What’s the Best Age to Take the Stage? Here’s When You Should Start Acting

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Natalie Portman captivated audiences with her potent performance in “Léon: The Professional” at just 12 years old. Conversely, Samuel L. Jackson didn’t become a household name until his infinitely quotable turn in “Pulp Fiction” at age 45. The question persists: What’s the ideal age to get your start in the industry? Below, we dive into the many factors impacting the decision of when to start acting (and why, in the end, it might not matter).

Can you start acting at any age?

Yes, you can start acting at any age. Some actors find success by starting at a young age, while others catch the acting bug later in life. Factors including school, work, finances, and life experience affect the best time to start acting.

What factors impact becoming an actor at different life stages?

Starting acting as a child

Comfort level: The biggest benefit of becoming a child actor is early familiarity with the acting process, including working with others, auditioning, taking instruction, and being in front of the camera. Some children feel comfortable being around strangers and performing, while others may be shy or even scared. Further, younger children may want to pursue acting but find it too uncomfortable to balance the demands of acting with school.

Ability to take instruction: Some children may take instruction well, while others haven’t matured enough to attain that skill set yet. Since young children are still developing and haven’t fully grasped the notion of “work,” young actors may tend to find the experience more of a recreational activity. According to acting coach Denise Simon, agents and managers tend to look for child actors between the ages of 8–11, due to their ability to take instruction and the amount of roles for these ages. 

Financial and family resources: Since child actors need a work permit and an adult chaperone present for all auditions, rehearsals, and performances, the stability of the child’s family will play a major role in their ability to get a career off the ground. 

Starting acting as a teenager

Flexibility: Becoming a teenage actor can set a career in the industry in motion. Teens are often adaptable, can usually take directions and absorb advanced acting techniques better than their younger peers, and are likely to get more out of acting classes. However, hormonal changes can make it difficult for some teens to balance acting with mood swings and social growth.

Technical concerns: Teens must balance their acting career with education. Many teen actors are homeschooled or taught by private tutors, since normative school hours are not conducive to the amount of time usually spent on set. Like with child actors, teen actors often also need a work permit; an adult chaperone present for all auditions, rehearsals, and performances; and restricted work hours.

Starting acting as a young adult

Opportunities: Young adults are the most likely demographic to earn acting degrees, which provide valuable performance opportunities and connections.

Many agencies seek out young adult actors, since they represent a fresh pool of talent that doesn’t need to abide by child labor laws.

Work: Many young adults are on their own financially for the first time in their lives. As a result, they might find it difficult to manage their time in a way that allows them to grow in their career while avoiding financial difficulties. Ultimately, they may need to prioritize work over acting. If this is the case, many try to take on acting part-time until they can dedicate more time to pursuing an acting career.

Starting acting as a middle-aged person or senior

Ageism: Although it seems starting to act later in life is unlikely to lead to success, many actors have done just that. Kathryn Joosten began performing at the age of 42 at a local theater and landed her big role on “The West Wing” at age 60. Brendan Gleeson began his acting career in his mid-30s before landing a role as Alastor “MadEye” Moody in “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.” Still, ageism is rampant in the industry, particularly for women. 

Experience: Acting while older means you bring a wealth of life experience, which can lead to more emotional depth while inhabiting characters. Some older actors are in a more stable place financially than their younger peers, meaning they can dedicate more time to developing their craft.

The ages these famous celebrities started acting

“I Am Sam” Courtesy New Line Cinema/“Nutty Professor II: The Klumps” Courtesy Universal Pictures/“The Man in the Moon” Courtesy MGM

“I Am Sam” Courtesy New Line Cinema/“Nutty Professor II: The Klumps” Courtesy Universal Pictures/“The Man in the Moon” Courtesy MGM

Here’s a look at the age some famous actors started performing:

Dakota Fanning: After appearing in commercials and smaller films, famed child actor Fanning had her breakout role at age seven in “I Am Sam.” 

Harrison Ford: Ford enrolled in Wisconsin’s Ripon College, where he fell for acting. He began taking paying roles at age 21, and his big break came at age 33 when he played Han Solo in “Star Wars.”

John Mahoney: Mahoney was employed in the medical field before starting acting in his late 30s; by age 53, he was cast as Martin Crane on “Frasier.” 

Wanda Sykes: After finishing school and working a government job, Sykes began her acting career in her mid-30s on “The Chris Rock Show.”

Reese Witherspoon: Witherspoon started acting at a young age. She made her debut film, “The Man in the Moon,” at age 14, marking the beginning of a very successful career.