What is driving the growth in roles for older actors in Hollywood?

Where roles were once in short supply, audiences are increasingly flocking to blockbusters featuring older actors

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If you’re among the millions around the world who have been transfixed by recent shows such as The Old Man and Yellowstone spin-off 1923, you may have noticed that your favourite leading actors are getting older.

The trend isn’t confined to TV. If we look at the four top-billed cast of 2022’s highest-grossing movies, Jurassic World: Dominion features a cast with an average age of 52.5; Top Gun: Maverick's leads have an average age of 45.5, while the year’s biggest hit Avatar: The Way of Water, also averages 52.5.

Older actors have always existed in film and TV, but historically they’ve played some fairly predictable roles — the loveable grandparents of Cocoon and The Golden Girls or the grumpy old men of Frasier and, well, Grumpy Old Men.

More recently, however, we’ve seen Jeff Bridges return to TV at 72 as an all-action CIA agent on the run in The Old Man and Tom Cruise, who at 60, sits at the younger end of an all-star cast, reprising his role as crack fighter pilot Pete “Maverick” Mitchell.

It’s not only men’s roles that are getting better. Meryl Streep famously complained at the 2006 Venice Film Festival of the lack of “serious roles for 50-year-old women,” returning to the theme in a 2016 interview with the Wall Street Journal.

Since that 2016 interview she has personally been nominated for two Best Actress awards, while the prize has been won by Frances McDormand (currently 65) twice, Olivia Coleman (48) and Renee Zellweger (53). You wouldn’t need to be a risk taker to back 60-year-old Michelle Yeoh this year either.

The evidence isn’t purely anecdotal. A 2021 study by American senior living specialist Amica found that in 2000, senior actors (aged 60+ at the time of the film's release) were named in the main cast of 14 per cent of the year’s bestselling Hollywood movies. In 2021 it was 56 per cent.

Data from IMDb reveals a similar trend. Taking the average age of the top-three listed actors from every non-animated film that took more than $10 million at the US box office between 2000 and 2021, there is a steady and consistent rise from under 20 senior citizens in 2000 to more than 40 in 2021.

The success of the Harry Potter franchise may have skewed the younger end of that scale early in the century. However looking at IMDb data on which lead actors have featured in the top grossing films since 2000, prior to 2010, the oldest are Jim Carey (then 38), Johnny Depp (43) and Viggo Mortensen (45) — 42 on average. Post-2010 the average jumps to 55.6 with Mickey Rourke (58), Martin Lawrence (55) and Robert Downey Jr (54).

The phenomenon appears to be making its way into reality TV, too. Perhaps the biggest breakout in the genre of 2022 was The Traitors, a Dutch creation that has been adapted in the US, the UK and Australia. This show replaced the aspiring Boohoo models and Insta-influencers-in-waiting of Love Island et al with a remarkably normal bunch — the UK version even featured 72-year-old Andrea among its contestants.

Olivia Ahmed was on the UK casting team, and personally responsible for casting 54-year-old traitor Amanda. She says: “I think more reality shows are going to go the way of The Traitors. Casting older people is much more fulfilling. They just haven’t been given a chance in reality TV and I think it is going to come full circle.”

The evidence certainly seems to back up the casual observance of the trend, but why would this be? Figures from US non-profit AARP revealed that people aged 55-64 spent an average of $3,520 on entertainment in 2020, second only to the 35-44 age bracket. It’s simple logic, then, to make content that some of your biggest customers can relate to.

A second factor could be the sheer volume of content that is made today compared to 20 years ago, largely thanks to the rise of streaming. In 2000, data from Statista shows that a total of 371 films were released in the US and Canada, the world’s biggest markets. By 2019, the last year before Covid-19 affected production schedules, that had more than doubled to 792.

With so many films to cast, and a finite number of recognisable stars, it perhaps stands to reason that older actors are finding themselves with more and better roles to choose from.

Perhaps that’s why someone like Liam Neeson (70), a solid banker but more Hollywood everyman than full-blown A-lister, has churned out 53 films, with a further six currently in production, in the 14 years since Taken’s global release in January 2009. In the 14 years prior to Taken he appeared in 23.

Whether the trend will continue, or if Neeson, Bridges, Streep and their peers will prove the final golden age of Hollywood, only time will tell. But for now, it's a good time to be an older actor.

Updated: January 28, 2023, 3:02 AM