The quality of television has improved over the years and has become every bit as important as the next big Hollywood production. It’s at that level where the excitement for the next season of Game of Thrones or Vikings is as high as the next Star Wars movie and the next chapter in the Marvel Cinematic Universe saga.
Of course, as the production quality has improved, so has the level of acting from all those involved, especially as far as the younger cast is concerned. It’s arguable that modern television has created even more rising young stars than film. However, as the performances keep improving so does the expectation of these young performers to deliver more intense and adult-like scenes. While it’s true that they are fully aware that what they are doing isn’t real, actors young or old often have to tap into very real emotions and experiences to be able to deliver the best and most realistic performance possible.
Despite a young performer needing to get parental permission to act in shows that are clearly developed for adults, one has to wonder where the moral boundary is. Here we’ll take a look at 15 actresses who have performed well beyond their years in controversial roles that have pushed boundaries on emotional and very physical levels.
15 Sofia Hublitz - Ozark
The new Netflix series Ozark starring Jason Bateman has been a huge hit with viewers, with some fans even going as far as calling it the new Breaking Bad. While it may be a bit early to start comparing it to a massive success such as that series it certainly is a very promising new show with some superb performances throughout.
A big credit should go to the young cast too and in particular, Sofia Hublitz, who plays the 15-year-old Charlotte Byrde struggling to come to terms with both moving from Chicago and her parent's dark secrets. There were some scenes that contained some sexual content where she may have been considered a bit too young to perform in especially as she was only 16 going on 17 during the time of filming. Although the scenes weren’t that explicit, one does question why the entire scene was needed in the place.
14 Maisie Williams - Game of Thrones
Maisie Williams' performance as Arya Stark on a Game of Thrones has grown and improved with each and every new season. Every season, though, her character has had to endure the unthinkable and in response, she’s become a dark character hell-bent on avenging the loss of her family.
Maisie Williams has performed in many dark and violent scenes that may prove questionable for some viewers considering her age during filming. One particular scene is when Arya kills the cowardly and evil Kingsguard Meryn Trant in a brothel where he’s torturing very young girls for his own perverse and sadistic pleasure. For many fans, the scene was incredibly satisfying because Trant finally got what deserved, but the scenario was no less disturbing.
13 Kiara Glasco - Coppers
The young Canadian actress Kiara Glasco put in an award-winning performance as the 12-year-old orphan prostitute and former child bride Anne Reilly in the BBC America series Copper. Glasco even portrayed the character’s dead twin sister Kate too.
Copper was America’s answer to the British crime series Ripper Street, but despite pulling in the highest viewing figures for BBC America at the time, it was cut short after two seasons. While the show was short-lived, the quality was undeniable, and recreation of a gritty late 1800s post-Civil War New York was incredible.
The gritty recreation also gave way to some dark story lines and the season opener with Glasco’s child prostitute character was incredibly disturbing. A particular line of dialogue which said by the actress will definitely catch viewers off-guard is when she offers to “pleasure” the lead character Corky in return for his kindness.
12 Rebecca Ryan & Emma Kenney - Shameless UK/US
Rebecca Ryan started playing Debbie Gallagher from the age of 12 in the UK version of Shameless which was one of the most gritty and realistic comedy dramas on British television. The series was renowned for not pulling any punches at all when it came to sex, drugs, and even underage sex. Quite a few characters in the series were involved in underage sex scenes, but it was Debbie’s sexual involvement with a police officer performed at the age of 16 that raised a few eyebrows.
Emma Kenney’s performance as the same character Debbie was even more controversial, whereas the UK version was smart enough to get her away from her family before she repeated the same mistakes that her older sister did by joining the army. The US version of Debbie played by Kenney seems to have taken a very different route here. She gave into peer pressure, got pregnant underage, and even seduced an older married man for somewhere to live.
11 Natalie Alyn Lind - Gotham
Natalie Alyn Lind was a great casting choice for a young Silver St. Cloud on the television series Gotham. The silver character is usually depicted as a socialite and a romantic interest for Bruce Wayne (Batman). In the televised version of Gotham, Silver is the step-niece of one the shows main antagonists, the corrupt billionaire Theo Galavan played by James Frain. Her mission was to befriend and seduce the young Bruce Wayne into becoming smitten with her.
Natalie Alyn Lind was only around 15 at the time of playing Silver on the Gotham series, so playing a somewhat seductive and glamorous character on screen may be viewed as a bit controversial, and was a far cry from the role she played in the comedy series The Goldbergs. It wasn't helped by the fact that Bruce Wayne looked so much younger than she did.
10 Millie Bobby Brown - Stranger Things
The Netflix series Stranger Things managed to capture the nostalgia and the magic of the 80s by taking inspiration from classics like E.T: The Extra Terrestrial, Stand By Me, Aliens, Firestarter and The Goonies. The series also happens to be one of the best science fiction shows in years featuring amazing performances from the young cast. Millie Bob Brown's performance as Eleven, in particular, was a real stand out for the show.
Where some viewers may take issue with the series, is that some scenes where Brown performed as Eleven were very intense, and the experimentation and torture scenes were quite harrowing to watch. It’s a credit to her outstanding acting ability that she delivered such a great performance but one does have to wonder if it may have been pushing the 11-year-old actress a bit far.
9 Kaya Scodelario - Skins (UK)
Skins, just like Shameless, was a controversial series when it was released in the UK, mostly because it depicted a realistic setting and lifestyle of mid-teens and young adults. However, most of the criticism was aimed at the ages of the actors performing in the scenes that displayed quite explicit sex scenes (not to mention drug use) for a television show. It also helped launch the careers of actors like Nicholas Hoult, Dev Patel, and Kaya Scodelario.
Kaya took on the role of Effy at just 15 years old. Her first scene as Effy saw her doing the “walk of shame” and sneaking home only to get changed back into her school uniform. Her role in the series developed over time as a bit of a wild child performing in countless controversial scenes before she reached the age of 18.
8 Anna Burnett - Ripper Street
Ripper Street is a Victorian era British crime drama based a short time after the Jack the Ripper murders. The series has a similar dark and gritty tone to BBC America’s Copper. Similarly, the series nearly suffered the same fate as Copper but Amazon Prime rescued the series from cancellation allowing the show to run until its fourth and final season.
Season 3 saw the introduction of Mathilda, the long-lost daughter of the lead character Reid played by 13-year-old Anna Burnett. The character had to work through many difficult scenes such as being held against her will and falling into the hands of a teenage pimp. There were several very harrowing scenes that the actress had to work through that could be difficult to perform.
7 Casting JonBenet
Just over 20 years ago during the Christmas of 1996, six-year-old girl JonBenet Ramsey was found murdered in the cellar of her family home in Boulder, Colorado. The crime remains unsolved but the tragedy became as much of a media circus as the one that surrounded the O.J. Simpson case. Casting JonBenet is a Netflix exclusive documentary where the filmmakers hired amateur actors and young actresses from the town of Boulder to take part in staged re-enactments of the case.
The documentary is intended to be an examination of the seemingly ongoing obsession with the JonBenet case but one does have to wonder, as well-made and as thought-provoking as Casting JonBonet is, it’s also very exploitative to JonBenet, the young actors and actresses involved, and is completely tasteless.
The use of children (along with the adult actors) to re-enact various crime scenarios based on rehashed opinions and theories that we’ve already heard could raise a few eyebrows but it's the fact that the scenes are played out through the use of dark humor in its closing moments as a reflection of society as a whole that does nothing to separate this documentary from the rest as a piece of exploitative material.
6 Sophie Turner - Game of Thrones
One of many aspects of Game of Thrones that the series has perfected is character development, and just like Arya, Sansa’s character has grown through difficulty, adversity and the kind of hardship that would destroy the will of an average person. Sophie Turner has managed to play the character of Sansa to perfection, which is likely because just like Sansa, she has grown up through playing the role of a self-entitled princess to-be to a strong woman that’s even wise to the slippery intentions of Little Finger.
To achieve the character’s maturity Sophie Turner has had to re-enact some horrific scenes, including beatings at the hands of Joffrey, almost being gang raped by a group of commoners, and finally, being raped by Ramsey Bolton. It’s a lot for a young actress to endure from childhood, whether it is a performance or not.
5 Linda Blair - Born Innocent
The NBC made for television movie Born Innocent starred a 14-year-old Linda Blair, a young actress whose most noted role was as the possessed Regan MacNeil in The Exorcist, a controversial film in its own right.
Linda Blair played a teenage runaway named Christine Parker that finds herself sentenced to a girl's juvenile detention center after trying to escape her abusive father. The film gained notoriety because it was the first all-female rape scene aired on American television. The film explicitly depicted Blair’s character getting raped with a plunger handle in the communal showers, but not before they gleefully showed a 14-year-old showering topless.
Born Innocent was later blamed for the events surrounding a nine-year-old girl who was subjected to a similar ordeal by her own classmates. Although the courts ruled that the NBC film wasn’t to blame, it played a major part in the introduction of a watershed being introduced in the 1970s.
4 Eleanor Zichy - Skins (US)
When the US version of Skins finally arrived on MTV, the series generated a great deal of controversy, as a result of the sexual content featuring a cast of underage actors. The depictions of drug and casual sex led to the Parents Television Council to file a letter with the Department of Justice asking them to bring child pornography charges against the series. Advertisers withdrew their support and the constant stream of complaints meant that the series didn’t get past its first season.
The Eura character played by a 15-year-old Eleanor Vichy is the American version of Effy, and her opening scenes begin very much the same as the original although the camera does tend to stay on her exposed underwear longer than it needs to. The character is also shown abusing alcohol, and partying with her older friends. But perhaps the most controversial use of Eleanor’s character was getting the young actress to pose in her lingerie along with the rest of the cast for a provocative photo shoot for Elle Magazine.
3 Isabelle Fuhrman - Masters of Sex
At 17, Isabelle Fuhrman took over the role of the character Tessa Johnson from season 3 of Masters of Sex which also stars Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan. Even at the age of 17, the actress was no stranger to taking on controversial roles that demanded a lot from an actress of such a young age when starred in the controversial Hounddog with Dakota Fanning and more notably as Esther in the horror film Esther.
The subject matter regarding the Masters of Sex overarching theme could be considered controversial by some. However, there was a particular scene that was difficult to watch which occurred in the third episode of season 3, when Isabelle’s character was orally raped by a boy in the back of a car after a school dance. The scene’s intention was to raise awareness about parents being open about sex to their children, and while it was effective it was no less shocking.
2 Taissa Farmiga - American Horror Story
Taissa Farmiga was 16 years old when she played the role of Zoe Benson in American Horror Story: Coven that focused on present-day witches in New Orleans. Farmiga’s character joins the coven of witches, so she can come to terms with her newly discovered supernatural powers. The character discovers her powers by accidentally killing her boyfriend during sex, causing him to have a severe brain aneurysm.
Although the original sex scene could be considered controversial enough, it does get a bit darker when the character Zoe uses sex as a weapon and a way of getting revenge by raping one of the frat boys and killing him the same way she did her own boyfriend. The scene was in many ways justified but still a very dark one for the 16-year-old actress to perform.
1 Kiernan Shipka - Mad Men
Kiernan Shipka was just 7 years old when took on the role as Sally Draper in the 1960s based Mad Men. The role would eventually earn critical acclaim, a Screen Actors Guild award at the age of just 10, and was upgraded to a series regular as a major part of the ensemble cast. The show saw Sally grow into an adventurous but rebellious young girl who smokes her mother's cigarettes, asks questions about sex, and steals alcoholic drinks.
However, the most controversial scene came when the series touched upon a delicate subject that involved the 11-year-old Sally masturbating at a friends house until she was caught and shamed for it. The scene was meant to encourage better communication between parents and their children, but somehow felt a bit misplaced and perhaps too strong a subject matter for a preteen to be performing.