There are plenty of actors who’ve gained popularity as kids and teens by playing nerdy, dorky, or just all around unfavorable characters. Although those iconic dweebs and goofballs are what put these celebs on the radar, you’ll see that they’ve ditched the poofy hair, thick glasses, and awkward pre-teen bodies and grown into seductive adult heartthrobs. Just wait until you see which Harry Potter star was the least expected to grow up and become one of the hottest actors on the market!
Jennifer Love Hewitt
Before she was Melinda Gordon on Ghost Whisperer, Jennifer Love Hewitt was on Disney Channel’s Kids Incorporated at the age of ten. Hewitt has been acting throughout her childhood but didn’t get her break until then. As the premiere variety show on Disney Channel throughout the early ’90s, you can bet that Hewitt had to play some dorky roles, especially as she neared her awkward preteen years.
But after she left, she went on to star in I Know What You Did Last Summer and have her own previously-mentioned show, but one thing’s for sure she has certainly emerged into her stunning looks within that time!
We were introduced to Paul Rudd when he played Josh in the 1995 film Clueless, where he was the ex-stepbrother of Cher, played by Alicia Silverstone. Josh was a bookish college kid who was at odds with his air-headed ex-step-sister. After Clueless, Rudd often took on homely, awkward guy roles in Friends and many Judd Apatow-produced comedies such as Anchorman and Knocked Up.
However, he certainly was considered a hunk after debuting as Marvel superhero Ant-Man in the 2015 film Ant-Man, securing a spot in the Marvel superhero lineup.
Emma Watson gained worldwide stardom at age 11 when she made her film debut as Hermoine Granger in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. At that point, she was the frizzy-haired friend of Harry Potter and Ron Weasley, who took her studies at Hogwarts arguably more serious than the boys. She assumed the role for another ten years and over those ten years, the world watched Watson grow into the beautiful woman that she is today.
She has continued to act since the conclusion of the Harry Potter films and has made a name for herself as a staunch feminist aside from her acting. Emma has blossomed beautifully, but soon you’ll see which of her Harry Potter cohorts had the best ugly duckling transition on this list!
Joseph Gordon-Levitt rose to popularity as a kid on the ’90s sitcom 3rd Rock from the Sun, in which he played Tommy Solomon, an ages-old extraterrestrial Informations Officer stuck in a pubescent boy’s body on Earth. We watched as he went through puberty on the show and boy, was this transition awkward.
Gordon-Levitt made a name for himself in the new millennium after starring in the nerdy lead role of Tom Hansen in (500) Days of Summer and since then has been the sensitive heartthrob of many teenage girls, especially after taking on more serious roles in Inception and The Dark Knight Rises.
You might remember Danica McKellar as Gwendolyn “Winnie” Cooper from The Wonder Years, which she played for five years throughout the late ’80s and early ’90s. She was at the start of her teens when she began playing the girl-next-door with those iconic cat-eye glasses on the show but unfortunately found it hard to transition into adult roles after it ended.
However, one might say that she was a little nerdy and stayed that way—and we mean that in a good way! As an adult, McKellar went to college and got her Bachelor’s degree in mathematics from UCLA.
Does anyone remember Harry Potter’s Neville Longbottom? The chubby, bumbling sorcerer-in-training made friends with Harry, Ron, and Hermoine when they started school at Hogwarts. Matthew Lewis played Neville Longbottom for all of the Harry Potter films and no one expected him to grow up quite like this! Lewis was only 11 years old when he started the role and everyone can tell that puberty certainly paid off for him!
When he debuted his new slender and smoldering look, fans of the franchise could hardly believe they were looking at the same guy who was introduced in the film as someone who was getting bullied. Wait until you see what other British actor got sexy and stole our hearts!
Zac Efron was just a teen when he had a small recurring role on the short-lived WB series Summerland until he became one of the breakout stars of the Disney Channel Original Movie High School Musical, which premiered in 2006. As the lead actor of the film, he captured many tween hearts with his Bieber-esque haircut before Justin Beiber was even famous (the shaggy bowl cut was a thing back then, okay?)
But when off the camera, Zac often had his hair unkempt and a terrible sense of style. Fast forward to today and you’ll see that Zac has really grown into his masculinity! With his sculpted body and clean-cut hair (finally!), he can now make all women sweat if he walked into a room.
Josh Hutcherson is a child actor who lent his voice to The Polar Express and had commendable performances in Kicking & Screaming and Little Manhattan, but his breakout role as an actor was in 2007’s Bridge to Terabithia. If you’ve seen Hutcherson in any movies during the early 2000s, then you’ve certainly seen him during his awkward pre-teen years.
But come 2011, his career hit another major breakthrough when he landed the role of Peeta Mellark in The Hunger Games films. By this time, he has grown up considerably and as the lead in a major franchise, has become one of the hottest stars today.
You know Josh Peck as a Nickelodeon star from the late ’90s and early 2000s era when he got his start on The Amanda Show. But his breakout role came as the titular co-star of the sitcom Drake & Josh, where he played the nerdy and “uncool” brother Josh Nichols. Back then, Josh was considerably larger in size and began losing weight in the later seasons of the show, saying he was making a conscious effort to live healthier.
The public hasn’t seen too much of Josh after the show ended, but when the 2010’s came around, the world found that all of Josh Peck’s health consciousness has certainly paid off!
Zach Braff is best known for his role as John “J.D.” Dorian on the hit sitcom Scrubs. As the main protagonist of the show, we’ve seen Braff’s character through all his daydreams and dork misadventures while working his way up the rungs at the fictional Sacred Heart Hospital.
Aside from 2007’s Garden State, we haven’t seen much of Braff on-screen, but that’s probably mostly due to the fact that Braff prefers to do must of his work behind the camera. Catch a glimpse of Braff now and see that he’s no longer the happy-go-lucky “scrub” he once was!
Jaleel White has probably played the nerd of all nerds across television history. White appeared on the 1990s sitcom Family Matters as Steve Urkel, the nasal-voiced, annoying next-door-neighbor of the Winslows that the show focused on, but it was clear that Urkel was the most iconic character.
Because it was his most popular role, White had trouble finding work after the show ended, but took on small guest appearances on shows and movies over the years. In 2017, he co-stars on CBS’s Me, Myself & I where you can see he is aging gracefully.
If you’ve ever watched the British teen drama Skins, then you’ve seen Dev Patel as Anwar Kharral, a Pakistani Muslim teenager who was loosely based off Patel’s own personality after he was cast. Patel’s breakout role and introduction to global audiences came when he was cast as the lead in 2008’s Slumdog Millionaire as Jamal Malik, a down-and-out Indian teen whose incredible journey to India’s Who Want’s to Be a Millionaire?
Fast forward to 2016 and you can see Patel in his latest film Lion for which he was given an Oscar nomination. There’s another Oscar-nominated actor coming up that you wouldn’t have expected to be on this list!
Donald Glover humbly got his start in television as a writer for NBC’s 30 Rock, during which time he also became a member of the sketch comedy group Derrick Comedy with whom he starred in Mystery Team. He gained more popularity after appearing on NBC’s Community where he played Troy Barnes, a jock who begins to embrace his nerdy side.
Glover also began a rap career as Childish Gambino, which many people believe is the reason he was eventually written off Community. He reemerged in television in 2016 with Atlanta, for which he won two Emmy’s for directing and starring in the show.
Funnyman Aziz Ansari is perhaps best known for his role as Tom Haverford on NBC’s Parks and Recreation. Sure, Tom’s flashy and materialistic personality isn’t what you think about when it comes to nerds or awkward types, but the role was certainly on the verge of typecasting Ansari for good. However, Ansari proved his acting and writing skills when he created Master of None for Netflix.
Ansari plays Dev Shah, a forlorn commercial actor who navigates different types of relationships as he enters his thirties. People probably didn’t see him in a very attractive light due to his role as Tom Haverford, but he certainly can change your mind if you watch Master of None.
Anne Hathaway made her film debut somewhat as a nerd when she played Mia Thermopolis in the 2001 movie The Princess Diaries. At the beginning of the film, Mia is ridiculed by the popular kids at school because she is the ultimate nerd, with frizzy hair and oversized glasses to boot. That all changes when she discovers she is actually a princess and of course she gets a makeover.
It turned out that Anne Hathaway naturally looks like Mia post-makeover and she has only continued to stun the public with her ravishing looks in plenty of other films since then.
Actor Jerry O’Connell was just 11 years old when he starred in his first feature film, 1987’s Stand by Me, where he played Vern Tessio, the overweight, shy friend out of a group of kids who go into the mountains to search for a dead body.
Throughout his life after Stand by Me, O’Connell never seemed to slow down with movies such as Jerry Maguire, Mission to Mars, Kangaroo Jack, and a plethora of television roles. Oh, and puberty has certainly done wonders for this actor as you can see that he clearly shed his baby fat.
Neil Patrick Harris
Neil Patrick Harris is best known for his role as Barney Stinson on How I Met Your Mother, where he portrays the most conniving womanizer in all of New York City, but don’t be mistaken—Harris is no stranger to playing the nerdy roles. He was just a young teen in the picture above when he starred in Clara’s Hart, which earned him a Golden Globe nomination, and subsequently went on to his second-best-known role, child doctor Doogie Howser, which won him another Golden Globe nomination.
As a hardworking performer, Harris continues to appear on TV, in movies, and on stage.
Christian Bale is perhaps best known for his role as Batman in the Christopher Nolan-directed Batman trilogy but has proven his acting chops with other films such as American Psycho, The Fighter, and American Hustle. But do you remember Bale’s actual film debut?
He was only 13 years old when he starred in Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun where he played Jamie Graham, a boy who becomes a prisoner of war during World War II. Bale was highly praised for his performance at such a young age and we’re sure at that time no one suspected he’d become the stud he is today.
Patrick Dempsey made his film debut in 1987’s In the Mood, where he played Ellsworth Wisecarver, a teen from the 1940s who was often caught up with the law for running away with older women. Despite the role, Dempsey didn’t appear to be much of a looker back then or at least looked a little dorky, in our opinion.
But certainly, Dempsey has grown up to be one of the sexiest actors today having acted in Sweet Home Alabama and Valentine’s Day. But he is currently best known for playing Dr. Derek Shepherd on Grey’s Anatomy. They don’t call him McDreamy for nothing.
Michael Cera’s earliest best-known role is that of George Michael Bluth on Fox’s Arrested Development. Cera played a timid, awkward teen in a family of overbearing personalities. It seems that the persona works well for Cera since he sort of became typecast in those types of roles in most of the movies that he is known for (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Superbad, Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist).
Of course, that’s what the ladies love him for nowadays and he has at least grown into his cherubic face as he has gotten older.
Okay, so truthfully, John Mayer isn’t an actor but he has appeared on television! He’s guest-starred on shows such as CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, but of course he was playing his own music. Still, it’s got to count for something, right? Either way, we couldn’t have a list of celebrities who’ve gone from nerdy to heartthrob and not include John Mayer.
Just look at his picture on the left! He looks far from the guitar-playing swoon-worthy singer he is today. But soon you’ll see what other singer-turned-actor has made this list and trust us when we say that Mayer’s transformation cannot even compare.
Do you remember DJ Tanner from Full House? Sure you do! Nowadays DJ is all grown up and she is no longer a Tanner, but in fact, she is a Fuller on Fuller House. Candace Cameron-Bure played DJ Tanner in the early ’90s and reprised the role in 2016 when Netflix revived the beloved sitcom with a spin-off called Fuller House.
It appears that Cameron-Bure has certainly ditched the ’90s wardrobe and huge ’80s hair and has grown up to become an incredibly stunning woman! Not bad for a mother of three!
Aubrey Plaza’s most popular acting role is that of April Ludgate on NBC’s Parks and Recreation. Her deadpan delivery and stoic demeanor have earned her a lot of praise which really goes to show how well Plaza can portray awkward and unusual characters. Since the show has ended, Plaza has gone on to other acting projects and has apparently cleaned up her look since her early days as an actress.
She has a certain radiance when off-camera, but some of us we will always see her as the dorky April Ludgate, wouldn’t you agree?
Justin Timberlake rose to fame as a lead member of the late ’90s boy band NSYNC, but before that, he was a child actor on The New Mickey Mouse Club. While in NSYNC, Timberlake sported curly blonde hair that often gets compared to Top Ramen noodles, which only made him look dorkier than ever.
But since leaving the band and forging a solo career, Timberlake has become a sexy, singing heartthrob who also appears in the occasional movie or television show.
Andrew Garfield has been acting since he was a kid in British television with shows like Sugar Rush and Doctor Who. His breakout role came when he co-starred in 2010’s The Social Network, where he played Eduardo Saverin.
The role certainly helped Garfield stick his foot in the door of Hollywood because that same year, he was cast as the lead in The Amazing Spiderman, which only elevated his status as a heartthrob actor considering the physical changes he had to go through to prepare for the role. His later work includes roles in Hacksaw Ridge, Silence, and 99 Homes.
Mila Kunis is best known for her role as Jackie Burkhart on That ’70s Show. She got the role when she was just 14 years old, lying to producers that she was 18 when she auditioned. As the youngest member of the cast, she was the only one who was probably still going through her awkward years.
After the show ended, Kunis proved her acting chops with movie roles in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Friends with Benefits, and Extract. But perhaps one of her better roles was in Black Swan, for which she was nominated for a Golden Globe.
James Devaney/WireImage via Getty Images (left), Albert L. Ortega/Getty Images (right)
Bill Hader started out at the Second City in the early 2000s before he was immediately hired as a featured player on Saturday Night Live in 2005. Hader soon became a prominent figure on the show where he has proven that he can play any kind of character imaginable, especially the awkward and dorky kind.
He has even ventured into films such as Hot Rod, Superbad, Pineapple Express, and The Skeleton Twins. Hader is certainly one of the more underrated actors on this list but off-camera knows how to shed his nerdy side.
Justin Long is definitely an actor who knows how to go nerdy. Often cast in the outcast roles with films such as Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story, Accepted, and Herbie: Fully Loaded, Long proves on the red carpet that he shouldn’t be taken seriously as a nerd but rather as a potential male heartthrob.
Although he has taken on roles in movies that aren’t quite as serious, Long is one of those actors that people love for his adorable nature. After all, who better to be a spokesperson for Apple than Long? If that doesn’t say cool but nerdy, we don’t know what does.
America Ferrera got her start in the Disney Channel original movie Gotta Kick It Up! and in The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants movies, before going on to her most notable role as Betty Suarez on ABC’s Ugly Betty. There, she was made up to look as dorky as they come with glasses and braces, a colorful wardrobe, and a physique that often became the subject of ridicule.
Well, after the iconic show’s end, Ferrera took on few acting roles but recently returned to television in 2015 with NBC’s Superstore. When not in character, you can see that Ferrera is actually quite stunning.
Like Bill Hader, Andy Samberg rose to prominence as a cast member on SNL where he often played dorky characters, probably because of his goofy personality off-screen, which his roles in movies like Hot Rod, I Love You, Man, and That’s My Boy only helped to emphasize. But when he’s not playing a character and just being Andy Samberg, you can see that the actor really knows how to clean up his act – quite literally.
He might even be considered a ladies man if he were taken a little more seriously!
Canadian rapper Drake was credited by his real name Aubrey Graham when he was on Degrassi: The Next Generation. Drake was only 15 years old when he was cast in the role of a teen basketball star who becomes disabled from the waist down, making him wheelchair-bound for a majority of the series.
After leaving the show in 2007, Drake was already at the helm of his burgeoning rap career. Fast forward about ten years later and Drake is now one of the most popular rappers in the business with three Grammy’s and four triple-platinum records.
Hayden Panettiere has been acting since she was just 11-months-old and soon went on to have small roles on different television shows. One of her most prominent recurring television roles was on Malcolm in the Middle, where she played Jessica, Malcolm’s manipulative next-door-neighbor.
On the show, she had glasses and sometimes incredibly frizzy hair, but she would soon ditch the frumpy ‘do and go on to more prominent roles in Ice Princess, Bring It On: All or Nothing, and her most popular role, Claire Bennet on Heroes. Anyone remember “save the cheerleader, save the world?”
Dylan & Cole Sprouse
Twins Dylan and Cole Sprouse made their film debut sharing the role of five-year-old Julian, the adorable little troublemaker who is put in the care of Adam Sandler on Big Daddy. As pre-teens, they were heavy players on Disney Channel with their own show, The Suite Life of Zack & Cody, in which Dylan played trouble-making, immature Zack and Cole played precocious and bookish Cody.
After their tenure with Disney Channel, the twins took a break from acting to attend NYU, having graduated in 2015. Since then, Cole has returned to acting and plays Jughead Jones on Riverdale and Dylan is rumored to be doing the same in indie films.
Jonathan Lipnicki made his film debut at the age of six in Jerry Maguire, but you might remember him in his most popular role of George Little from Stuart Little, about a boy whose family adopts an anthropomorphic mouse. With a round, cherubic face, huge glasses, and a darling little smile like that, it seemed that Lipnicki would never shed his little-boy image.
He hasn’t even really been in the spotlight since his adolescent roles, although he has continued to act. But look at him in the present day and you will see that this guy has certainly grown up.
Nicholas Hoult was only 11 years old when he was cast in the critically-acclaimed 2002 film About a Boy, for which he was nominated for a Young Artist Award for Best Performance by a Leading Young Actor in a Feature Film. But these days, Hoult is no longer a boy. He is now known as Beast in the current series of X-Men films and is considered one of the hottest young English actors around.
Don’t think that he only gets credit for playing Beast these days either. Hoult can also be seen in Mad Max: Fury Road, Rebel in the Rye, and The Current War.
Shia LaBeouf began performing stand-up in comedy clubs at the age of ten and eventually hit it big when he was cast in the lead role of Louis Stevens on Disney Channel’s Even Stevens. LaBeouf played the immature and mischievous Louis to a tee but proved he could take on more serious roles when he was cast as the lead in Holes following his departure from the show.
an adult, LaBeouf was cast in Transformers and his career only skyrocketed from there. Despite his “artsy” antics and legal troubles, LaBeouf certainly shed his goofy image and is now a renowned actor and performance artist.
Lea Michele has acted on Broadway since she was eight years old, but it wasn’t until her early 20’s that she made her transition to television. In 2009, Lea Michelle debuted to the general public’s television screens as Rachel Berry on the Fox sitcom Glee. Rachel Berry is an over-achieving, frumpy—albeit extremely talented—member of McKinley High’s glee club.
Although she was known for her uptight character for several years, Michele has ventured into other acting roles and has proven that she is hardly anything like Rachel Berry. She is also known for her roles on Scream Queens and The Mayor.
Admittedly, Zooey Deschanel has a reputation for being a bit dorky, but is a dork in the most whimsical and adorable way—after all, isn’t that what everyone loves her for? She is most popular for her role as Jessica Day on Fox’s New Girl but can be seen in other acting projects from the past.
She can also be seen in Elf alongside Will Ferrell, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, or even Almost Famous. But perhaps one of Deschanel’s other iconic roles is that of Summer Finn in (500) Days of Summer.
Emma Roberts was known to tweens of the early 2000s as Addie Singer, the main character of the Nickelodeon show Unfabulous. She portrayed a regular and sometimes hapless middle-schooler who was never really considered the popular kid in school. After the short-lived series, Roberts went on to pursue more acting roles, mostly in PG movies like Aquamarine and Nancy Drew.
But Roberts seems to be working hard to shed her tween-actor image, especially by taking on darker roles like those in the American Horror Story series. Plus, she’s starting to look very similar to her famous aunt, Julia Roberts.
Macaulay Culkin is best known for portraying Kevin McAllister in the first and second Home Alone movies, where he was forgotten by his family on not one, but two, occasions. Sheesh! Other than that, you can catch Culkin in Uncle Buck or Richie Rich. Culkin was known for playing hapless characters as a child but hasn’t acted throughout his teens or even into his young adulthood, pretty much staying away from the spotlight.
He emerged as an adult in recent years looking emaciated and gaunt, which caused concern for many. But as of 2017, he is looking well and is rumored to be returning to acting.
Jason Segel debuted on television in 1999’s Freaks and Geeks as Nick Andopolis, a kind but aimless high-school stoner with ambitions of becoming a professional drummer. It seems that Segel succeeds at portraying weird, awkward characters as he is frequently cast in such roles with films such as Forgetting Sarah Marshall, I Love You, Man, and Knocked Up.
Aside from his dorky roles, Segel also proved he can play more heartwarming and charming roles, especially from having portrayed Marshall Eriksen on the sitcom How I Met Your Mother for eight seasons. That is when the ladies truly saw Segel as someone who could steal their hearts.
We told you we had another teen actress who grew up beautifully! Danielle Fishel was known throughout the ‘90s as Topanga Lawrence on Boy Meets World. At the start of the show, Topanga and her eventual husband Corey Matthews were at odds since they were only pre-teens at the time when she sported big frizzy hair with her intellectual attitude.
Fishel has been on and off of television ever since Boy Meets World went off the air, but she made every ‘90s baby’s dreams come true when she and co-star Ben Savage reprised their roles as Topanga and Corey when Disney Channel rebooted the show with the spin-off Girl Meets World.
Kristen Stewart’s first prominent role was that of Jodie Foster’s daughter in the 2002 film Panic Room, but she didn’t become a household name until she starred as Bella Swan in The Twilight Saga movies. Ever since then, Stewart has been criticized for her awkward and sometimes-stunted performances, a persona that is very reflective of how she is when the cameras aren’t rolling.
But don’t be mistaken, Stewart actually has some acting chops and uses her awkwardness to her advantage. Catch her and her grown-up look in Clouds of Sils Maria, Café Society, and Equals.