Ariana Grande, Zendaya, Timothée Chalamet & More Stars Who Started Out as Theater Kids

Getty Images/Treatment by Kaitlyn McNab

Actors: they’re just like us. Before the fame, Grammys, Emmys, and Hollywood blockbusters, our favorite stars like Ariana Grande, Zendaya, and Timothée Chalamet were reading paper cast lists, shouting “thank you five,” and starring in their local community theater shows.

After watching a new film or series, it's the norm for avid moviegoers and binge watchers to spend a majority of their time investigating the origins of the cast's careers. It’s a beautiful thing to look back on, so luckily for you, we scoured the Internet and talked to some of your favorite stars about the beginning moments of their careers and the productions they were a part of.

Let's address the elephant in the room: the theater kid stigma is notorious. Being a “theater kid” has become a label the masses have deemed undesirable. Many may try to uphold the stereotypes associated with being a theater kid (see: loud, annoying, uncool, etc.), but most of our favorite actors were once just local theater kids dreaming about making it big.

So while our faves continue to take over the world, remember that these stars are only a few degrees of separation from theater kids. And if you still don't think being a theater kid is cool, we dare you to tell that to Timmy's face. Below, see 21 actors and performers who were once theater kids, and hear exclusive stage memories from a few of them.

1. Reneé Rapp

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35th Annual GLAAD Media Awards - Arrivals

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Our very own Gen-Z Regina George is a notable theater kid. Growing up, Reneé Rapp attended Charlotte, North Carolina's Northwest School of the Arts. For her performance as Sandra in her school’s production of Big Fish, she won the 2018 Jimmy Awards top prize alongside actor Andrew Barth Feldman. (The National High School Musical Theatre Awards — aka the Jimmy Awards — are given annually to recognize the best musical theatre performances by high school students in the United States.)

That same year, Rapp took home the Best Actress Blumey Award — a regional musical theater award for high school students — for that same role and joined the regional production of Spring Awakening at Theatre Charlotte, an institution she began performing at when she was just 10 years old. She made her Broadway debut one year later, at 19, as Regina George in the musical adaptation of Mean Girls.

2. Christopher Briney

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39th Annual Artios Awards

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Most people now know him as Conrad Fisher in the beloved Prime Video series The Summer I Turned Pretty, but before he was stealing our hearts on screen, Chris Briney was just like any other small town theater boy. At Connecticut's Waterbury Arts Magnet School, Briney performed in several plays growing up, starring in I, Don Quixote in 2014 and playing Lenny the year after in the Neil Simon play Rumors.

3. Avantika Vandanapu

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Celebrity Sightings In New York City - February 09, 2024

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Mean Girls star Avantika is another theater kid who grew up in Union City, California. She took drama lessons at the American Conservatory Theater before beginning her film career. “The first show I ever did was The Children's Crusade,” Avantika tells Teen Vogue. “I don't think it was possible for me to have looked dirtier or delivered my monologues any worse — but how deeply I fell in love with acting after that experience is an indication of how much I adore my craft.”

4. Timothée Chalamet

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"Dune 2" Premiere At Le Grand Rex

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Timmy-T was truthfully too busy at Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art (aka LaGuardia), leading shows, entertaining the masses, and leaving an extreme digital footprint. In 2012, he played Oscar Lindquist in LaGuardia’s production of Sweet Charity and also had a role in the school's production of Cabaret. Chalamet's former drama teacher Mr. Shifman told Vanity Fair in 2018 that the Wonka star once auditioned for the school's productions of Hairspray and Guys and Dolls, but ultimately didn't make the cut.

5. Ariana Grande

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96th Annual Academy Awards - Arrivals

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Ariana Grande is a theater veteran, famously beginning her career at age 15 in the 2008 Broadway musical 13. During her childhood, Grande also performed with the Fort Lauderdale Children's Theater, playing her first role as the title character in the musical Annie and later participating in productions of The Wizard of Oz and Beauty and the Beast.

6. Madelyn Cline

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2024 Vanity Fair Oscar Party Hosted By Radhika Jones - Arrivals

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“My first play was Fantastic Mr. Fox at The Flowertown Players in Summerville, South Carolina,” Outer Banks star Madelyn Cline tells Teen Vogue. “I was cast as a bunny. I talked too much backstage, they took my Nintendo DS away from me, and I will never forgive them until they give it back.”

7. Sebastian Stan

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"A Different Man" Photocall - 74th Berlinale International Film Festival

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If you're an OG Gossip Girl fan or a Marvel aficionado, you're familiar with Sebastian Stan. While attending Rockland Country Day School in Rockland, New York, Stan starred in local productions including Cyrano de Bergerac and West Side Story. Stan also attended the famed Catskills theater camp Stagedoor Manor, and made his Broadway debut in 2007 portraying Kent in Talk Radio. In 2013, Stan returned to Broadway for the Roundabout Theatre Company revival of Picnic.

8. Zendaya

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"Challengers" Australian Premiere - Arrivals

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Growing up in the Bay Area, Zendaya attended Oakland School for the Arts and was cast in several roles in local theater productions. Starting in the third grade, Z took theater classes at the Cal Shakes conservatory while her mother worked as the house manager, taking on roles in Macbeth, As You Like It, and Richard III. In 2008, Zendaya was cast in TheatreWorks' production of Caroline, or Change and at the Berkeley Playhouse in 2009, she played Little Ti Moune in Once on This Island. She was the only child actor in the company. (See the most adorable photos of little Z here.)

9. Dominique Thorne

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Tory Burch - Fall/Winter 2024 New York Fashion Week - Front Row

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Dominique Thorne is another New York native theater kid who got her start attending Manhattan's Professional Performing Arts School as a dramatic theater major. During her senior year of high school, Thorne won the 2015 Young Arts Award in Spoken Theater as well as being honored as a U.S. Presidential Scholar in the Arts, a recognition given annually by the White House. Thorne then went on to attend Cornell University where she participated in several plays, including The Awakening of Spring.

10. Rachel Zegler

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"Y2K" Premiere - Arrivals - SXSW 2024 Conference and Festivals

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Before you knew Rachel Zegler's name, you knew the viral video of her singing “Shallow” from A Star Is Born in an empty auditorium. Zegler, originally from Hackensack, New Jersey, began her career starring in several musicals while attending the Immaculate Conception High School in Montclair, NJ. Her credits include her 2016 stint as Belle in Beauty and the Beast, her portrayal of Ariel in The Little Mermaid in 2017, Dorothy Brock in 2018's 42nd Street, and Shrek The Musical's Princess Fiona in 2019.

For each of these four consecutive performances, Zegler was nominated for Metro Awards in the outstanding leading actress category. (The Metro Awards are an annual regional theater awards ceremony recognizing productions in Metropolitan New York and New Jersey.) She also had leading local roles in productions of Legally Blonde, Les Misérables, RENT, and Thoroughly Modern Millie. After booking West Side Story, Zegler even fought to stay in school for a bit longer, asking Steven Spielberg for permission to accommodate her schedule so she could play Fiona in her school’s production of Shrek The Musical.

11. Mike Faist

<h1 class="title">"Challengers" Australian Premiere - Arrivals</h1><cite class="credit">Getty Images</cite>

"Challengers" Australian Premiere - Arrivals

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Before he was starring alongside Rachel Zegler in West Side Story and Zendaya in Challengers, Mike Faist was a bonafide theater kid. At an extremely young age, he pushed for his parents to enroll him in dance classes and started auditioning for community theater and children's theater in his hometown of Gahanna, Ohio. Faist participated in Columbus Children's Theatre productions of The Wizard of Oz, Oliver!, and Alice in Wonderland; in high school, he nabbed leading roles in Grease and Jesus Christ Superstar.

“I graduated high school a year early and moved to New York when I was 17 to attend the American Musical and Dramatic Academy," Faist told Teen Vogue in 2017. “I dropped out after two semesters and started selling tickets in Times Square for off-Broadway plays while auditioning on the side.” At 19, he booked the understudy role for the lead character of Newsies. “I was in the original Broadway cast for about a year and a half,” said Faist. "It was a dream come true.”

12. Lady Gaga

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Netflix's "Maestro" Los Angeles Photo Call

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Lady Gaga solidified herself as a movie star with her work in A Star is Born, but long before that, she was a kitschy theater kid studying at The Children's Acting Academy in upstate New York. Gaga, a native New Yorker, attended high school at the Convent of the Sacred Heart, a private all-girls Roman Catholic school on Manhattan's Upper East Side. She played in several roles at her brother school Regis High while growing up, including the lead roles of Adelaide in the play Guys and Dolls and Philia in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. When she was 17, Gaga was a student in the Collaborative Arts Project 21 (CAP21)/NYU-partnered program, a professional musical theater conservatory. She also studied method acting at the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute for an entire decade.

13. Caleb McLaughlin

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Dior Homme : Photocall - Paris Fashion Week - Menswear Spring/Summer 2024

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Stranger Things star Caleb McLaughlin's first acting role was in the opera Lost in the Stars at Cooperstown, New York's Glimmerglass Opera House. From 2012 to 2014, McLaughlin performed on Broadway as Young Simba in The Lion King musical.

14. Nick Jonas

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Jonas Brothers In Concert - Detroit

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Before his Disney Channel days, Nick Jonas was a Broadway Baby. At just age seven, Jonas was already making appearances on the big stage. During its final nine month-run in 2003, Jonas played the young street urchin Gavroche in the original Broadway production of Les Misérables. The “Sucker” singer also portrayed Scrooge at 8 in A Christmas Carol, Chip Potts in Beauty and the Beast, and Little Jake in Annie Get Your Gun on Broadway. At 11, he took on the role of Kurt in The Sound of Music at New Jersey's famed Paper Mill Playhouse, and at 18, portrayed Marius Pontmercy in the 25th Anniversary Concert special of Les Misérables. Jonas would eventually return to the stage at age 20 for the second revival of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, in the leading role of J. Pierrepont Finch.

15. Kristen Bell

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Education Through Music Los Angeles 18th Annual Benefit Gala

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The narrator of the original (and 2.0) Gossip Girl series was born and raised in Huntington Woods, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit. Kristen Bell attended Shrine Catholic High School in nearby Royal Oak, where she gravitated towards the stage, appearing in productions of Raggedy Anne and Andy, Fiddler on the Roof, The Wizard of Oz, Lady Be Good, and Li'l Abner. In 2002, during her senior year at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts studying musical theater, Bell left a few credits shy of graduating to make her Broadway debut in the musical adaptation of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer as Becky.

16. Lacey Chabert

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22nd Annual “Christmas at The Grove” Tree Lighting Celebration

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Similar to Nick Jonas, Mean Girls (2004) star Lacey Chabert (the only one who can make “fetch” happen) got her start on Broadway in 1992 and 1993, in the role of young Cosette in Les Misérables.

17. Lea Michele

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37th Annual Footwear News Achievement Awards

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Arguably the theater kid of all theater kids, Glee star Lea Michele made her Broadway debut at eight years old as a replacement in the role of Young Cosette in Les Misérables in 1995. (She was also the understudy for the role of Gavroche.) Michele also played the Little Girl in the 1998 original Broadway cast of Ragtime, and, in 2004, Shprintze in Fiddler on the Roof.

18. Joe Locke

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Celebrities Visit SiriusXM - February 12, 2024

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As a teen, Heartstopper star Joe Locke performed in a number of local productions with the Kensington Art Centre's Youth Arts Theatre Group and at the Gaiety Theatre, including the National Theatre Connections play Dungeness in 2020. In 2022, Locke made his professional stage debut in a limited engagement of The Trials in London, and won the Best Professional Debut Award at that year's WhatsOnStage Awards. Currently, Locke is starring in the Broadway revival of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Slayer of Fleet Street, where he plays Tobias Ragg.

19. Anna Kendrick

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2024 Film Independent Spirit Awards - Backstage

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Regardless of whether you're a Twi-hard or a Pitch Perfect stan, Anna Kendrick has been gracing your screens for years. But before taking on Hollywood, she was performing on Broadway. At age 12 Kendrick had a supporting role as Dinah Lord in the Broadway musical High Society, a performance that earned her her very first Tony nomination in 1998. (Fun fact: Kendrick was the third youngest person to ever be nominated at the Tony Awards.)

20. Camila Mendes

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"Musica" Miami Premiere

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Camila Mendes is going from Riverdale to rom-com queen with her latest film Upgraded, but she started out acting in theater. While attending the Florida's American Heritage School in the Fine Arts program, Mendes participated in productions such as Aladdin, Bye, Bye Birdie, Peter Pan, and The King and I. She graduated in 2012 and went on to attend NYU's Tisch School of the Arts for acting, studying in Playwrights Horizons.

21. Austin Abrams

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IndieWire Sundance Studio, Presented by Dropbox - Day 4

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Social media-less Austin Abrams may seem mysterious, but he's still a theater kid at heart. The Sarasota, Florida native began taking acting lessons with the Florida Studio Theatre’s children’s program when he was five years old, and started appearing in theater productions at the age of nine. Abrams made his stage debut as Chip Potts in Beauty and the Beast in 2006; he also performed in local productions of The Plexiglass Slipper, The Winter's Tale, and The Life of Galileo. By the time he turned 13, Abrams had a whopping 17 theater credits under his belt.

Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue

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