Child Actors Who Returned After Long Breaks - And Nailed It

Over 2.4K Ranker voters have come together to rank this list of Child Actors Who Returned After Long Breaks - And Nailed It
Voting Rules
Vote up the child actors who made a surprisingly great return to the screen.

It's tough being a child actor. If you have a hit, heavy expectations can be placed upon you. If not, it can feel as though the whole world is rejecting you. Those and other factors, including the stress of long work hours and the pressure from adults to be “on” all the time, have led more than a few young performers down a bad road. The list of famous names who struggled with substance use or worse is long.

In happier cases, the child actors take a reprieve in order to get themselves together then return once they feel more ready to handle the pressures of fame. The following child stars all did that, going on a break before returning triumphantly. Some did it intentionally to pursue an education or another personal interest. Others had the break thrust upon them but used it to grow and recalculate what they wanted from their careers. Either way, they eventually emerged to re-establish their awesomeness.

Vote up your favorite child actors who came back and nailed it. 


  • Jason Bateman was a sitcom regular in the 1980s, appearing as a cast member on Silver Spoons, Valerie, and It's Your Move. He made a bid for movie stardom with the 1987 sequel Teen Wolf Too. That didn't pan out, and the actor spent about 10 years puttering around in short-lived TV shows and minuscule movie roles. It seemed like he was yet another former child star who couldn't quite transition into adult success.

    That changed, however, and it changed big. In 2003, Bateman landed the central role of Michael Bluth on the show Arrested Development. It wasn't a hit, but it did manage to last a few seasons, and once it hit DVD, the show became a cult phenomenon. Suddenly, Bateman was in-demand for movies, starring in the hits Horrible Bosses, Identity Thief, Juno, and Game Night. To show that he could work successfully beyond comedy, he starred in the highly acclaimed Netflix series Ozark, where he portrayed a money launderer. Against the odds, he's become far more popular as an adult actor than he ever was as a child.

    Bateman blames multiple factors, including a substance use problem, for the “lost decade” in his career, but he eventually found himself determined to get audiences to see him as more than another Hollywood casualty. He told The Guardian, “Having thought, ‘This is really fun,’ and staying at the party a little bit too long, I’d lost my place in line in the business; it was a case of trying to claw that back towards the end of the 90s.” Suffice to say, he clawed back exceptionally well. 

    1,824 votes
  • Ke Huy Quan had two extremely high-profile movie roles in the 1980s. First, he played Short Round in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. A year later, he was Data in The Goonies. Both characters made him familiar to audiences of the era. Despite being in two blockbusters, great opportunities failed to present themselves. A stint on the TV sitcom Head of the Class and a minor part in Encino Man were more or less it for the young star. 

    Realizing that making it as a child actor was tough, Quan gave up on performing in the early ‘90s. Instead, he did some work helping to choreograph martial arts fight sequences in films, including 2000’s X-Men and worked as a Second Unit Director. In 2022, he made a major comeback, taking on the role of Waymond Wang, the multiverse-traveling warrior in Everything Everywhere All At Once. The part required him to speak English and Chinese while playing various versions of Waymond, depending upon which dimension he comes from. One is a somewhat nebbish husband, another a warrior fierce enough to take down a group of assailants with a fanny pack. Quan earned critical raves and eventually a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his work in the sleeper hit that went on to dominate the Academy Awards

    What made him return to acting? Somebody else's hit movie, combined with a fear of missing out. The actor said, “For a long time I thought I was at peace with it, but something was missing, and I really didn’t know what it was until Crazy Rich Asians came out. I saw my fellow Asian actors up on the screen, and I had serious FOMO because I wanted to be up there with them.”

    Quan spoke to GQ about this serendipitous full-circle turn, saying: 

    Over the years, I’ve met a lot of Asian talent now working in Hollywood. They always thank me and say, "Man, it was so great to see you up there on the screen, because I was able to see myself. Thank you for paving the way for us to be here.” And, of course, it's really interesting because they’ve paved the way for my return. My return to acting is the direct result of the progress made by them.

    1,724 votes
  • Mayim Bialik Was 'Blossom,' Then Got A PhD In Neuroscience And Returned, Fittingly, In 'The Big Bang Theory'
    Photo: NBC / CBS

    Mayim Bialik won America's hearts as the title character on the TV show Blossom. She made the character's offbeat wardrobe and quirky personality feel sincere, rather than like some kind of affectation. The series ran for five years. When it ended in 1995, she decided to pull back on the show business commitments to pursue higher education. She got a PhD in neuroscience from UCLA. Her dissertation was on the effects of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder on people with Prader-Willi Syndrome. 

    Those studies came in handy when Bialik chose to return to acting full-time. She was cast as - you guessed it - a neuroscientist on The Big Bang Theory. Her character, Amy, was also a love interest for the main protagonist, Sheldon. Aside from once again demonstrating pitch-perfect comedic timing, the actress brought true credibility to Amy. She wasn't just reciting scientific dialogue, she actually understood it, which made Amy feel more real. 

    Bialik loved playing a neuroscientist on TV, telling Forbes, “It’s nice to play a scientist on TV and that, I suppose, makes me a role model. But I also think it’s wonderful to be able to use that platform to be able to influence—hopefully positively—young girls and to show that science is cool."

    2,051 votes
  • Drew Barrymore captured the attention of moviegoers around the world when she played Gertie in Steven Spielberg's E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. Aside from being adorable in the role, she showed preternatural acting ability at a young age. The movie made her a star, with studios scrambling to find leading roles for her. Some of them were kind of inappropriate, like the R-rated Firestarter, but others, most notably the family drama Irreconcilable Differences, fit better. 

    A much-publicized substance use issue, coupled with a brief stint in an institution, derailed her career for quite a few years, leaving her stuck in movies that weren't always the greatest. Barrymore began to turn things around in 1992 when she got good notices for her role in a sordid erotic thriller called Poison Ivy. Better offers started coming again, Boys on the Side and Batman Forever among them. But it was 1996's Scream that fully launched the Drew Barrymore renaissance. Her performance as Casey - the first victim of Ghostface - was so authentic that the audience became terrified right alongside the character. She got the movie off to a powerhouse start, creating a sequence that would become iconic and remind everyone of what a scorching talent she was. 

    Shrewdly, Barrymore requested to play Casey when she was approached about being in Scream. She recognized that audiences would expect her to be the protagonist, so seeing her get slain in the first five minutes was destined to have an impact. “What I wanted to do is to take that comfort zone away,” the actor told Entertainment Weekly. That decision proved to be a defining moment in her adult career. 

    1,577 votes
  • Anna Chlumsky's very first acting role was in 1991's My Girl, a sweet story about two children that paired her with Macaulay Culkin. It was a big hit, thanks to the chemistry between the actors and a twist that was unexpectedly touching. A less-successful sequel followed, along with a couple of other movies that quickly came and went. Eventually, she decided to take a break from acting to attend the University of Chicago, where she earned a degree in International Studies. For a time, she even worked as a fact-checker for Zagat, the company that makes a guide rating restaurants.

    Eventually, the acting bug came back. Chlumsky first had a role in the 2009 political satire In the Loop, then landed a supporting role as the Vice President's Chief of Staff on the HBO series Veep. Both roles showed off her crack comic timing, as well as her ability to help make topical issues funny. Her Veep character, Amy Brookeheimer, is a perfect encapsulation of the type-A personality. The actress brought her to life with scene-stealing perfection.

    By her own account, Chlumsky is much happier being viewed as an adult actress than a child star. In fact, she even shows a little resentment toward her youthful roles. She said, “People started recognizing me on the street for Veep instead of for some bullsh*t I did when I was 10.” It was the first time that I ever understood what it felt like to be happy to be asked about your job by a stranger."

    1,073 votes
  • Macaulay Culkin made a huge impression on John Hughes. After a supporting role in the director's 1989 comedy Uncle Buck, he was gifted with a screenplay written specifically for him. That was Home Alone, which Hughes wrote and produced. It was, for a time, the highest-grossing comedy in movie history, earning $285 million domestically. Overnight, Culkin became a household name. Soon, he was the front-and-center star of other movies, none of which even remotely approached Home Alone's popularity. After 1994's Richie Rich tanked, he decided it might be time to step away for a while.

    During that period, he went to school like the normal kid he wanted to be, got married, got arrested for substance possession, and spent time playing in a rock band called The Pizza Underground. Occasionally, he'd accept a role in a low-budget indie film like 2003's Party Monster, but he generally avoided being too squarely in the limelight. That changed with a role on American Horror Story and a surprise cameo on the TV series The Righteous Gemstones, the latter of which has him playing the estranged adult son of a shady evangelist. Both roles showed him in a mature part, miles away from Home Alone's Kevin, while simultaneously showcasing new aspects of his talent. 

    Culkin's efforts to establish himself as an adult actor are intentionally occurring on his own terms. He told the BBC, “I am not revving to do a big Hollywood comeback. All I want is to do good things with good people. It doesn't matter if it is a play or film. I just want to do my own thing.”

    1,205 votes