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Actors who played wildly older or younger characters on-screen

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Social media lit up this week about 35-year-old Carey Mulligan playing a 56-year-old character in the Netflix movie “The Dig.”

It’s hard enough for women over 40 to find juicy roles in film and TV, critics of the casting choice said, so why not pick someone age-appropriate (like Nicole Kidman, who at 53 had been initially slated to play the part)? 

It’s a fair criticism of the industry, which continues to largely sideline actresses over 50, but it’s certainly not wildly unusual to see such a big disparity in the ages between actor and character. Over the decades, there have been countless examples of performers playing way older or younger than their roles. Here’s a look at some of the most surprising examples. 

Anne Bancroft, “The Graduate”

Anne Bancroft plays middle-aged Mrs. Robinson, who famously tries to seduce Dustin Hoffman's character Benjamin Braddock.
Anne Bancroft plays middle-aged Mrs. Robinson, who famously tries to seduce Dustin Hoffman’s character Benjamin Braddock.
Courtesy Everett Collection

As the middle-aged Mrs. Robinson, who famously tries to seduce Dustin Hoffman’s character Benjamin Braddock, Bancroft was actually 35 years old, and only six years Hoffman’s senior. As Mrs. Robinson was supposed to be a scandalously older woman, Bancroft was aged way up with makeup in the 1967 comedy-drama.

Max Von Sydow, “The Exorcist”

Max Von Sydow spent hours in the makeup chair every day to achieve the look Father Merrin.
Max Von Sydow spent hours in the makeup chair every day to achieve the look Father Merrin.
©Warner Bros/Courtesy Everett

Father Merrin, the priest who performs the exorcism ritual in the iconic 1973 horror film, was played by the 44-year-old Sydow, who spent four hours in the makeup chair every day to achieve the look of the elderly character. The priest was supposed to be about twice Sydow’s age.

Stockard Channing, “Grease”

Stockard Channing’s "Grease" character was supposed to be 19, but she was 33 at the time.
Stockard Channing’s “Grease” character was supposed to be 19, but she was 33 at the time.
©Paramount/Courtesy Everett

Most of the cast of the 1978 musical looks well out of their teens, but Channing had the biggest age difference as Rizzo; her character was supposed to be 19, but she was 33 at the time. “[Producer] Allan [Carr] showed up on the set with a brown pencil and started dotting freckles on my nose so I would look younger. I said, ‘I don’t look younger! I just look dirtier!’ ” Channing told Vanity Fair.

Estelle Getty, “The Golden Girls”

Estelle Getty played the oldest of the Golden Girls on the sitcom, but she was only 62, nearly 20 years younger than her character.
Estelle Getty played the oldest of the Golden Girls on the sitcom, but she was only 62, nearly 20 years younger than her character.
©Touchstone Television/Courtesy Everett

Getty was cast as Sophia Petrillo, the oldest of the Golden Girls on the sitcom. But in 1985 when the show premiered, she was only 62: nearly 20 years younger than her octogenarian character. She was also, weirdly, younger than Bea Arthur, who played Sophia’s daughter Dorothy.

Sally Field, “Lincoln”

Sally Field was 66 when she portrayed Mary Todd Lincoln, making her two decades older than her character.
Sally Field was 66 when she portrayed Mary Todd Lincoln, making her two decades older than her character.
©20thCentFox/Courtesy Everett

Field was 66 when she portrayed Mary Todd Lincoln in Steven Spielberg’s 2012 movie, making her two decades older than her character (and 10 years older than Daniel Day-Lewis, who plays Lincoln). “It would be absolutely legitimate for Steven to walk away from me because I’m 10 years older than Daniel and 20 years older than Mary. But I felt that the age you wouldn’t really see because they’re both so worn,” Field told NPR. 

Andrew Garfield, “The Amazing Spider-Man”

Andrew Garfield was 27 when he first played the 17-year-old Peter Parker in 2012's "The Amazing Spider-Man"
Andrew Garfield was 27 when he first played the 17-year-old Peter Parker in 2012’s “The Amazing Spider-Man”
©Columbia Pictures/Courtesy Everett

Garfield was 27 when he first played the 17-year-old Peter Parker in 2012’s “The Amazing Spider-Man” — and 30 in the sequel, when his character graduates from high school. He is only slightly older than Tobey Maguire, who was 26 when he filmed his first Spider-Man movie; Tom Holland came the closest to being a teen, as he was only 20 when he shot “Spider-Man: Homecoming.”

Nicola Coughlan, “Bridgerton”

Nicola Coughlan, who plays Penelope Featherington in the hit Netflix show, is 34, while her character is supposed to be 17.
Nicola Coughlan, who plays Penelope Featherington in the hit Netflix show, is 34, while her character is supposed to be 17.
LIAM DANIEL/NETFLIX

Coughlan, who plays Penelope Featherington in the hit Netflix show, is 34, while her character is supposed to be 17. She has mused about compliments on her youthful looks, telling the Guardian, “My mum looks really young for her age … Maybe, drink a lot of water? And then, I’m like, wine is alcohol, and alcohol’s a preservative, and I love prosecco, sooo … maybe that’s it?!”

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