TV shows and movies about teenagers tend to have actors that are a bit older than their characters. Because of child labor laws, it’s easier to cast actors who are over 18 as high school students than it is to work with labor regulations regarding younger actors. On top of that, older actors have more experience and tend to be more professional on set.
There are plenty of actors that are able to pull off these younger roles due to a combination of acting skills and a young experience; some are even repeatedly cast as teenagers into their thirties. However, other casting choices of older actors are a bit questionable and confuse audiences. A classic example: Grease.
‘Grease’ was a musical-turned-movie
The 1971 musical Grease was adapted into a movie starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John in 1978. This movie proved to be a massive hit, and became the highest-grossing musical film until the 1993 re-release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
The musical was based around 1950s nostalgia and the “greaser” subculture, and the two leads were in two teen gangs: the T-Birds and the Pink Ladies. Travolta’s character, Danny Zuko, is a member of the T-Birds who has had a summer fling with Newton-John’s character, Sandy.
When Sandy transfers into Danny’s high school, they reunite. Danny has to get over his reputation as a bad boy and player so that he can be true to Sandy, while Sandy has to learn how to navigate this new high school’s world of teen gangs to date Danny. The plot resonated, and Grease is still beloved today.
Betty Rizzo’s role
Among the Pink Ladies is the character of Betty Rizzo, known just by Rizzo. While Sandy is an innocent ingenue, Rizzo is more cynical, and less of a ‘good girl.’ She’s even sexually active with T-Bird member Kenickie, and her character’s plotline involves a pregnancy scare.
Rizzo represents a more honest look at 1950s teen culture and the fact that not everything in the 50s is as clean-cut and innocent as it may seem. While Sandy is the lead role, Rizzo is a fan favorite. She’s a more complex character, and fans relate to her for her struggles and personal conflict.
Rizzo’s actress was Stockard Channing. Before the Grease movie, Channing had nearly a decade of acting experience in theater, film, and television. Her biggest pre-Grease film role was in The Fortune by director Mike Nichols in 1975, however, Channing wasn’t totally happy with the success of the film.
Luckily, Grease was such a huge hit that it propelled her to many more roles, including television and Broadway roles that earned her multiple Emmy and Tony nominations, and a few awards.
Channing’s portrayal of Rizzo was clearly a success. But ironically, there was one aspect that may have made her inappropriate for the role. Rizzo is supposed to be 16 in Grease. Stockard Channing, however, was 33 years old when she played Rizzo.
Perhaps some viewers found that age discrepancy distracting. Nonetheless, Channing pulled it off for most audiences.
In a way, the casting works. Rizzo is much more world-weary and less innocent, as a contrast to the lead role of Sandy. On top of this, her plotline involves open sexuality, a topic that could have made a younger actress uncomfortable. Channing’s combination of acting experience, world experience, and just plain talent made her portrayal of Rizzo believable, despite being over twice as old as her character.
The actors playing teenaged characters in Grease were all over 18 – however, Channing was the oldest actor to portray a high school character in the movie. Channing took her role in stride and made Rizzo into a believable and beloved character.
At the end of the day, audiences were drawn to her performance enough to overlook that she had long since passed high school.