When doling out senior superlatives, Spider-Man: Homecoming star Tom Holland is most likely to succeed at playing a teenage Peter Parker.
Holland was just 19 when Marvel announced he would don the red-and-blue second-skin suit as Spider-Man, the high-school superhero who owes his web-shooting and wall-climbing abilities to a bite from a radioactive spider. His relatively young age is something to marvel at.
Weeks after the first Spider-Man movie opened in 2002, star Tobey Maguire turned 27. Andrew Garfield neared 29 as The Amazing Spider-Man premiered in 2012.
Holland, whose 15-year-old Parker balances saving the world and passing his Spanish class, celebrated his 21st birthday in June. Wearing hoodies and sneakers and assuming a higher-pitched American accent, the agile British actor believably pulls off the role of a pubescent teen.
“Being able to see that the culture is acknowledging your existence” matters to younger audiences, says social psychologist Eileen Zurbriggen, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. “Seeing a hero or heroine who is a young person is validating, but less so if you can tell that they’re actually 28 or 29.”
The earlier Spider-Man movies are far from the only projects guilty of casting actors several years older than their characters. Gabrielle Carteris turned 30 a few months after high school-focused Beverly Hills, 90210 premiered in 1990. Stockard Channing famously celebrated her 34th birthday the year she played Rizzo in the teen-centric musical Grease, and there are countless other examples.
But Hollywood is increasingly aware of the need for authenticity and representation. The new Spider-Man film boasts a diverse cast, which producer Amy Pascal says was inspired by “reality.” Also truer to teen life, Zendaya undergoes a makeunder for her role, sporting wavy hair and minimal makeup.
Producing a story that reflected a legitimate teenage experience was important to Homecoming director Jon Watts.
“That was a constant thing, reminding Tom — and Tom reminding me, too, sometimes — that if you were 15, would you really do that?” Watts says. “What is your thought process, because you think differently. And always trying to put yourself back in the shoes of when you were that age and let that drive the character.”
It can pay off if a teenage story resonates with a young audience. The adolescent love story Everything, Everything, starring Amandla Stenberg, 18, and Nick Robinson, 22, has been the most popular movie at the box office this year among teens ages 13 to 17, according to comScore/Screen Engine’s PostTrak audience survey. That age group accounts for 13% of filmgoers thus far in 2017.
Casting director Marci Liroff, a board member for the Casting Society of America, says hiring an actor for a teen role boils down to budget and believability.
“If you hire a minor who’s under 18, we’re restricted in the amount of hours that we can use them on set,” says Liroff, who cast both a teenage Lindsay Lohan and a twentysomething Rachel McAdams for 2004’s Mean Girls. “They need to be in school for part of the day. They need to have a social worker, and they need to have a teacher. In addition, it elongates our shooting schedule, and so it hits the budget very hard.”
As for McAdams, Liroff says she did well in chemistry tests with her co-stars. “Rachel fit in,” she says. “She was older, but it didn’t really matter because she was believable.”
Fandango.com managing editor Erik Davis sees the shift to casting actors who are closer to the age of their roles as a trend, citing Michael Bay’s decision to hire 15-year-old Isabela Moner for a prominent role in Transformers: The Last Knight.
“You’re getting filmmakers now where this is a very important thing for them that they find people who are age-appropriate,” Davis says. “That’s why we’re seeing a lot of fresher talent in some of these bigger movies, because they’re trying to find new actors and new faces — young faces that they can hold on to for more than one movie, especially with franchises. They want actors that they can kind of grow with.”
The small screen is also seeing its share of more realistic casting. The stars of Netflix’s controversial teen-suicide drama 13 Reasons Why, Katherine Langford and Dylan Minnette, are in their early 20s. The lead of the CW’s Archie comics update Riverdale, New Zealand actor KJ Apa, just turned 20.
“We needed to cast someone who was a teenager on the cusp of being a young man,” says Riverdale creator Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, who searched six or seven months for his star. “It wouldn’t have worked if we’d cast someone who was 25 or 26, because they’re on the other side of that. KJ’s a little bit older, but he’s certainly not eight or nine years older.”
For younger Spider-Man fans, attention to authenticity can translate to anticipation. Holland’s Parker had an introductory role in last year’s Captain America: Civil War, which excited Daniel Azbel, 15, who lives near Toronto. The contributor for Get Reel Movies looks forward to seeing the movie.
“In scenes in Civil War where he’s just at home with Aunt May, it just really felt like it was somebody that would maybe go to my school,” Azbel says. “It makes it feel more realistic. … That he looks like a 15-year-old just adds to the relatability and to why I like the character.”
Spider-Man devotee Nour Harrak, 21, of Mississauga, Ontario, who formerly co-hosted the Ultimate Spin, a Spidey fan podcast, goes so far as to endorse Holland as “the perfect high-school Peter Parker.”
“I thought the (previous) movies did the best job that they could to make the actors feel as young as possible,” he says. “But lining them up side by side (and) now having Tom Holland, there was a point where eventually I thought they outgrew the role.”
“(Young people) are trying so hard to be and do what they think they need to be and do to be accepted, to be liked, to have friends,” she says.”When there’s a very narrow pathway to that, or it appears that there’s a very narrow pathway to that, it just really makes things harder for them. When they see many paths and many people again sympathetically portrayed or look like someone you’d want to be, it gives them many more choices in their lives. They can be good at sports or they can be good at theater or they can be good at chess.”
Studios could benefit by casting younger actors as a way to lock in a fanbase, says Timothy Shary, author of Generation Multiplex: The Image of Youth in American Cinema Since 1980.
“They’re going to be following these actors on social media and into their personal lives,” he says. “If the (stars are) in their late 20s or early 30s, married a few years and having children … that becomes a disconnect I think a lot of young fans have a hard time relating to.”
He’s pessimistic that major studios will make age-appropriate casting a higher priority than creating mass appeal, advising audiences to look to independent films for more realistic portrayals of teen.
“I put my faith in the independent market in terms of depictions of youth,” he says. “When I talk to young people and when I go to these films, that’s where I see the sincerity is in these films that confront issues.”
Contributing: Brian Truitt for USAToday