Mae Whitman: From Child Actor To Hollywood Star

With her laid-back demeanor, bright smile, and controversy-free celebrity persona, you might be surprised to know Mae Whitman has actually been in show business most of her life. At 2 she started doing commercials and apparently, she was smart as a whip from the get-go and not easily intimidated. As her mom, Pat Musick, recalled to Variety, a casting director for a Tyson Chicken ad tried to pull a fast one of the young actor by complimenting her yellow dress. Whitman, who was actually wearing lavender replied, "What are you? Some kind of knucklehead?"

The star soon found herself not just in movies and television but acting alongside some of Hollywood's biggest stars like Meg Ryan, Sandra Bullock, and George Clooney to name just a few. Unlike many child actors, Whitman made the jump from playing children to teens and then into adulthood seemingly without a hiccup. While she credits her parents for their immense support and careful scrutiny of projects that came her way, she also says she was blessed with wonderful co-stars. "It just all felt like family," she shared with BUILD Series.

Of course, it wasn't all glamorous. During a 2021 appearance on "The Drew Barrymore Show," Whitman revealed that as a child actor she had to take on some real responsibility and mature much faster than the average kid. That meant she also missed out on simple experiences like learning to ride a bike or doing laundry. With almost three decades of work to her name, these are the highlights of Mae Whitman's career.

Her first movie role made a big impression

Mae Whitman was just 6 years old when she graduated from doing TV commercials to snagging a role in the major motion picture, "When a Man Loves a Woman." She played Casey, the daughter of the main characters, played by Meg Ryan and Andy Garcia. Both Whitman and Tina Majorino, who played her sister, had the added challenge of depicting the children of a mother dealing with alcohol addiction. 

In its review of the film, The Washington Post described their respective performances as being at its heart, stating, "They know something is wrong all along — you can see it in ... their pained and bewildered little faces." It appeared Whitman had arrived and Hollywood took notice. After a few other roles, the young actor was cast as the president's daughter in 1996's "Independence Day." That same year she appeared in an episode of "Friends" and alongside George Clooney and Michelle Pfeiffer in "One Fine Day."

Whitman also became popular on the talk show circuit. In 1998, she appeared on "The Rosie O'Donnell Show" with co-star Sandra Bullock to promote their movie "Hope Floats," in which they play mother and daughter. Whitman appeared at ease, displaying both a maturity beyond her years as well as a sweet playfulness. When O'Donnell asked whether her co-star was fun to work with, Bullock jokingly leaned in to whisper guidance in her ear. "I've never worked with anyone I love more than Sandy," Whitman diligently responded with a chuckle.

The actor did several shows before she was an adult

In 1996, 7-year-old Mae Whitman started appearing on "Chicago Hope" as the daughter of Christine Lahti's character, appearing in a total of 17 episodes over four seasons. Like a pro, she even did on-set interviews with celebrity news shows like "Access Hollywood," where she shared some very newsworthy information like, "I've been to Christine's house a lot. Her son has a big trampoline." But "Chicago Hope" wasn't her only TV series. From 1998 to 2001, Whitman played Chloe, the little sister of Catherine Bell's Sarah MacKenzie on "Jag." She also voiced characters in a handful of animated series. 

In 2001, Whitman had the opportunity to star in the '60s-set television series, "State of Grace," as the show's titular character — an outspoken tween attending Catholic school.  There, she became life-long friends with her co-star, Alia Shawkat. In 2016, during a cast reunion for ATX TV, Shawkat stated, "It was like a week of ... sussing each other out, I think. And then [it] just ... formed into an eternal bond that has changed my life." The series only lasted two seasons but for Whitman, it was more than a job. "We really remember this as, like, our growing up experience ... I became who I am on this show," she shared with ATX TV.

She reunited with Shawkat once again in 2004, when she took over the role of Ann Veal in "Arrested Development." She continued to play the character when the series was rebooted in 2013.

Whitman experienced bullying in high school

As she shared on  "The Rosie O'Donnell Show," when Mae Whitman first began her acting journey she didn't like being a student. "I don't like doing school on the set or off the set," the then-fourth grader said, adding that she didn't like writing and thought the whole ordeal was boring. But when it came time for high school, there would be other more difficult obstacles to deal with.

In a 2017 BUILD series interview, Whitman shared how she was bullied in high school for being different. "I wore weird clothes and weird, bad jeans, and never [wore] makeup, and [had] thick eyebrows," she said. Despite it getting so bad at times she ate in the bathroom, she had the foresight to realize that changing herself was not the answer. Instead, she learned the power of staying true to herself. "You've gotta just be so thankful for everything you have ... love what you've got," she said. 

That experience helped Whitman to relate to her character in the 2015 movie "The DUFF," where the acronym stands for a designated ugly fat friend. As the "DUFF" Whitman was inspired to work with the writers to make the character more authentic and honest, something she was grateful for. As she shared with People at a fan screening for the movie, she has experienced labeling and typecasting in Hollywood as well. "I get, 'Oh, you're not ugly enough or not fat enough.' But I'm like, 'Who is?'" she shared.

She scored a lot of notable roles

Once child actor Mae Whitman became an adult, she was just as in demand. Garnering spots in both television and movies, she even landed some lead roles such as in the 2007 TV Movie, "Lost in the Dark," her 2008 role voicing the lead character in "Tinker Bell," and in 2015's "The DUFF." She also shined in big films like "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World," and "The Perks of Being a Wallflower," with Emma Watson, a role that she fought for because she was a big fan of Stephen Chbosky's book. Discussing her natural affinity with the character of Mary Elizabeth — an outspoken punk rocker with a tender heart — she told Teen Vogue, "I wanted to tell her story the right way because I see a lot of myself in her."

There was also no shortage of TV roles coming Whitman's way. She had a guest role on "Grey's Anatomy" in which she played a troubled young woman with severe disfigurement of her spine, who gives the doctors a hard time. She also enjoyed guest roles on "ER," "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit," and "Criminal Minds." During an appearance on "Kevin Pollack's Chat Show," she discussed how she always finds something to relate to within the many different roles she's enjoyed on the small and big screen — something her acting coach helped her to develop. "I feel like in every character, I instill a piece of me that's honest," she explained.

Parenthood was a huge milestone for her

In 2010, Mae Whitman was cast in what was probably the most important role in her career, as Amber Holt in the hit TV drama-comedy, "Parenthood," loosely based on the Ron Howard film of the same name. "['Parenthood'] was everything to me," she said on "Kevin Pollack's Chat Show." "I made my best friends on that show." She also added how the show was all about life and following the characters as they changed and grew — something both Amber and Whitman did over the course of the show. The actor pointed out that although she was a little older in age from her character, they went through similar life events.

The storylines on "Parenthood" were so reflective of real life and authentic outbursts of emotion that oftentimes the cast would improvise dialogue. Speaking to People, Whitman described a scene she shared with Craig T. Nelson, who plays her grandfather. He takes her to a junkyard to see the remnants of the car she crashed so she could understand the gravity of the accident. "He improvised this incredibly beautiful, honest, real, raw speech of, like, pain, and heartache, and stuff that I knew he really felt about his own family," she said, adding that her incredibly tearful response was a genuine one. 

In 2015, she was nominated for the Critics Choice Television Award for Best Supporting Actress in a Drama Series and won a Grace Allen Award for Outstanding Female Actor in a Breakthrough Role.

Mae Whiteman's adorable friendship with Miles Heizer

During Mae Whitman's long run on "Parenthood," the actor enjoyed a tight bond with her entire cast. During "Kevin Pollack's Chat Show," she described the chaos that often occurred during group scenes due to their shared connection. "We were all talking over each other. We weren't paying attention," she said. "It was really hard for the director ... to wrangle us because we were just like a real family."

One of those family members was Amber's brother, Drew, played by Miles Heizer. The pair didn't just hit it off and become friends offset, the two also moved in together and have remained best friends ever since. In 2014, Whitman told Glamour that she thinks of him as a brother, adding, "He's the most talented musician and actor ... I envision wanting to live in a house next to him for my whole life and grow old down the street from him."

The pair even went so far as to get matching tattoos in 2017 — that is if Whitman's Instagram pic and caption of the event are to be taken at face value. The two seem to enjoy sharing many relationship moments on social media and even throw some innuendo in the captions, just to mess with their fans. That included sharing a series of selfies on Instagram in 2021 — one of which shows the friends kissing. Whitman's witty caption? "13 years and we still can't keep our hands off each other."

Good Girls provided a different kind of role for Whitman

Another milestone for actor Mae Whitman was garnering a lead role in the quirky drama, "Good Girls," in which three moms feel forced to enter a world of crime to help remedy their respective financial issues. Whitman played single mom Annie for four seasons beginning in 2018. As she revealed on "The Drew Barrymore Show" the actor enjoyed the departure from her typical young and responsible character, instead playing someone who had a child as a teenager and makes bad decisions. "She's kind of the spontaneity of the group," she mused. "She's kind of the reason they do the crazy things that they do." While Annie wouldn't win any awards for Mom of the Year, as the mother of a transgender child, she was completely supportive and loving.

True to Whitman's endearing personality, she formed close bonds with her "Good Girls" castmates including Christina Hendricks, Retta, and Isaiah Stannard, who played her son. During the show's first season, the three main actors quickly bonded over a wild night of eating and drinking a little more than they should have. On Instagram in 2022, she posted a reunion shot of herself with Hendricks and Retta with the caption, "They will literally never tear us apart." As Whitman told People in 2021, her bond with her co-stars is important to her. "It's rare that you work on anything where you get to be with people that you truly adore and would die for and respect so much," she said.

She has done a ton of voiceover work

Yes, Mae Whitman can be described as beautiful, strong, and talented. But she can also fit into the cute-as-a-button category — something that has been particularly evident in the voice acting work she's enjoyed throughout her career. During her BUILD series interview, she revealed that she enjoys the relaxed vibe of taping, adding, "You just get to have so much creative fun with it."

As a young actor, her first voice role came in 1995, aged 7 years old, for an episode of "What a Cartoon!" Two years later, she became a series regular for four seasons of "Johnny Bravo," and did a guest spot on "Superman: The Animated Series." In 2003, she also voiced one of the lead characters in "Jungle Book 2." Whitman has also voiced characters for video games like "Cartoon Network Racing" as well as three "Avatar" video games, where she reprises her role of Katara from the animated television series. In 2012, the actor started a long run as a series regular on "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" and over the years she's voiced several characters on "Family Guy" as well.

But her most impressive voice credit was becoming the voice of Tinkerbell in 2008. From then on, she continued to voice the iconic character in a variety of shorts and other releases, as well as for the 2012 animated feature, "Secret of the Wings." Speaking about being selected for the gig, she told PopStop TV, "Sometimes I'm like, 'Oh my God, I can't believe I'm actually Tinkerbell.'"

Jeopardy! is Mae Whitman's favorite TV show

For someone who has been a celebrity pretty much her entire life, Mae Whitman seems to be one of the most down-to-earth people who likes to do the same things us average Joes do — one of those being watching and obsessing over shows we love on television.

In 2019, Whitman had the chance to visit one of her favorite shows, "Jeopardy!" and was even seen on screen among the viewing audience. For the quiz show's Facebook feed, the actor did a behind-the-scenes interview, saying, "'Jeopardy!' is, I would say, my all-time favorite show. I've been watching it ever since I was a kid, with my family." In the interview, she also mentions being friends with Alex Trebek's daughter Nicky. In a touching reference to the host's diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, she ended with a heartfelt message to him, stating, "Alex, I'm a huge fan. My whole family's a huge fan. Everybody that I come across in the world is a huge fan. We love you. We're supporting you." Sadly, he died in November 2020. 

Whitman paid tribute to the late TV legend on Instagram, sharing pics of her standing next to Alex and in the studio audience. In her caption, she shared her memories of watching the show and meeting the long-time host. "We used to say Alex Trebek was the only constant in our lives," she wrote. "... He was funny, compassionate, and generous with his time to everyone present."

Her podcast is not just about football

Speaking of obsessing over shows, Mae Whitman has another show she's loved for a long time. Like so many others, Whitman is a superfan of the teen drama "Friday Night Lights." So much so that she can't stop talking about it — specifically in a podcast dedicated to the show called, "It's Not Only Football: Friday Night Lights and Beyond." She co-hosts the podcast with "Friday Night Lights" cast members Zach Gilford (who also appeared in "Good Girls") and Scott Porter (who appeared in an episode of "Parenthood"). Having aired its first episode in November 2022, the three pals reminisce over the show's finest moments and behind-the-scenes details. 

The show ran for five seasons between 2006 and 2011. And in a joint statement published by Deadline, they revealed they'd all been friends for quite a while, having bonded over their love for "Friday Night Lights." It's also no secret to fans of Whitman that she's had a long-time crush on the character Tim Riggins, played by Taylor Kitsch. "We're pretty sure Mae's just on the pod to make her dream of working with Taylor Kitsch become reality," the statement jokingly read. The actor herself did little to argue against that fact, quipping in a promo for the show on her Instagram, "I would like to discuss my pathetic and desperate journey to be Tim Riggens' wife." Clear eyes, full hearts, can't lose, Whitman. 

Mae Whitman is proudly pansexual

Mae Whitman is used to being in the spotlight, but for much of her three decades in showbusiness she's managed to keep her personal and social life private. In fact, you'd be hard-pressed to find a dating history article on the actor. As she told Glamour in 2014, during which time she had a boyfriend who shan't be named, "I'm pretty secret about that stuff, I guess." However, she did mention that she'd previously dated musician Landon Pigg. When asked if she had a type, she said, "I just like people. I like everyone ... I think girls are attractive, I think boys are attractive."

That telling statement was solidified in a post on Twitter in 2021, where she talked about her animated series, "The Owl House," which has been praised for its LGBTQIA+ representation. During it, Whitman officially announced she was Pansexual. "Just taking a moment to say I am so proud to be even a small part of a show like 'The Owl House.' Being pansexual myself, I wish I had such incredible characters like Amity and Luz in my life when I was growing up." In a follow-up tweet the actor addressed the term Pansexual and how it related to her identity. "For me, it means I know I can fall in love with people of all genders," she wrote. "This is the word that fits me best and I'm proud [and] happy to be part of the Bi+ community."

She advocated for awareness of Endometriosis

Being a celebrity may have its perks, like becoming rich, traveling, and having fans adore you. But one thing celebrities can't escape is health issues. For Mae Whitman that meant years of pain and confusion before being diagnosed in 2019 with Endometriosis, a reproductive issue that can cause relentless cramping and excruciating pain. "I tried birth control and all the things that they said and my cramps were not normal," she told People. At times her pain was so bad she would vomit.

Once Whitman finally learned the cause of her pain, she wanted to help others if only to show them they weren't alone and to educate the public. In July 2019, she helped promote the book, "Beating Endo," which was co-written by her doctor Iris Karin Orbuch, M.D. along with Amy Stein D.P.T. Speaking to Allure, she urged others experiencing abnormal levels of pain to keep seeking help. "Don't give up. Advocate for yourself. Don't let it control your life," she said.

Whitman also joined Hillary Rodham Clinton, Rosario Dawson, and Corinne Foxx as an executive producer of the documentary "Below the Belt." Shannon Cohn's 2023 film offers an in-depth exploration of the painful condition and its many challenges, including the obstacles that patients can face within American healthcare systems. 

Mae flexes her musical mastery

When Mae Whitman starred in "The DUFF" in 2015, she proved she was, indeed, leading lady material. Eight years later, she showed off a whole new side of her talents, and it was far from those of the troubled teen of "Parenthood" or the rebellious mom on "Good Girls." In March 2023, Whitman starred in the musical drama series "Up Here," where she sang and danced her way into viewers' hearts. The actor appeared in the show alongside Carlos Valdes, known for playing Vibe in "The Flash."

Promoting the show on Instagram, the show's leads explained that the Hulu romantic comedy was focused on two people pursuing their respective dreams while also falling in love — and dealing with the drama that happens in between it all. Clearly, Whitman had a blast making the musical series. In August 2022, it seemed like she needed to be pinched in order to realize that the production was really happening. Sharing a behind-the-scenes snap on Instagram, she added the caption, "My true happy place." It was accompanied by three hashtags that speak to the actor's humbleness and character, expressing that not only was this her dream job, but she was also experiencing imposter syndrome on set.

"Up Here" won't be the first time Whitman has showcased her musical prowess. She'd often perform tunes in "Parenthood" — many of which she co-wrote with her ex-boyfriend, Landon Pigg. She also had a musical role in 2020's "Valley Girl."