One of the most challenging casting jobs in Hollywood is casting young actors for long-running series. This is because you are not only casting them for how they look now, but, if they are popular, then you are “stuck” with them for how they look five years from now, as well. In some cases, like Alyssa Milano on Who’s the Boss or Scott Baio on Happy Days, you get lucky in what they grew up to look like. In other cases, you have the legion of child actors who never get work again after they grew up.
On this list, we’ll take a look at some actors who were cast as notable “nerds” in films and television shows who then grew up and developed beyond their “nerdy” origins and were then more likely to be cast because of how good looking they were. We don’t mean instances like Rachel Leigh Cook, where they took a beautiful young actress and tossed glasses on her and said, “There, see? She’s a nerd!” We mean actors who were distinctly cast because of their early on “nerdy” appearance, who quickly changed people’s minds about them (note that we’re only talking actors who have grown up since, so actors who are older than 21 now).
15. AMERICA FERRERA
Only in Hollywood would someone like America Ferrera ever get to star in a television show that describes her character as “ugly” in the title, but it is fair to say that Ferrera’s Betty Suarez in the hit TV series Ugly Betty was, if not ugly, certainly awkward looking with her adult braces and her strange sense of fashion (which was weird, considering that she worked for a fashion magazine on the show).
This was not the first work by Ferrera to talk about her looks, as her breakout role was in the film Real Women Have Curves. Currently, Ferrera is wowing audiences as the star of the NBC sitcom, Superstore. Besides being an actress, Ferrera is also very active in a number of political causes.
14. JALEEL WHITE
The character of Steve Urkel on Family Matters is the perfect embodiment of two distinct, yet important, pop culture tropes. First off, Steve was one of the most prominent nerdy characters in TV history. Secondly, though, Urkel was also one of the most notable examples of a minor character being promoted by audience reaction to having a much bigger role on the series. By the end of the series, the nerdy boy next door was the star of the show!
As White grew up, he became a good-looking man, which Family Matters actually used to its benefit. It had a recurring bit where Urkel would use a special serum to create, in effect, a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde situation where he would unlock the “cool” persona within himself, dubbed Stefan Urquelle. Urquelle was White getting to dress like he did in real life.
13. SARAH JESSICA PARKER AND AMY LINKER
Created by Saturday Night Live writer, Anne Beatts, in 1982, Square Pegs was one of the most acclaimed television series ever to only last a single season. It presented a look at teenage life that would be very familiar in a few years when John Hughes began doing his films (like Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club).
The idea of the show was about two unpopular girls, Patty Greene (Sarah Jessica Parker) and Lauren Hutchinson (Amy Linker), trying to fit in with the “cool” kids in their freshman year of high school. Obviously, Parker went on to become a major film and TV star. Linker, meanwhile, retired from acting and is currently working as a social worker. She won a TV Land Icon award at the 2005 TV Land Awards. She looked beautiful on the red carpet.
12. JOHN FRANCIS DALEY
Almost 20 years after Square Pegs came and went, another acclaimed series started making waves, also in just a single season. Freaks and Geeks was actually set in the same time period as Square Pegs. It was about a brother and sister in high school. Lindsay, formerly a straight edge student, started hanging out with the “freaks” while her younger brother, Sam (John Francis Daley), was very much a geek.
When the show was canceled, John Francis Daley, was cast in a new Geena Davis sitcom. Amusingly enough, he went through puberty as the show was on the air and his voice got much deeper. The Geena Davis Show was canceled after one season, as well, but Daley had befriended one the writers on the show and he began a writing partnership that has led to a number of hit films over the years, including Spider-Man: Homecoming.
11. DANICA MCKELLAR
We admit, including Danica McKellar on this list is stretching the definition of “nerd,” since McKellar’s Winnie Cooper was really only depicted as a nerd in a single episode of her hit sitcom, The Wonder Years, and even then, it was just the pilot. Right after the pilot, Winnie stopped wearing her glasses and was treated like the prettiest girl in school and the object of Fred Savage’s Kevin Arnold’s affection for the rest of the series.
After the show ended, McKellar got a Bachelor of Science in Mathematics (graduating summa cum laude at UCLA) and wrote a number of books about making math more fun for kids, beginning with 2008’s Math Doesn’t Suck: How to Survive Middle School Math without Losing Your Mind or Breaking a Nail. She still works as an actress, as well.
10. DANIELLE FISHEL
Like McKellar, Danielle Fishel’s time as a “nerd” on her sitcom, Boy Meets World, was very short-lived. Unlike McKellar, Fishel’s Topanga Lawrence at least did remain a nerd for a couple of episodes of the series. Introduced in an early episode as an example of one of the nerdy kids in Cory Matthews’ sixth grade class, Topanga was the prototypical flower child.
As Fishel grew up, however, the show transitioned her into a more conventional love interest for Cory (who was played by Fred Savage’s younger brother, Ben) and she remained a major part of the series for the rest of the show’s long run. For a show that was never extremely popular, Fishel was extremely popular with the teen crowd. More recently, Fishel returned to the role of Topanga in Disney Channel’s sequel series, Girl Meets World, which starred Cory and Topanga’s daughter, Riley Matthews.
9. PATRICK DEMPSEY
Patrick Dempsey’s career in the 1980s was fascinating. On the one hand, he got meaty roles on the stage and on the screen (as the young lothario in In The Mood) but on the other hand, he also played big nerds in Meatballs III and Can’t Buy Me Love, where he plays a nerd who literally pays a popular girl to be his girlfriend (oh, the 80s, so many of your plots would not work today).
After falling out of the limelight for most of the 1990s, he made a big return to prominence as the main love interest in the mega-hit TV series, Grey’s Anatomy, where he gained the nickname “McDreamy.” From paying girls to date him to McDreamy in just 20 short years!
8. TORI SPELLING
There is an argument to be made that Tori Spelling’s depiction as Violet Anne Bickerstaff in the third season of Saved By the Bell (where she plays a recurring nerd character who ends up dating Screech) counts as a legitimate “nerd” actress, considering that Spelling transitioned almost directly from playing the role to playing the much more glamorous Donna Martin on Beverly Hills 90210.
However, since Violet was Spelling’s first major role as an actress, we’re going to allow it, as it is not like anyone knew Spelling from anything else when she appeared on Saved by the Bell and she did not get any sort of “miraculous” makeover, a la Anne Hathaway in The Princess Diaries. Interestingly, Spelling made enough of an impression on Saved by the Bell that the later cast addition, Tori Scott, was named after her.
7. ANTHONY MICHAEL HALL
If there was one film actor who best exemplified nerd-dom in the 1980s, it would be (in a stunning upset over the cast of Revenge of the Nerds) Anthony Michael Hall, who played notable nerd roles in three John Hughes’ classic films, Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club and Weird Science, plus an early appearance in the John Hughes-written film, National Lampoon’s Vacation, as Rusty Griswold. Hall was one of the most famous film nerds of all-time.
That is probably why it was so shocking to fans when Hall then grew up and got really gritty as an adult actor. When he starred on the TV series, The Dead Zone (based on the Stephen King novel), he was practically unrecognizable. Nowadays, he’s much more likely to play a killer in a film or a TV show than a lovable nerd.
6. JOHN CUSACK
John Cusack is a fascinating case because he is a perfect example of how attitude can often be everything. Cusack and his older sister, Joan, were attached to John Hughes’ screenplay for The Breakfast Club (John for Bender and Joan for Allison). However, the studio decided that Hughes’ other screenplay, Sixteen Candles, was more commercial and so they asked him to do that one first.
The Cusacks had to settle for small, nerdy roles, in the latter film, with Cusack playing secondary nerd to Anthony Michael Hall’s main nerd. Cusack’s character is a total dork in the film, and yet just six years later, he rocked roughly the same look and was a teen heartrhorb in Cameron Crowe’s Say Anything! Context really can make a whole lot of difference in how people treat an actor.
5. LACEY CHABERT
Context was also important in Lacey Chabert’s performance as Olivia on Party of Five. The drama was about a quintet of siblings who suddenly became orphans when their parents were tragically killed in a car accident. Their oldest brother, Charlie, had to suddenly take care of his much younger siblings. Chabert played the studious and quiet Olivia on the show, a promising young violinist.
However, Chabert only came off as awkward on the show because of the role she played. When the series ended, she quickly transitioned into “pretty girl” roles, including as one of the titular mean girls in Mean Girls (amusingly enough, she also played a character in Not Another Teen Movie based on a character played by her old Party of Five co-star, Jennifer Lowe Hewitt, in Can’t Hardly Wait).
4. MATTHEW LEWIS
While obviously the majority of the character development in the Harry Potter films was reserved for the three main Hogwarts students (Harry Potter, Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley — by the way, there’s no way that Hermione was ever a “nerd” in any real sense on-screen; hence, Emma Watson not being on this list), there was still room for Neville Longbottom to get some major acclaim from growing from a nervous and shy young man into a confident and powerful wizard.
Meanwhile, actor Matthew Lewis grew from a chubby young lad to a very good-looking adult. In the recent film, Me Before You, he plays a man obsessed with participating in a Viking triathlon. So yes, the same actor who played Neville Longbottom in the first Harry Potter films is now convincingly playing a man obsessed with Viking triathlons!
3. TINA MAJORINO
Tina Majorino is one of the rare young actors to have two separate careers as a youth actor. When she was a litle girl, she starred in a number of films, including Andre and Waterworld. She then took a break from acting and went to high school. While in high school, she actually got into contact with writer Rob Thomas after she did a report on one of his books. They struck up a friendship and he invented the role of Mac on Veronica Mars for her.
Before that, Majorino returned to acting with a role of the socially awkward Deb in Napoleon Dynamite. She then played Mac for three seasons on Veronica Mars. As an adult, she has worked regularly on shows from Grey’s Anatomy to True Blood to her current role on Scorpion.
2. NATHAN KRESS
When it comes to acting on children’s television series, a simple fact remains that girls develop faster than boys do. Thus, if you have three 14 year olds on a series, the girls are likely to look older than their male counterparts. That was the case in the hit Nickelodeon sitcom, iCarly.
Nathan Kress’ Freddy seemed like he was practically a foot shorter than his co-stars, Miranda Cosgrove and Jeannette McCurdey. His voice had also not developed yet, so he was mostly played as a dorky little kid. After he went through puberty, though, he had a growth spurt and began working out. Kress has now grown into a handsome young man (and he also is already married with a kid at the age of 25).
1. CLARE PREUSS
In the movie, Mean Girls, Clare Preuss played Caroline Krafft, who ended up being an important character in the film. Of course, she is remembered less for what she did in the film, but for what she inspired the lead character, Cady, to do. You see, Caroline was a particularly unfortunate looking teen who competed against Cady in a math competition and Cady quickly came up with insults of the other teen.
She then realized that being mean was not the way to go. “Calling somebody else fat won’t make you any skinnier. Calling someone stupid doesn’t make you any smarter. And ruining Regina George’s life definitely didn’t make me any happier. All you can do in life is try to solve the problem in front of you.” Preuss works as a theater actress and director in Toronto, and as you can see, she is anything but the homely character she once played.
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