Disney Channel stars know well that “age is only a number,” as the saying goes. This is true when it comes to most Hollywood casting directors who often don’t care how old an actor is so long as they can convincingly portray a role. It is not uncommon for people in their late teens and 20s to play middle school and high school students. For proof, we don’t have to look any further than, of course, the Disney Channel, a family favorite when it comes to programming for young audiences.
While many Disney Channel stars are within a couple years of the characters they play, that’s not a hard and fast rule. Some of the actors who have been cast on Disney Channel shows and in Disney Channel Original Movies are older than you think they are. Here are some beloved stars who have appeared on the Disney Channel over the years whose real ages will shock you.
Anneliese van der Pol was an adult when Disney Channel hired her
From 2002 to 2007, Anneliese van der Pol played Raven Baxter’s BFF Chelsea Daniels on Disney Channel’s That’s So Raven, which followed teenage psychic Raven through high school. When the show aired, van der Pol — who was born in 1984, according to her IMDb page — was already a few years older than the character she was portraying. While she still managed to pull off acting like a younger teen, by the time the show wrapped she was in her 20s and still playing a high school student.
It’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role, but the part actually went to someone else before Daniels landed it. “I auditioned for That’s So Raven in 1999 or 2000,” van der Pol told Media Mikes. “I didn’t have real good representation at the time. Nobody really knew of me. I just went to a big open casting call with hundreds of girls. Luckily they noticed something in me. I did three more auditions. They dyed my hair. They then ended up casting somebody else, fired her, and then they finally cast me.” Thank goodness because van der Pol was meant to play Chelsea.
Disney Channel's Raven-Symoné was more mature than the teen psychic she played
The actress who played the titular character of That’s So Raven, Raven-Symoné, was also a little bit older than her fictional counterpart. The Disney Channel star, who was previously known for her work on The Cosby Show, was a teenager when the show first aired in 2002, according to her IMDb page, placing her at high school age just like Raven Baxter. However, by the time the show wrapped in 2007, Raven-Symoné was in her 20s and definitely older than the young psychic she was playing.
It doesn’t seem like that long ago that That’s So Raven first aired, but it’s been off the air long enough that it has already seen a revival. In 2017, a decade after the original series wrapped, Raven-Symoné and costar Anneliese van der Pol reprised their roles on Raven’s Home. Raven-Symoné still looked like she was in her 20s when she portrayed a young mom on the show, but, in reality, she was in her 30s when the show ran.
Jason Earles was a lot older than his Hannah Montana character
Jason Earles played Miley’s older brother, Jackson, on Hannah Montana. He made a pretty convincing 16-year-old, but he was actually 29 when the show premiered, as noted by J-14! That means for most of the series’ run Earles was playing a teenager when he was already in his 30s.
When the show started filming, the Disney Channel star didn’t have any idea it would become as popular as it did, so he probably didn’t think he’d be playing a teenager for half a decade. “I think we all were really optimistic that the show would get picked up and that the kids would like it, but for it to turn into as popular a family show as it has, I think we’re all pleasantly surprised by that,” Earles told The Star Scoop.
As an adult, Earles was better able to appreciate just how special the show was. “Instead of just a kid show on the Disney Channel, it feels like something you could put on network television, 8:00 at night, and families would sit around and watch together,” he said.
Adam Lamberg looked younger than he was on the Disney Channel
Lizzie McGuire was a tween favorite back in the early 2000s. The show wrapped up after two seasons on the Disney Channel in 2004 and was followed by a movie in which Lizzie and her friends go to Rome the summer before they start high school. Believe it or not, Adam Lamberg, who played Lizzie’s best friend-turned-love interest David “Gordo” Gordon was born in 1984, according to his IMDb page, making him 17 during the show’s first season. Somehow, he still managed to convince audiences that he was a middle school student even though he was already in his late teens when it debuted and therefore quite a bit older than his character.
By the time The Lizzie McGuire Movie came out, Gordo was going off to high school but Lamberg himself was getting ready for college. He graduated from college just a few years after the show wrapped, earning a bachelor’s degree in geography from UC Berkley in 2008, as reported by Bustle.
Tiffany Thornton got engaged while starring on a Disney Channel show
Disney Channel’s Sonny With a Chance was centered on the characters on a teen sketch show. One of those teens was Tawni Hart, played by Tiffany Thornton. Thornton was quite a bit older than her comedic counterpart, and she turned 23 in 2009, the year the show debuted. That same year, she starred in the high school comedy Hatching Pete, also on the Disney Channel.
Even though she was playing a teen, in her real life, Hart was living the life of a typical 20-something. The year after Sonny With a Chance debuted, Thornton announced her engagement to her boyfriend, Christopher Carney, as reported by People. She married him in 2011 (via Us Weekly), with her Sonny With a Chance co-star Demi Lovato as a bridesmaid. Thornton continued to play Tawni Hart on the Sonny With a Chance spin-off, So Random!, which aired for one season from 2011 to 2012, in spite of being in her mid-20s and married. The last episode aired in March 2012, a month after Thornton announced that she was pregnant with her first child.
Sterling Knight was in his 20s during his Disney Channel days
Sonny With a Chance heartthrob Sterling Knight played a teenage star on both the show and its spin-off, So Random!. The actor turned 20 in 2009, according to his IMDb page, the year Sonny With a Chance came out, making him a bit older than the young character he played, Chad Dylan Cooper. Knight also played a teenage star in the 2010 film StarStruck.
The shows and TV movie made Knight a recognizable face, at least to the viewers of the Disney Channel. Surprisingly, his newfound fame didn’t change his life too much. Had he been a bit closer to the ages of the characters he played, Knight might have been cornered by fans everywhere he went, but he revealed that his age provided him with a bit of a protective net. “I think my fan base is a bit younger, so you don’t tend to see them out at the golf driving range!” he explained to Kidzworld.com in 2010.
Lucas Grabeel was long out of high school when he starred in High School Musical
Given the title High School Musical, we’d expect all the movie’s stars to be, well, high school-aged. While that holds true for many of the actors involved in the franchise, a few were quite a bit older than their on-screen counterparts. Lucas Grabeel, who played the snarky and ultra-talented Ryan Evans, was born in 1984, according to his IMDb page, making him about 22 when the first film debuted. In the third film, his character, Ryan, graduates from high school, but Grabeel was well past his high school years at that point.
Grabeel is thankful for the role, especially because his character was a role model for many young people. “Now, Ryan is not officially gay in any of the movies, but I think anyone that watches him can identify with who he was in high school: someone trying to figure it out,” the Disney Channel star told Billboard. “And I have young men in high school come up to me saying that, though it’s hard to talk about their sexuality, seeing that kind of character represented in a good light and a fun way was really helpful to them.”
Ashley Tisdale preferred playing young Disney Channel characters
Ashley Tisdale rose to fame playing teenager Maddie Fitzpatrick on The Suite Life of Zack and Cody. The show debuted in 2005, the same year that Tisdale — who was born in 1985, according to her IMDb page — turned 20. Tisdale was also in her 20s when she starred in the High School Musical franchise as high school diva Sharpay Evans.
Tisdale didn’t mind paying a character who was much younger than she was — she revealed that she actually preferred taking on such roles. “I’m really, really young still,” she told The Star Scoop in 2005. “I never really felt comfortable, even before I was on Disney, doing any type of roles that are really mature. I always wanted to work for Disney my whole life.” She added that working for the Disney Channel gave her “such a safe feeling,” as she knew she wouldn’t have to “show skin, or do any of that stuff.” She went on, “I figure, this is where I want to be right now. I don’t want to do all those mature roles right now. I have my whole life to do that.”
Monique Coleman wanted to set an example for the Disney Channel
Monique Coleman is another actress who had to act younger than her age in the High School Musical films. Coleman told Billboard that playing the role of Taylor McKessie was special to her because it provided some much-needed representation on the Disney Channel. “It was really important to me because, at that time, there weren’t really any other African-American girls on the Disney Channel, except for Raven [of That’s So Raven],” Coleman said. “There also weren’t African-American female characters like Taylor. The idea that I could portray a character that anyone could see and say, ‘Yeah, a black girl can be the smartest girl in school. She doesn’t always have to be sassy’ — that was part of what really drew me to it.”
If Coleman sounds much wiser than her years, that’s because she was much older than the teenage character she played. The actress was about 26 years old when High School Musical debuted, according to her IMDb page. That’s nearly a decade older than her character!
Don't let Disney Channel star Garrett Clayton's baby face fool you
Garrett Clayton is pretty much a household name to Gen Z (at least in households that had the Disney Channel). Catapulted to fame after a starring role in Teen Beach Movie, Clayton turned into a teen heartthrob overnight. But Clayton wasn’t actually a teen himself — he was already in his 20s when the 2013 movie came out. While Clayton was older than his character, Tanner, he still looked baby-faced enough to play a teen in both the film and its 2015 sequel, Teen Beach 2.
Clayton might not have had a problem looking younger than his age, but sounding young was a different story. Clayton had to take some creative measures to land the role. Born Gary Michael Clayton, the actor discovered his first name was holding him back. “For the first six months of living in L.A., most auditions I would get close to booking, they would call my team and say that, while I was very talented, my name wasn’t marketable, it sounded too old,” Clayton told Broadway World. “So, about a year in, I changed it. Within that time, I started booking things.”
Disney Channel's Booboo Stewart was no stranger to playing teens
Booboo Stewart is another of Disney’s seemingly ageless stars. He was 21 when the first Descendants film came out in 2015, according to his IMDb page, and he spent the first half of his 20s playing Jay, the teenaged son of iconic Aladdin villain Jafar, right through 2019’s Descendants 3. Being older than your character isn’t a bad thing, though, and age has brought Stewart wisdom. Because the Descendants franchise wasn’t his first foray into a major series (he had a role in the Twilight films as a teenager), Stewart knows how to manage the many challenges and temptations that can come with so much fame.
“I’ve been around [the industry] from such a young age that I feel like I know how to handle it,” the Disney Channel star told Sarah Scoop. “I know who I am, so I try not to let that affect me, and I have friends and family who can tell me when it’s gotten to my head just a little bit. They’ll say, ‘Reality check here!'” He continued, “I think it’s really important to surround yourself with people who you know are your true friends.”
Sofia Carson graduated high school years before playing a Disney Channel teen
It’s hard to imagine anyone but Sofia Carson playing Evie in the Descendants franchise, but the role very nearly went to someone else. The filmmakers originally passed on Carson because she was still a newcomer to the industry and they didn’t think she had enough experience to play the part, as she told Cosmopolitan in 2019. One thing that Carson did have experience in, though, was being a high school student. She had already graduated from high school when she landed the role of a high school-aged student in the movie.
By the time Descendants aired in 2015, Carson was 22 years old, according to her IMDb page. While the Disney Channel star was definitely no longer high school-aged, she did an excellent job portraying a teenager. Carson continued playing the character well into her 20s, with the third film in the franchise coming out a few months after her 26th birthday. Not only did Carson prove that she wasn’t too inexperienced for the part, she also proved her ability to play a younger character to perfection.
Jedidiah Goodacre was way older than his Disney Channel co-stars
It’s quite fitting that Jedidiah Goodacre plays Chad Charming, the high school-aged son of Cinderella and Prince Charming in the Descendants franchise. Not only is he attractive and, well, charming, but, by what we can only assume is some sort of fairy tale magic, he doesn’t appear to age. Born in 1989, Goodacre was 26 when Descendants came out. That’s already a pretty advanced aged to be playing a teenager, but Goodacre has us wondering if he’s sipped from the fountain of youth. Descendants 3 features a 30-year-old Goodacre looking as fresh-faced as the Prince Charming Jr. he’s supposed to be.
How does he stay looking so young? Goodacre isn’t too sure. “I don’t know,” the Disney Channel star told Candid. “I have to give a lot of credits to my parents. They’re the ones who made me. I can’t say there’s too much that I do that’s outside the norm. I do really love to workout. I do a lot of CrossFit. I love doing that. I love hiking with my dog and I think having a dog that I love so much keeps me playful and youthful.”
Mitchell Hope nearly returned to college before Disney Channel cast him
Baby-faced Disney Channel star Mitchell Hope was already in his 20s when the first Descendants film debuted in 2015. In the TV movie, the actor played Ben, the son of Belle and the Beast from Beauty and the Beast
. The actor looked younger than his age, so it was easy to believe that he was a high school student throughout the films of the franchise. Even though he played a high school student in the film, Hope’s school days were long behind him when he played Ben, although he might have returned to student life if he hadn’t landed the role. “I quit acting right before I got the audition,” he told Tribute. “I was done with it, I was ready to go out and get a ‘real’ job, you know what I mean? I was going to go back to university and stuff.”
Fortunately for his career, Hope got the part, and, instead of going back to university, he had an opportunity to relive his high school days.
Lilan Bowden proves age is just a number for the Disney Channel
While most of the big age gaps on the Disney Channel have actors playing teens or tweens, sometimes an adult character is portrayed by an older actor. One example is Lilan Bowden from Andi Mack. The show tells the story of a teenage girl who finds out that her older sister, Bex, is actually her biological mother and the person who has raised her is her grandmother.
Since Bex was a teen mom and Andi is only 13, it seems safe to guess that the youthful-looking Bowden is in her 20s. In reality, the actress was 32, according to her IMDb page, when the show debuted in 2017. Regarding her character, Bowden told D23, “Bex is an example of how it’s never too late to want to improve upon yourself, it’s never too late to admit your mistakes, it’s never too late to want to change or adjust who you are,” adding, “Just because you’ve always been a certain way doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re stuck in this archetype now — you can be many things.”
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