Age is a touchy subject for many actors, and last September actors in California have won the right to have their date of birth removed from IMDb. IMDb claims that a date of birth is just a piece of biographical data (therefore fair game for publication) whereas the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) claim that it can be used against an actor – it’s not their true age that should matter but their ‘playing age’.
In the past I have studied how Hollywood treats cast and crew of different ages. I started by looking at how much older male romantic comedy actors are compared with their female co-stars (answer: 4.5 years older) and whether male action stars are getting older (answer: yes they are). I then moved behind the camera to look at the age of Hollywood writers (average: nearly 47 years old), directors (average: almost 50) and producers (average: 52).
I thought I had covered the main points on the topic of age but last week I was asked a great question by a reader: “How does the average age of lead actors differ between genres?”
Average age by genre
In order to look at how the average age of actors differs by genre, I created a dataset of all feature-length movies which grossed at least $1 at the US box office in the past ten years (2006-15). I then identified the top six actors in each film and found their date of birth. Finally, I looked at how old the actor was on the day the movie opened in US cinemas.
There are two ways to answers today’s question, the short answer and the long answer. For anyone who is pressed for time, the short answer is below…
Musicals and Horror movies have the youngest average lead actors at just under 38 years old. Animations and Westerns have the oldest performers with an average age of 44.9 and 45.3 years respectively.
However, I suspect that many of my readers would feel cheated if I just narrowly answered the question. So let’s look at the data in a few other ways.
The age of movie actors
Let’s start by looking at how many actors are a certain age. For example, 1% of lead actors were 21 years old when their movie was released in the US. Compare that with 3% of actors who were 30 years old, 2.7% who were 40, 1.0% were 50, 1.2% were 60 and 0.5% were 70- years old.
Age of actors over time
If we split the data by time, we can see that the average age of lead actors is getting older. The average age of lead actors when their movies were released in 2006 was 39.9 years old. Ten years later, this had grown to 45.0 years old, thanks mostly to a surge in age between 2011 and 2014.
Age of actors by gender
An important part of understanding how studios and producers treat actors is to look at how casting differs by gender. The average age of male lead actors was 42.8 years old, whereas the average age for female leads was 36.7, just over six years younger.
This suggests that when my previous research found that male leads in romantic comedies are 4.5 years older than their female co-stars we should have viewed this as a more progressive genre!
Age of actors in Drama and Comedy movies
Male leads in drama movies are an average of 42.7 years old, compared with 38.5 years old for female leads (a difference of 5.3 years).
The pattern for comedy is extremely similar to drama, which is interesting as there isn’t a huge degree of overlap between the two genres. Only 27% of the dramas I looked at were also comedies, compared with the 55% of the romantic films also being comedies and 61% of the animations. This means that drama and comedy have reached a similar average largely independently of each other.
Age of actors in Romance movies
My previous research into romantic comedies found an extremely similar result to today’s results which look at all romantic films. The previous research found an age gap of 4.5 years and below its 4.4 years.
Age of actors in Sci-Fi movies
There are extremely few older women in lead roles within sci-fi movies. Only 6.1% of the women in sci-fi films were over 50 years old, compared with 17.0% of women in dramas.
Age of actors in Action movies and Thrillers
Finally, we come to thrillers and action movies. Perhaps this will come to no surprise to fans of either genre, but these movies tend to have very young female stars and much older male stars.
The average male lead in an action movie is 43.3 years old, compared with 33.6 for female leads, a difference of almost ten years.
I’ve often joked that a thriller is just an action movie without a budget, and it seems that in today’s research they come out pretty similar to action movies.
Methodology and notes
Today’s research looked at all feature films which were released in American cinemas and which grossed at least a single dollar, save for a few compilations of Oscar-shortlisted short films which I removed. This came to 3,220 movies. I then looked at the top six billed actors, or if the billing was alphabetical I made a judgment on which were the six major roles, based on factors such as the plot and the poster. This came to 19,292 credits, due to the fact a small number of films did not list six actors (such as Just Say Love which only lists three).
The data for today’s research came largely from IMDb and Wikipedia. Given more time, I would love to have tracked down dates of birth for actors whose IMDb and Wikipedia profiles are missing that information, but in the end I found dates for 69.3% of credits.
The ages shown in today’s research are the age the actor was on the day the film received its wide theatrical release in the US. In an ideal world I’d like to be able to calculate age based on a date which better reflects their on-screen presence (such as their first day of the shoot), but sadly this information is patchy and presents other challenges (such as films which are shot over many months, sometimes years).
Also, this is looking at the age of the actor, not the character and not the way the actor appears. Some actors are able to play characters much older or younger than their true age. An extreme example is Shirley Henderson, who was 40 years old when Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire was released, in which she played Moaning Myrtle, a fourteen-year-old ghost.
Normally when graphing data, I round up or down to the nearest whole number. For example, a datapoint of 20.3 will show on the graph as ’20’, as would a data point of 19.8. However, for today’s research I used the rounding convention used by most people when they talk about their age – i.e. rounding down. When someone is two months away from their 20th birthday they don’t say that they are 20, but rather 19. So for the graphs, the percentage of people who are represented on the data point “20” includes everyone who was celebrating their 20th birthday that day, up to people whose 21st birthday was on the movie’s second day of release.
In the past, I have studied gender in great detail, and recently I made a commitment to finding ways to measure race. The way the industry treats people of different ages is also a worthy topic to look at and so I hope to be able to add that to my list of ‘things that deserve further study’. I’m certainly open to reader questions so drop me a line.