Child actors may be called upon to take on roles with mature scenes. But some of these roles might leave you so stunned that you’ll be questioning the director’s artistic vision. Then again, directors usually do their best to avoid exposing children to adult content and assault-related scenarios, but other times, the young actors’ ages in the scene can make the audience shudder. However, we have to keep in mind that when focusing on the controversy of kids playing these roles, the only thing that matters is how the child actor felt while playing the role.
“Léon: The Professional” was the first film Natalie Portman ever did. She was only 11 when she got the role of Mathilda, an audacious hitman-in-training for the 1994 film directed by Luc Besson. Portman had to do a lot of mature scenes, some of which included something her parents were totally against, which was smoking. The assault related scenes were quite intense and emotional for the actress. Despite her lack of experience, Portman knocked it out of the ballpark. But the film’s biggest controversy was the numerous hints that Mathilda and Leon (Jean Reno), the hitman who was training her, were romantically involved. In the international version, viewers saw Mathilda and Leon at a restaurant where Mathilda gets very drunk. During the scene, a drunken Mathilda repeatedly attempts to kiss Leon. After the film was screen tested, audiences found the adult content to be quite disturbing so the scene was removed from the American theatrical release.
For her role in “Taxi Driver,” Jodi Foster was criticized and protected by the Los Angeles Welfare Board. Foster underwent a four-hour interview with a shrink to see if she had the maturity to play a call girl. The psychiatrist then determined that Foster was indeed ready to take on such a controversial role. Whenever she had to do a scene, a child welfare worker was present. After all, Foster was only 12. Also, her sister Connie, who was 20 at the time, took over as her body double when more mature scenes were involved. As a grown-up, Foster admitted that working on the film was “uncomfortable.” She explained that: “They were very uncomfortable about my character. Nobody knew how to direct me. Scorsese would say something like ‘unzip his fly’ and just start laughing and not know what to do so he would hand it over to Robert De Niro and then Robert would tell me what to do.”
In the 1970s, Brooke Shields’ mother, Teri, got a lot of heat for allowing her daughter to do roles that were too mature for a girl her age. Teri even agreed to let Brooke do a photo shoot with Gary Gross, which was quite controversial. In it, Shields, who was only 10, was seen wearing lots of makeup but no clothes at all. Then, the biggest debate came during the production of the 1978 film, “Pretty Baby” by Louis Malle. Shields played Violet, a little girl living with her adult worker mother, Hattie (Susan Sarandon), in a brothel. Violet becomes a call girl herself after her virginity gets sold. Shields was 11 when the movie was filmed, and it contained lots of topless and mature scenes. But as an adult, Shields claimed she doesn’t regret taking on that role, despite the controversy.
When the 2007 film “Hounddog” was released, it made people angry. The movie was about Lewellen (Dakota Fanning), a young girl from the 1960s living in the Southern United States, who was head over heels in love with Elvis. But one tiny scene had people worried for her. In the movie, Lewellen, who is 12, gets assaulted by a teenaged neighbor after he gets her to do things for him in order to get some concert tickets to see Elvis. You only get to see Fanning’s hands and face, but you don’t see any skin. Director Deborah Kampmeier and Dakota Fanning were praised by some for addressing such a powerful scene which had left some folks very disturbed. Fanning also defended the movie by saying, “It’s not really happening. It’s a movie, and it’s called acting. I’m not going through anything.”
Kirsten Dunst was only 11 when she took on the role of Claudia in “Interview with the Vampire.” Her first on-screen kiss in the film was between her and Brad Pitt, who at the time was 29. As a grown-up, Dunst claimed the kiss was “disgusting.” Then she added: “It was horrible, and I hated it. Brad and Tom were like my big brothers on the set, so it was like kissing your big brother — totally gross!” Brad then added, ‘How do you think I feel? I have to kiss a little girl.’ It was awful!” In the film, Claudia was a child who was turned into a vampire. But while her mind matured, her body didn’t age. Claudia eventually falls for Louis (Brad Pitt), the vampire who turned her into a creature of the night. She also turned against Lestat (Tom Cruise), who had made Louis.
In the 2003 film “Thirteen,” Nikki Reed and Evan Rachel Wood played characters who were impulsive and had questionable ethics. Evie (Reed) and Tracy (Wood) want nothing more than to party, take controlled substances and engage in adult behavior that is typical of some teens, but audiences don’t often get to see in movies. Their bold lifestyle eventually takes the girls down a dark path, which parents considered to be way too much for children who might have been watching the film. Reed helped write the movie, and some of the scenes were based on her personal experiences. Despite the fact that Reed might have lived some of the things seen in the film, audiences didn’t like seeing two teen girls involved in mature scenes. However, critics seemed quite happy with the film.
Two major film adaptions were created based on Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita.” In 1962, Stanley Kubrick directed the film, but the 1997 version, which was quite controversial, was directed by Adrian Lyne. Lyne’s version was more on point with Nabokov’s novel, which meant the depiction of an older man liking a 12-year-old girl was more graphic. Dominique Swain was 14 when she co-starred with Jeremy Irons, who played the role of Humbert Humbert. A body double was used to replace Swain during the mature scenes, but there were still a few disturbing scenes, like when Irons slapped and kissed her. Lyne used a cushion to separate Swain from Irons when she sat on his lap. This was one of many of the director’s precautions, but the movie was criticized for putting a minor in such a precarious role.
The most scandalous thing about “American Beauty” wasn’t necessarily the dealing of Mena Suvari and Kevin Spacey’s underage-related mature scenes. It was Thora Birch’s role as the daughter of the main character that had audiences upset and also quite concerned. Birch was 17 when she appeared in the film, and in one scene she wasn’t wearing a shirt. Of course, Birch got permission to go topless from her parents first. As far as the scene was concerned, Birch claimed the following: “To me, it made sense. It wasn’t something that shouldn’t be in there. It’s something that would happen.”
The 1979 film, “Manhattan,” takes a creepier undertone given Woody Allen’s tarnished reputation. In the movie, Allen plays a writer who dates Tracey (Mariel Hemingway). Both the character and the actress were 17 years old at the time of the filming of the movie. Given that Allen eventually had a relationship with his adoptive daughter, which he also married, and the assault allegations made against him by his other daughter, “Manhattan” came off as a tell-all for Allen’s dark desires. Later, Hemingway revealed that during the shoot, Allen had tried seducing her.
The 1995 film “Kids” directed by Larry Clark deals with teens, but the material is a bit too mature for a young audience. Actors like Rosario Dawson, who was 15 at the time, dealt with some serious mature scenes. When the film was released, it gained the reputation for being quite a controversial 90s film. The film included drug use, assault, and an HIV-positive assailant who goes looking for virgins to infect. It originally received an NC-17 rating, but Harvey Weinstein had managed to get the film released as unrated instead.