Freddie Highmore is just 19, but he's already romanced Madonna. Emma Roberts is a mere 20, but she's already played several romantic leads (like her aunt Julia) and psychos and killers (like her father Eric).
Both young actors have had fascinating, high-profile careers without falling into the usual child-star traps. Both come from showbiz families and have been acting most of their lives. Both got their first big break working opposite Johnny Depp in bleak tales of loss and tragedy. And now, both are appearing in 'The Art of Getting By,' an offbeat romantic drama opening on Friday, June 17, in limited release.
The film stars Highmore (still probably best known for his early work in 'Finding Neverland' and 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory') as a New York City high school slacker who's used to doing the bare minimum (hence the title). Roberts (who's gone from 'Nancy Drew' to 'Scream 4') plays the more studious girl he has a crush on. They strike up an unlikely friendship, which progresses in unexpected ways.
Both young actors come to the film with surprisingly long and varied resumes full of acclaimed performances. Here are some of the highlights of the careers that brought them to this point.
Highmore, the son of actor Edward Highmore and talent agent Sue Latimer, started acting at age 7 in TV projects. He had a bit part opposite his dad in the 2001 mini-series 'Jack and the Beanstalk: The Real Story,' the first of many elaborate fantasy spectacles for the younger Highmore.
His first major film role was in 2004's 'Finding Neverland,' about the fatherless brothers who inspired J.M. Barrie to write 'Peter Pan.' The heart of the film is the relationship between the childless playwright (Johnny Depp) and the most imaginative and sensitive of the boys, Peter (Highmore).The 12-year-old carried off some difficult, tear-jerking emotional scenes with a depth and maturity beyond his years, and he held his own opposite such vets as Depp and Kate Winslet.
Highmore was so good in the role that Depp recommended him to Tim Burton for the lead in the director's 2005 adaptation of 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.' Highmore reteamed with Depp, playing the only kid on the same imaginative and creative wavelength as the eccentric candymaker. The film earned mixed reviews, but praise for Highmore's breathless Charlie came from across the board.
After playing another wide-eyed kid (an adventurous English boy in the French countryside, who grows up to be Russell Crowe) in flashback scenes in Ridley Scott's 'A Good Year,' Highmore landed what may have been his trickiest role to date, as the musical prodigy whose gifts reunite him with his birth parents in 2007's 'August Rush.' Again, reviews were mixed for this Dickensian fable, but Highmore earned glowing marks.
The same year, Highmore played the lead in Luc Besson's 'Arthur and the Invisibles,' an extravagant fantasy tale mixing animation and live action. Playing a boy who finds adventure when he gains entry to a kingdom of tiny pixies, Highmore also gets to fall in love with a pixie princess, played by Madonna. (Despite the actors' age difference, their characters are of equivalent age in pixie years.) One of the most expensive productions in the history of the French film industry, the movie didn't make much of a splash in America but was a big hit in Europe. It spawned two sequels, released in 2009 and 2010, also starring Highmore.
Also in 2007, Highmore had a prominent voiceover role in 'The Golden Compass' as Pandalaimon, the daemon (talking spirit-animal) that accompanies the young heroine, Lyra. The filmmakers had originally intended to go with an older actor, but they chose Highmore instead, figuring that his relationship with the girl would stand out more in contrast to her often hostile relations with the grown-up characters.
Highmore faced another unusual fantasy challenge in 2008's 'The Spiderwick Chronicles,' playing a pair of American twins, Jared and Simon, who along with their sister and mother, move to a creepy country house and discover a magical book that offers a field guide to the supernatural creatures living in the surrounding forest. As in 'August Rush,' the London-born Highmore proved his mastery of an American accent while playing two very different brothers (one a typically wide-eyed, enthusiastic Highmore character, the other a bitter wet blanket).
'Astro Boy' in 2009 marked another prominent voiceover role for Highmore. Based on the futuristic Japanese cartoon, it starred Highmore as a boy who dies in an accident and is brought back to life as a superpowered cyborg clone. Beneath the sci-fi trappings, it was, like so many of Highmore's movies, the story of a lost boy looking for his place in the world.
The daughter of Eric Roberts and niece of Julia Roberts, Emma landed her first movie role at age nine. Despite her famous name, she had to audition for the role of Kristina Jung in 2001's 'Blow.' She has only a few scenes as the daughter of crumbling cocaine kingpin George Jung (Johnny Depp), but she's haunting as a little girl embittered by her father's repeated betrayals and absences from her life.
Roberts had some bit parts (notably, in the 2002 film 'Grand Champion,' co-produced by aunt Julia) before landing her star-making role in the Nickelodeon TV series 'Unfabulous.' Starting in 2004, Roberts spent three seasons playing Addie Singer, a junior high student who composes songs about what she feels is her drab life. The musical series also launched Roberts' recording career. Roberts parlayed her tween fame into more big-screen roles, starting with 2006's 'Aquamarine,' in which she co-starred with teen singer JoJo as two girls who befriend a mermaid.
The following year, she took on her most prominent role to date as the star of 2007's 'Nancy Drew.' Roberts played the venerable teen sleuth as a comic anachronism, as if she were a girl from 50 years ago whose studious, well-mannered wholesomeness put her at odds with today's more self-consciously hip and irreverent kids, but who also served as an admirable role model. The film was a modest hit, but it failed to launch a franchise, as its producers had apparently hoped.
The actress played a girl who was the opposite of Nancy in 2008's 'Wild Child,' a comedy in which she starred as a spoiled Los Angeles brat sent away to a stuffy British boarding school. The film went straight to video in the U.S., but it led to her brief off-screen romance with her co-star, rising teen heartthrob Alex Pettyfer, who tattooed her initials on his wrist.
Roberts had the last of her tween hits with 'Hotel for Dogs' (2009), playing the starring role in the kids-and-stray-pets comedy. After that, she told Teen Vogue, the now-18-year-old actress wanted to change her image, to be known for more than just family-friendly movies and being Julia Roberts' niece. So she started to make Sundance-worthy indie dramas.
The first was 'Lymelife,' about two disintegrating suburban families. Roberts plays a troubled teen who finds solace with a slightly younger boy (fellow acting dynasty scion Rory Culkin, who has gone on to co-star with Roberts two more times). The film was barely released, but it led to the higher-profile 2010 indies 'Twelve' and 'It's Kind of a Funny Story.'
'Twelve' (which also featured Culkin) saw Roberts play a naive, shocked teen opposite 'Gossip Girl' star Chace Crawford in a cautionary tale of rich New York kids caught up in the world of designer drugs. Her reputation survived the film's scathing reviews. Still, it gave her a chance to work with director Joel Schumacher (who, 20 years earlier, had given early career boosts to Julia Roberts in 'Flatliners' and 'Dying Young'). There was also a nice confluence last summer when 'Twelve' found itself in multiplexes alongside 'Eat Pray Love' (starring her aunt) and 'The Expendables' (starring proud papa Eric). A few months later, 'It's Kind of a Funny Story' earned praise for Roberts as a mental patient, institutionalized for cutting herself, who falls for a fellow teen patient (Keir Gilchrist).
Roberts re-entered the mainstream with 'Valentine's Day' the big-budget romantic comedy with a large ensemble cast that included Emma's aunt. As the babysitter for Julia's son, Emma's character was a girl who is pondering losing her virginity to her boyfriend. She followed that with another big ensemble movie, this spring's horror sequel 'Scream 4,' in which she played the niece of serial-killer magnet Neve Campbell. If Roberts wanted to prove her versatility while dispatching her good-girl image once and for all, mission accomplished.
(SPOILER ALERT: Roberts and her pal, played by Culkin, turn out to be the media-savvy killers behind the Ghostface mask, but then Roberts' character ups the crazy by slaying her accomplice before being killed herself.)
Give both Roberts and Highmore credit for navigating the tricky waters of child stardom without suffering any embarrassing scandals or doing anything else that would make them well-known for anything other than their own impressive bodies of work. Give them credit also for maturing gracefully into more grown-up roles without losing the appeal and charisma of their more youthful work. Whether or not 'The Art of Getting By' proves the best possible showcase for their skills, it points the way toward promising futures for both stars.
Follow Gary Susman on Twitter: @garysusman.