But are these mature-themed roles for youngsters part of a larger trend or simply a handful of eye-catching examples? Anne Henry, co-founder of the BizParentz Foundation, a nonprofit organization that supports families of children working in the entertainment industry, believes the number of "controversial" roles for kids has increased over the last three years.
"There was always an element of that, if you think back to Jodie Foster [as a young prostitute in 'Taxi Driver']," she said. "There was one every generation. But now there are 10 instead. It would be fair to say that every child actor from age 12 up is going to have to face the issue at least once. But I wouldn't say it's normal, still. It's not like you have to do that to be working."
Jay A. Fernandez, senior film reporter for The Hollywood Reporter, noted that there have been plenty of examples of kids in adult-themed roles over the years, including Brooke Shields in 1978's "Pretty Baby." But a few have certainly made headlines more recently. "The one that I think really brought it back into the consciousness was 'Hounddog,' " he said, referring to the infamous indie drama in which a young girl (played by Dakota Fanning) is brutally raped.
That film drew the lion's share of negative publicity at 2007's Sundance Film Festival, but Fernandez observed that putting a kid actor in a mature role doesn't automatically stoke the fires of controversy. "If it's comic, you can get away with it, which is why 'Kick-Ass' maybe isn't stirring up as much as I thought," he said. "It's funny and it's also not real in a way that would set people off. But 'Hounddog' is too harrowing for people, because you're putting [Fanning's character] in a real situation."
Henry, who is also the mother of three young performers, sees these types of roles, whatever the tone or context, as Hollywood's attempt to push the envelope just a little bit further. "They've kind of run out of controversial subjects," she said. "Having a kid do something that used to be controversial for adults is what they have to do now."
Given that these kinds of roles are popping up more and more, young thespians and their parents will inevitably find themselves faced with the task of choosing what they will and will not do onscreen. Gould, now 16, was 10 when he auditioned for "Weeds," and he and his mom had reservations about the pay cable–level language on the show, he recalled. "But we said—this is kind of what my philosophy on doing something like this is—'It's just acting. It's not me.' "
Henry noted that whether or not to take on a role is a personal decision—but one that requires an especially intense thought process when dealing with a young actor. "Every parent has to sit down and make a line in the sand for themselves and their family, and they should probably do it before they have to face this issue," she said. "Because usually when you get the audition, you're having to go the next day. I think parents have to look at how this is going to impact a growing child the rest of their life."
In evaluating a role, Ghuman recommended analyzing the whole script and looking closely at the filmmaker's intention. With "Spork," which focuses on a preteen hermaphrodite, Ghuman said he was trying to evoke a certain mood—a comic alterna-reality, in the tradition of directors like Todd Solondz. "I tried to stress to parents, Look, my goal is not to humiliate anybody," he said. "I'm not one to just do things provocatively or left of center or offbeat just because. I'm not trying to do anything for shock value. This film's a dark comedy, and this world is a hyperreality, and I'm trying to keep that world above the bar of average so it maintains itself."
Another element that might factor into the decision-making process: the long-term effect on a young performer's career. Though seeing a kid in a mature role might not be as shocking as it once was, you still have to think about the implications of accepting such a part, said Henry: "Some mainstream actors—Dakota Fanning, for instance—have taken those roles and managed to escape relatively unscathed. That makes representatives and parents sometimes go, 'Well, maybe I could do it and not ruin their career.' But developing actors need to consider that [Fanning] can get away with taking that, because she has a body of work that is diverse, and a lot of actors don't."
And if a young actor decides to take on such a role, it's important to continue carefully evaluating what work he or she does—and does not—accept. Though Gould has won praise and is perhaps best known for existing in the very adult world of "Weeds," he doesn't feel pigeonholed by that—partially because he won't accept every mature-themed role that comes his way. "I had a script sent to me where the characters were very sexual—the whole movie was about teenage sexuality, and not in a tasteful way," he said. "I looked at it and said, 'I don't want to do it.' "
While it may be impossible to determine whether a particular role is going to generate controversy, acclaim, or merely shrugs, parents and filmmakers agree that this kind of thoughtfulness is crucial when it comes to building a career. "Parents should make sure they're dealing with a storyteller that has an intention," said Ghuman. "In 'Spork,' this girl's an outcast; she wants to be accepted. There's a reason behind it. Make sure there's some kind of point to [the script]. If it's for a shock value, if it's just a gimmick, then move on."
Added Henry, "You should never take a job without reading the whole script. If you've done that, you should know what you're in for. And then if you decide to do that risky role, at least you can own it."