Teen TV stars don’t usually become the next big thing in feature films. More often, they wind up as the subject of an “E! True Hollywood Story” or a participant on a cheesy reality series, or they simply fade into obscurity.

Sure, Leonardo DiCaprio had that extra-special, intangible “it” quality to make the transition from TV to movies.

But even if an actor momentarily has “it,” kids can be fickle. Teen stars may be hot one year, only to be quickly forgotten and replaced by a newer, younger face. To make it on the big screen, teen actors also have to pick projects that will appeal to other demographics but won’t alienate their TV fans.

Frankie Muniz of Fox’s “Malcolm in the Middle” and Amanda Bynes from Nickelodeon’s “The Amanda Show” and the current WB sitcom “What I Like About You” are among the latest crop of teen performers staking claims to big-screen stardom. As the Emmy-nominated star of “Malcolm in the Middle,” 17-year-old Muniz is undoubtedly the hottest teen actor working on the small screen. And his TV popularity has made him a highly sought-after commodity for the big screen. He’s currently in theaters as a secret agent who is shy around girls in the comedy adventure “Agent Cody Banks,” which has grossed more than $40 million in four weeks of release. Last year, he and Bynes appeared in the slapstick “Big Fat Liar,” and three years ago, he starred opposite a Jack Russell terrier named Enzo in the family drama “My Dog Skip.”

Muniz, who has been acting for more than a decade, has a game plan. “I don’t just want to jump into an R-rated-type character,” he says. “I do have a lot of adult fans, but most of my fans who would go see my movies are from the ages 8 to 18. I have to stay in that borderline — not stay in it, but slowly work my way up.” The young actor acknowledges he has a lot of feature “stuff” thrown at him. “I haven’t been on an audition in the past five years,” he says. At the same time, “I want it to be something new. I don’t want to be stereotyped. That is the best thing about ‘Cody Banks,’ it’s great for kids. They understand it.”

Dylan Sellers, producer of “Cody Banks,” says Muniz and co-star Hilary Duff, the popular teen from Disney Channel’s ” Lizzie McGuire,” are not flashes in the pan — they are good actors underneath all the hype.

“I mean Frankie is sort of an extraordinary actor,” Sellers says. “He’s been doing it for a long time. Hilary is a very instinctual actor. That’s important. Star quality is about identifying and relating to a person, and I think what both of these kids have is that they are wildly empathetic. You really identify with them.”

John Papisidera, casting director of “Agent Cody Banks,” believes it’s easier now for teen TV stars to make the transition to feature films because Hollywood has become so youth-oriented. “The weekend opening being so important, I think it’s really shifted for teen actors,” he says. “Being on a popular a show comes with a huge demographic and audience. That is the positive side.”

The downside, he says, is that so many teens are “discovered” and become actors with little or no experience. “They get them on a TV show and it turns out to be a success … but very few people come with natural skills that wold allow them to carry a film.”

Sometimes the projects teen actors have picked over the years just weren’t right. Forty years ago, Patty Duke won an Oscar at the age of 16 for “The Miracle Worker” and headlined her own ABC series, “The Patty Duke Show,” but the first movie she starred in to cash in on her series’ success, “Billie,” was an unmitigated disaster that has turned into a camp classic. Although Sally Field has won two Oscars and two Emmys, her first post-“Gidget” film, “The Way West” (1967), didn’t go anywhere at the box office despite the presence of Robert Mitchum and Kirk Douglas.

And the list goes on: Scott Baio, “Zapped!”; Kristy McNichol, “The Pirate Movie”; Kirk Cameron, “Like Father, Like Son”; Jason Bateman, “Teen Wolf 2”; Gary Coleman, “Jimmy the Kid.”

Some former teen actors are picky. Jonathan Jackson has turned down a lot of movies since leaving his Emmy-winning role as the plucky teenage son of Luke and Laura on “General Hospital.” His choosiness has so far paid off. He received favorable reviews for his performance last fall as a young man with a secret in the acclaimed Disney film “Tuck Everlasting.” Although it was a small film, “Tuck Everlasting” demonstrated that Jackson was more than just a handsome face. Michelle Williams of “Dawson’s Creek” has spent her hiatuses from the youth-oriented series doing off-Broadway plays and indie films that have showcased her versatility.

She’s taking it slow

Bynes, who just turned 17, has made only two feature films in between her television work. Her romantic comedy, “What a Girl Wants,” which is aimed at preteen girls, grossed more than $11 million in its opening weekend this month. In the remake of the 1958 comedy “The Reluctant Debutante,” she plays a 16-year-old girl living with her single mother in New York who flies to London to meet her father (Colin Firth), a wealthy British lord who doesn’t know of her existence. The film capitalizes on her physical comedy prowess, which has been likened to that of a young Lucille Ball.

Like Muniz, Bynes has been working most of her young life and she has ideas about what she wants to do with her career. “I think a lot of people make movies just to make movies,” she says. “I think people should spend less time making hundreds of movies, just sit down and make one, and just make it the best you can and put everything that you can into it.”

Bynes says she isn’t into money.

“I am not doing something for money,” she says. “That’s exactly what happens in this business: You’re offered $3 million to do a movie and it is just the same exact movie [as before]. People automatically want you to do the same exact thing. I personally feel I need to expand because it gets so boring doing one thing. I hope to have a fairly easy transition into adult roles. That’s why I am taking it slowly. I want to be taken seriously as an actor. I don’t want to do teeny-bopper movies. I think a lot of people do those movies for the quick cash. I want to be here for the long haul.”

Though Bynes has carried her own TV shows, “What a Girl Wants” is the first time she had to carry a film. Warner Bros., the studio producing the film, was thrilled to get her.

“She came to the movie with a tremendous built-in audience, and that is a tremendous safety net for the studio,” says the film’s director, Dennie Gordon. Gordon met Bynes when the actress was 15. “There was something about Amanda that was perfectly on the cusp of womanhood,” the director says. “We literally caught her on screen as she was ripening as a woman. I had a sense she was going to fill the screen.” But Gordon admits she initially didn’t know if Bynes would be able to handle the more dramatic aspects and carry the entire picture.

“Even in ‘Big Fat Liar,’ she was doing that goofy Nickelodeon girl,” Gordon says. “We were nervous. But once we started to see the dailies, we knew we had something special. This is the role that puts her on the road to sophisticated, adult comedy.”

Several teen TV stars, such as Fred and Ben Savage, Claire Danes, Jonathan Taylor Thomas and Jessica Biel, have put their careers on hold while they attend college.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt, late of the Emmy Award-winning NBC comedy series “3rd Rock From the Sun,” had to overcome his TV image to land a role in the low-budget, indie drama “Manic,” which opens May 9 after premiering at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival. In an about-face from his role as the glib outer-space teen in “3rd Rock,” Gordon-Levitt plays a surly young man committed to the juvenile wing of a mental institution because he keeps breaking out into sudden and violent rages.

“I had never seen ‘3rd Rock’ other than clicking the station and you see it for a millisecond,” says the film’s director, Jordan Melamed. “Of course I know about it and knew he was on the show. So I was very concerned.”

It was casting director Mali Finn who brought Gordon-Levitt to Melamed’s attention. When Gordon-Levitt came in for a meeting, he told Finn and the director he had prepared a scene. “He gets into Mali’s face and he expressed a level of anger that was really, really shocking,” Melamed says.

Although he was impressed, he didn’t cast Gordon-Levitt immediately. “The instinct was all there,” the director says. “But then the realization set in, oh my God, this kid is on TV. He’s a comic actor. We had him come in a lot. He did a lot of auditions. I think I probably gave him a bad time. But thank God I cast him.”

Gordon-Levitt, now 22, made “Manic” when he was 19. He began “3rd Rock” when he was 13, and after completing “Manic” he left Los Angeles and headed for New York and Columbia University.

His first two semesters at school, he says, “were by far the largest break I had taken from acting since I was 6.” But after his first year at Columbia, Gordon-Levitt realized he still wanted and needed to act.

He’s since dropped out of Columbia, done a play off-Broadway and another indie film, and hopes that more doors will open after “Manic” premieres.

Gordon-Levitt says the time off wasn’t an issue. “I had been doing it for 13 years, so I wasn’t scared that I would be able to come back. I knew … I wouldn’t have the same level of momentum. And I am glad for that because I wasn’t frankly into the momentum. When I was on the show, I would see scripts that were really interesting to me, but then someone would say to me, ‘That is way too dark, why don’t you do a nice romantic something or other?’ That was never all that interesting to me.”

Source: LA Times
Author: Susan King

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