Fall TV's Freshest Young Faces

Jimmy Bennett, Stefanie Owen, Bella Thorne, Larramie "Doc" Shaw, Taylor Spreitler, Gabriel Basso, Zendaya Coleman, Leon Thomas, Sarah Hyland and India Eisley

Ten actors under the age of 21 are making dents on the small screen.

Gabriel Basso (The Big C)

In some ways, acting sneaked up on 15-year-old Basso: His mom asked him to read with his thespian siblings Annalise and Alexandria to help them memorize lines. “I got really into it,” he says. “I had no idea it would be such a big deal in my life.” Having jumped around on TV shows like iCarly, Eastwick and The Middle, he’s now found a home at Showtime’s The Big C. And while he misses being able to participate in organized school sports (his acting schedule gets in the way), he’s clearly found a calling. “I love using my imagination and being paid to play make-believe,” he says. Despite this, the Missouri-born actor has found a way to keep his friends close: During a Big C set visit, he swung a table read for his best bud Nathan Eswine, who landed the recurring role as Basso’s best friend. “He’d done school plays and stuff, but hadn’t acted in big things,” Basso says. “That was a real smack in our faces because no one thought he’d get it.”

Jimmy Bennett (No Ordinary Family)

Ask most young kids what role they’d most like to play and the answer is simple: Superhero. Bennett, one of the stars of ABC’s new family series No Ordinary Family, will play a boy with a super brain — so he’s had to revise his long-standing interest in playing Spider-Man. Instead, he says, “I’d like to play the Leonardo DiCaprio role in The Basketball Diaries. I’ve been a big fan of his since I was a kid.” Which, technically, he still is — but having acted since he was 6 in such films as Evan Almighty and Poseidon as well as a memorable, brief stint as the young James T. Kirk in J.J. Abrams’ remake of Star Trek, the 15-year-old California native is a longtime industry pro who is thrilled to be working. “I don’t want anyone to think my mom is forcing me to do this or I’m doing it unwillingly,” he says. “I’ve loved this from Day 1. In Poseidon, I got to stand 40 feet above flaming water! Who else gets to do that?”

Bella Thorne (Shake It Up!)

At 13, Thorne has already worked with one of the biggest in the business. Elephant-sized, to be exact. The commercial series for Texas Instruments that brought her to the attention of big-time casting agents five years ago starred her and a very large animal. “His name was George,” the Hollywood-born actress recalls. “I still miss him!” Post-pachyderm, she was quickly snapped up for roles in grown-up series like Big Love and Dirty Sexy Money, and recently crossed over from broadcast primetime fare into the Disney Channel original series Shake It Up! where she’s perfectly happy to be shaking a tail feather on a regular basis: “I always liked dancing,” she says. Ever the professional, Thorne comes from a family of working kids: Siblings Remi, Dani and Kaili are also in the biz. “We always run lines together,” she says. With so much experience in hand at a young age, Thorne also comes armed with advice for acting wannabes: “It’s so important to have people believe in you and support your decisions.” And, she adds, “You need a good headshot.”

Zendaya Coleman (Shake It Up!)

One way to tell that Coleman is a hard worker is that she’ll even do phone interviews on her 14th birthday. But until she landed at Disney Channel’s Shake It Up! Coleman’s work ethic was bigger than her actual TV credits: That is, she had none. “I had done commercials and a lot of print modeling,” she explains, “and a lot of theater — and Shakespeare, of course.” Not to forget the hip-hop crew she joined at age 8. But on just her third Disney audition, Coleman wowed the casting agents; she’d initially gone out for the role that Bella Thorne landed, but she clicked while trying out for Rocky. “It was the perfect match,” says the Oakland, Calif., native, whose mother is the house manager the California Shakespeare Theater, and who had Zendaya tearing tickets from a very young age. “I sat in on tech rehearsals and met actors and directors and realized this is something I could do,” she says. “It was so fun I couldn’t see myself doing anything else in the future except what I’m doing right now.”

India Eisley (The Secret Life of the American Teenager)

The official report on Teenager from one who knows is: It’s the real deal. “It’s as realistic as it can be without depressing people,” Eisley, 17, says about her first big role as Ashley on the ABC Family series. Eisley comes from an entertaining family — mom is actress Olivia Hussey, dad is musician David Glen Eisley — so segueing into acting just came naturally. “Growing up on sets, I loved the environment. It went without saying that I would fall into it eventually,” she says. Plus, acting has helped her deal with being shy: “I didn’t have many friends growing up, so it was nice to leave that for a bit and not be self-conscious about what people think,” she says. And as for her unusual first name (she’s neither Indian nor was born in India) — that’s a whim from mom, says the actress: “She had a spiritual teacher who is Indian, and she has a connection with the country. She always wanted a daughter named India — or that’s what she tells me.”

Sarah Hyland (Modern Family)

Hyland adores her ABC series, but on Emmy night was prepared to turn around in her seat and offer congratulations to the Glee actors, who she was sure would win comedy’s top prize. Then, Modern Family got the nod. “I was so confused!” the 19-year old laughs. “I’m like, I’m so glad I have my purse with me so I can use my cell phone and call my boyfriend to tell him where I am!” Family is a game-changer for Hyland, a New York actress whose father (Edward James Hyland) and brother (Ian) are also actors. During her 14-year career, Hyland ran the gamut of parts on the East Coast — three Gotham-based soap operas, two Law & Order permutations, and an extended run on Lipstick Jungle before making the big move to Hollywood. Then, less than two months after arriving full-time, she booked Family, and the rest is history. Still, her dream role is slightly removed from the independent, self-assured teen she’s now playing there: “I’d like to play Sookie on True Blood,” she reveals. “I bet Anna Paquin has a freakin’ blast on that show!”

Stefania Owen (Running Wilde)

It doesn’t take long to go over Owen’s résumé — other than commercials and a role in The Lovely Bones, her new stint on Fox’s Running Wilde sitcom makes up the entirety of the Miami-born young actress’ career. She landed Wilde while making Bones in her current homeland of New Zealand, sending her audition as a video e-mail attachment. That led to a meeting over Skype with director Mitchell Hurwitz and eventually to her hiring. Should Wilde take off, however, Owen, 12, and her family will undergo some major changes, like relocation above the equator — her native Kiwi papa and older sister remain Down Under while she’s working on Long Island, N.Y., with her mom and younger sister by her side. “If it doesn’t work, we’ll just go back to New Zealand,” she says. “But we love New York!” That said, Owen, like many tweens, would love to guest on another Fox series. “I love Glee, it’s the best show ever,” she says. “Of course, so is Running Wilde. This is the best thing I could have ever gotten!”

Larramie "Doc" Shaw (Pair of Kings)

Whether or not his destiny was acting, Shaw had greatness etched into his life story from an early age. “My grandfather wanted me to do something positive with my life, so he gave me that nickname,” he says. At 18, Doc has nearly aged out of the “kid” part of the business, but Disney XD still picked him up to co-star in Pair of Kings, his second Mouse House series (The Suite Life on Deck is the other). Born in Atlanta, Shaw owes considerable respect (and his career) to Tyler Perry, who gave him some of his first real work on House of Payne in his early teens: “He gave me lessons — personal lessons, life lessons, acting lessons — and that’s what helps me become a stronger person on and off set,” Shaw says. “He’s one of my biggest role models; I’d like to be like him.” That said, the pull of being called “Doc” is strong: In another year or two he’d like to aim for medical school. “I can do that and acting,” he insists. “I can multitask.”

Taylor Spreitler (Melissa & Joey)

She just turned 17, but thanks to a year-and-a-half stint on Days of Our Lives, Spreitler has already acted out a teen pregnancy, a baby switch and the death of her child. All of which makes her role as the angsty teen daughter on ABC Family’s Melissa & Joey not just a relief — but actually more realistic. “It’s a totally different world,” she says. “Now I get to act out the normal teenage thing.” Still, the Mississippi-born Spreitler hasn’t had a very quiet real childhood: She’s already been in a “little girl [music] group” in her hometown, and appeared on Law & Order: SVU. But she doesn’t dis her soap days, noting they were an excellent acting boot camp. “You’re a fish thrown in water and you sink or swim. It makes everything else you do seem like a piece of cake.” And while all of this may seem to have come naturally, she says she faced seven years of rejection early on. “You’ve just got to wait it out, until it’s your time,” she says.

Leon Thomas III (Victorious)

There are big breaks, and then there are big breaks: One day, Thomas was a “regular kid playing basketball” and the next he was playing young Simba on Broadway in The Lion King. He was only 10, and that was, he says, his “first gig ever.” “It all came together during that first show for me,” he recalls. “Looking out from the stage at the audience I realized I had the power to make people laugh and smile. It was contagious.” Now, seven years later, Leon has bounced between TV and film with roles on iCarly and in August Rush, but he’s never left his music behind, putting up songs on his YouTube channel. Meanwhile, the Brooklyn-born actor is co-starring in the Nickelodeon musical series Victorious and getting to mix both acting and singing nearly every day (he’ll be appearing on the forthcoming Victorious cast soundtrack album from Nickelodeon/Sony). “People come up to me and tell me how much they love the show, and that’s really cool,” he says. “It really is a blessing.”

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