dropped all the groceries.”
At 27, Monique Coleman was the oldest member of the High School Musical cast
According to her IMDb biography, High School Musical star Monique Coleman was born in November of 1980. When she was first seen as student Taylor McKessie when the Disney Channel movie debuted in January 2006, Coleman was 25 years old. By the time High School Musical 3 rolled around in 2008, Coleman was 27 — while Taylor was still in high school.
Coinciding with the release of the third film in the franchise, Coleman spoke with blackfilm.com about her experience in the High School Musical universe. She marveled at the opportunity of being involved with something that turned out to be far more successful than she had ever imagined. “This movie just literally started out as an audition,” she said, explaining that she could “sense some magic happening” as filming progressed. “You show up, you do the job, and part way through as you are doing it and walk around, you see that there’s something special here,” she continued. “You can tell that people are going to like this. We never thought that it would turn into the phenomenon that it is.”
Taylor Kitsch was more than a decade older than his Friday Night Lights quarterback
Among the various members of the talented young cast of Friday Night Lights, Taylor Kitsch proved to be a standout. In the role of brooding-but-hunky quarterback Tim Riggins, Kitsch shone in the critically acclaimed NBC drama focusing on the high school football team in a small, football-obsessed Texas town. Even though he was playing a teenage high school student, in a 2009 interview with The Observer during the series’ third season, Kitsch’s age was reported to be 28 — a good decade older than his character.
As Houston Press writer Daniel Carlson pointed out, Kitsch was 25 when he was cast as Riggins, who was just 15 in the series premiere. According to Carlson, Kitsch’s maturity pushed the boundaries of credulity. “He never really looked 15 — at the absolute best, he could have passed for 22 — and his adulthood only became more pronounced as the show went on,” wrote Carlson.
Ross Butler was in his late 20s when he played a teen in 13 Reasons Why
Ross Butler was one of the breakout stars of Netflix’s dark teen drama 13 Reasons Why. While he played high school student Zach in the show — which premiered in 2017 — a 2018 article on Butler in People listed his age then as 27. Interestingly enough, at the same time Butler was starring in 13 Reasons Why, he was also in Riverdale, playing Reggie Mantle. He wound up leaving Riverdale, and explained the complicated situation that led to his exit in an interview with Vulture.
“Before season two was confirmed for 13, I had to make the decision of whether I wanted to focus on one character or split two characters and have a smaller role on both shows,” he explained. Weighing the pros and cons of both characters, Butler realized he “connected with Zach on a much more real level” than he did with Reggie. However, leaving Riverdale left him in a risky period of limbo while he waited to find up whether 13 Reasons Why would be picked up by Netflix for a second season. “Thankfully, it did,” he said.
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