Former Child Actors Who Played Cold-Blooded Villains – And Nailed It

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Vote up the former child stars who fit right in as a villain.

For a multitude of different reasons, most child actors do not wind up having successful careers as grown-ups in show business. However, these 12 successful child actors as adults bucked the trends, even if that meant sometimes showing off a much more sinister side. 

Imagine a cute-as-can-be young Elijah Wood from '90s family dramas like Avalon and Radio Flyer growing up to play a psychopathic, mute cannibal. Or how about golden Disney boy Zac Efron portraying America’s most notorious real-life serial killer?

Which child actors who played villains too well terrified you the most? Vote up the former child actors who played cold-blooded villains - and totally nailed it.

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  • Leonardo DiCaprio, AKA the biggest movie star in the world, got his humble small screen start with bit parts on popular '90s TV shows such as Roseanne. The dreamy actor hit the cover of Teen Beat after he scored the recurring role of homeless teenager Luke Brower on the final season of the sitcom Growing Pains

    DiCaprio went on to have one of the most successful silver screen careers of any Gen X actor, with star-making roles in What's Eating Gilbert Grape and The Basketball Diaries. In 1997, DiCaprio reached the apex of fame when he starred as the tragic Jack Dawson in 1997's Titanic.

    The Academy Award-winning actor has repeatedly shown an ability to play complex big-screen heroes. However, leave it up to rule-breaker extraordinaire Quentin Tarantino to turn DiCaprio into a meme-inspiring, vile villain. DiCaprio played sadistic plantation owner Calvin Candie in the auteur's pre-Civil War era western Django Unchained

    Candie is beyond wicked and seems incapable of showing even a lick of mercy. In fact, Candie was so horrific that DiCaprio wondered after reading Tarantino's script, "Are we going too far?"

    However, "too far" isn't in Tarantino's vocabulary.

    "He's the most deplorable human being I've ever read in a screenplay in my life," DiCaprio added. "He was rotting from the inside. He was, you know, a young Louis the XIV that had been brought into a world of entitlement and lived his life... essentially owning other people."

    DiCaprio elevates Candie to more than a cartoon villain, which he could have become in the hands of a less-skilled thespian. The fact that audiences can buy the usually-heroic actor as such a heinous villain speaks to DiCaprio's range as an exceptional actor. 

  • Freddie Highmore In 'Bates Motel'
    Photo: A&E

    In 1999, Freddie Highmore made his acting debut in the comedy Women Talking Dirty. He was not quite yet a teenager when he appeared opposite Johnny Depp in 2004's Finding Neverland, a biography centering on the life of Peter Pan creator Sir J.M. Barrie. Highmore broke out the following year playing the title role of Charlie Bucket in Tim Burton's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The English child actor continued to impress on the big screen with another starring role in 2007's August Rush.

    Highmore's first foray into an adult role showed the audience a much more menacing side. In 2013, Highmore began his five-season run as teenage Norman Bates in the psychological horror series Bates Motel. The A&E drama serves as a prequel to Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 classic Psycho

    Bates Motel delves into the character's twisted relationship with his mother Norma (Vera Farmiga). The series covers Bates's formative years as deranged seeds are planted that eventually lead to his murderous ways.

    Highmore impressed the critics with his performance. He won multiple awards for playing the teenage Bates, including a People’s Choice Award in 2017.

  • Elijah Wood began acting when he was just six years old. His first big-time film role came in Barry Levinson's 1990 family drama Avalon. Wood quickly went on to become one of the most recognizable and in-demand actors of the 1990s, starring in a string of films, including North, Radio Flyer, The Good Son, Deep Impact, and Ice Storm

    Most people today know Wood as Frodo Baggins from the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Frodo has become one of the most beloved underdog heroes in cinema history.

    When LOTR wrapped in 2003, Wood seemed to make it a point to move away from both his childhood resume and the beloved Tolkien hobbit. The actor probably could not have found a more different role than his 2005 silent psychopathic cannibal serial killer Kevin from Robert Rodriguez's Sin City

    The shocking villainous character came from the pages of Frank Miller's graphic novel of the same name. Kevin may be a mute, but he's so menacing and vile that he doesn't need to speak. 

    The actor talked about how important it was for him to vary his film career following LOTR:

    I'm perhaps exasperated by Lord of the Rings. I've always looked for roles that are different. I’ve tried to continue to challenge myself as an actor and work in varying styles of films. To not only change perceptions away from something like Rings, which still occupies a great deal of people's recent memory, but also to continue as an actor to have different opportunities for myself. It has [as] much to do with that as it does trying to get away from a certain perception. I think that's also just part of being an actor. I love actors who have really varied careers. My favorite actors are chameleons to a certain degree.

  • Stephen Dorff got a taste of the Hollywood spotlight at a young age. At nine years old, he started landing guest spots on several hit '80s sitcoms, including Family TiesDiff'rent Strokes, Married... with Children, Blossom, and Roseanne. Dorff worked steadily through his teen years. His major breakout big-screen role came in 1992's The Power of One

    Several movie parts followed. In 1993, he made a memorable appearance in Aerosmith's music video Cryin' alongside '90s "It Girl" Alicia Silverstone.

    In 1998, the L.A.-raised actor proved he could turn villainous when he took on evil vampire Deacon Frost in the stylish Marvel Comics superhero horror adaptation Blade. The power-obsessed Frost wants nothing more than to rule the world. 

    Darren Bignell from Empire enjoyed Dorff's take on the Marvel baddie:

    "And wisely trading on charisma and implied menace in the face of his adversary's physical might, Dorff is a worthy nemesis as the seductive Deacon Frost, cooking up a suitably megalomaniac and blood-soaked plot involving ancient vampire lore and the subjugation of the human race."

    Dorff won the 1999 Blockbuster Entertainment and MTV Movie + TV Awards for Favorite Villain for his antagonistic portrayal.

  • Zac Efron In 'Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil And Vile'
    Photo: Netflix

    It is extremely difficult for an actor to go from a prefab tween-inspired Disney child actor to a major film star.

    ZacEfron's early career highlight was the dreamy Troy Bolton in the High School Musical trilogy. Efron became so popular with his tween girl fanbase that Disney opted to put the final installment of the musical up on the big screen where it raked in over $250 million. 

    The adult Efron initially stayed within his lane of safe movie roles like the "do-over" fantasy comedy 17 Again. However, he then seemed to make a conscious effort to play against type. Because of Efron's good looks and easy charm, he happened to be the perfect actor to take on a famous serial killer who used his handsome appearance as a means to kill young women.

    In 2019, Netflix released Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile with the former teen dreamboat in the lead role of Ted Bundy. The polished Disney alum proved he could play sinister and evil with ease.

    Sheila O'Malley from RogerEbert.com raved about Efron's performance as the country's most notorious serial killer:

    As Ted Bundy, Efron gets to use his natural assets - his face, his body, his charisma - and he gets to use them full-bore. Often really beautiful actors feel the need to "ugly" themselves up in order to be taken seriously. Efron so far has resisted. He has old-school movie star wattage and an ability to project his essence through the screen. Using his animal charm in service of Ted Bundy is so disturbing, but it works in subtextual ways, providing the "missing piece" when people ask why and how Bundy could have happened. It's hard to be as charming as Efron is. Try it and see for yourself. Efron doesn't telegraph to the audience Bundy's sinister motives, he does not distance himself from Bundy's charming modus operandi. His smokescreen is impenetrable. There are moments when Efron looks so much like Bundy (especially with the beard), it is truly eerie, but it's more than just an outer transformation. Occasionally, there is a brief glimpse on his face of what Bundy's victims probably saw in their final moments. But Efron is in charge of when and how we get to see it. It deserves to be called a thrilling performance.

  • Emma Roberts In 'American Horror Story'
    Photo: FX

    Emma Roberts made her big-screen acting debut at 10 years old in the crime drama Blow. Three years later, Roberts became a teen sensation playing the lead role of middle school songwriter and vocalist Addie Singer on the hit Nickelodeon show Unfabulous. The actress also got the opportunity to show off her vocal chops and even released a soundtrack for the series.

    Roberts continued her teen run in show business with performances in the big-screen movies Nancy Drew and Hotel for Dogs. Then, Ryan Murphy saw an opportunity to turn a Nickelodeon sensation into a bonafide scream star. 

    The actress has become one of the showrunner's go-to performers in his anthology series American Horror Story. Murphy first cast Roberts in 2013's Season 3 installment titled Coven. She plays Madison Montgomery, an actress who also happens to be a vengeful murdering witch. 

    Roberts was so good at being evil and so popular with the AHS audience that Murphy brought the actor back to star in multiple seasons of the FX series. Roberts also shined in the AHS seasons of Freak Show, Cult, Apocalypse, and 1984.