Why Nepotism Has Always Been a Hot Topic in Hollywood

As a new generation of celebrity offspring come of age, the kids-no-longer are speaking out about having famous parents and what that has meant—or not—for their own careers.

By Natalie Finn Dec 03, 2022 12:00 PMTags
Watch: Why Lily-Rose Depp Won't Speak About Dad Johnny Depp Anytime Soon

They know you know what their parents do.

So if they want to do what their parents do—or anything that puts them in the public eye, for that matter—the kids of celebrities really have to want it for themselves. Because boy are people going to suggest they only got it thanks to Mom and Dad.

"I never assume that anyone is going to actually know who the hell I am," Colin Hanks said on the Oct. 30 episode of Conan O'Brien Needs a Friend. "And, quite frankly, if they do, they probably don't even remember my name. I'm just someone else's attachment, like, 'Oh, you're so-and-so's son, OK.'"

"So-and-so," in this case, is two-time Oscar winner Tom Hanks. "This is one thing I will sort of credit the old man for," Colin quipped, remembering how, when he decided to pursue acting as a career, his dad told him, "'Look, you have to want to do this. If you don't really want this, then come up with something else. 'Cause you will be miserable.'"

But making his big-screen debut as "Male Page" in That Thing You Do!, directed by and co-starring his father, had sold Colin on the profession.

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Now a veteran actor in his own right, the 45-year-old has long since graduated from the school of proving he's more than Tom Hanks' kid (with first wife Samantha Lewes). But Colin remembers how not easy it was to lose that label early on.

"When I was starting off, I was sort of lovingly naïve, thinking that it wasn't as big a deal as it is, that I would get the benefit of the doubt that I was my own person," he told Dax Shepard on Armchair Expert in 2018. "And that doesn't happen."

Getty Images; Melissa Herwitt/E! Illustration

John David Washington, son of the other biggest movie star of the last 40 years, admittedly just lied about it, telling Mr. Porter in 2020 that he would say his dad "was a construction worker or in jail, just to have some sense of normalcy. I felt like there was no way people would take me seriously, even if I was good. So I hid who my father was. I guess I was protecting myself."

Not that Spike Lee—whose 1992 epic Malcolm X, starring Denzel Washington, included the Oscar winner's 8-year-old son as an extra in a classroom scene—didn't recognize the young man when he cast John David as the lead in BlacKkKlansman, the now 38-year-old's breakout film.

But it just goes to show that even a leg up can still have the weight of expectations attached to it.

Bruce Glikas/WireImage

"As the child of someone, you get access other people don't have, so the playing field is not level in that way," Gwyneth Paltrow, daughter of prolific producer Bruce Paltrow and actress Blythe Danneracknowledged on Hailey Bieber's YouTube show Who's in My Bathroom. "However, I really do feel that once your foot is in the door, which you unfairly got in, then you almost have to work twice as hard and be twice as good."

Gwyneth explained, "Because people are ready to pull you down and say 'You don't belong there' or 'You are only there because of your dad or your mom.'" (Or godfather Steven Spielberg, who cast the future Oscar winner as Wendy in Hook when she was 14.)

Lily Collins, who got a broadcasting degree and was a Nickelodeon correspondent before she pursued acting full-time, told Marie Claire UK in 2014, "When I first met with agents I was asked, 'Well, what makes you so special? Everybody in L.A. is a cousin or a daughter of someone.' 'At the beginning, that was the most interesting thing about me."

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We know you're weeping into your LinkedIn profile over all these tales of hardship, but the struggle to prove one's self in a chosen profession is relatable. And following a parent or sibling into a field in which they've made a mark isn't easy. (Lily, for one, loved to sing but admittedly was "too afraid of comparisons" to hitmaker father Phil Collins to go that route.)

Of course, show business is a different beast because it's so public and potentially lucrative. Hence all the resentment running amok among those who perceive someone else's journey as being not difficult enough.

And though the Hollywood history books are littered with dynasties, some stretching back as far as Hollywood itself (see: Barrymore, Drew), there's a whole new generation of children-of-celebrities coming of age right now that has once again made the alleged spoils of nepotism a hot topic.

Jon Kopaloff/FilmMagic for HBO

"At first, I was sad," Maude Apatow, 24, told Net-a-Porter recently of being filed under "nepotism baby" by the TikTok set. "I try not to let it get to me because I obviously understand that I'm in such a lucky position. A lot of people [in a similar position] have proven themselves over the years, so I've got to keep going and make good work. It's so early in my career, I don't have much to show yet, but hopefully one day I'll be really proud of the stuff I've done by myself."

But over on Twitter, the topic trended for days when some fans found out that Lexi from their beloved Euphoria had parents who also did things.

So the double-edged sword is real—though no one is arguing that having connections is a bad thing.

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Leni Klum, for instance, has proudly leaned into her supermodel birthright.

"It's just a fact," Heidi Klum's 18-year-old daughter told People in October. "My parents are famous. I did get help starting off, and I know that people would dream to start off with what I had...But I am doing the work and putting in the time. Now I'm working on my own, traveling alone, going to school. My mom and I just have the same love for the same thing."

Kaia Gerber also isn't shying away from her leggy roots, though being the spitting image of mom Cindy Crawford would make that difficult even if she wanted to. The 21-year-old's biggest complaint to date about her mother "is how beautiful she is," Kaia told Refinery 29 in 2017. "I don't even want to be in a photo next to her because she's incredible. She doesn't seem to age, which is not fair." (She was all of 15 at the time.)

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Hailey, back when she was still a Baldwin, told Grazia in 2016 that she looked at her chosen career as simply following dad Stephen and uncles Alec, Billy, etc. into the family business.

"I want to do everything on my own without my name being a factor," she said. "I try to keep myself separate from it." As for the nagging charge that she and the likes of fellow famous kids Kendall Jenner and Gigi Hadid were following a path that was ready and waiting for them, Hailey stressed, "I'm not trying to take away from models who have started from scratch and I really appreciate the girls who have had to move from another country and work really hard. I know it's more difficult for them."

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However, good genes—no matter whose they are—can help propel a modeling career. Acting is another story, as double-threat Lily-Rose Depp was recently quick to point out.

The 23-year-old—who was 15 when she made her acting debut in Kevin Smith's Tusk (playing a store clerk alongside the director's daughter, Harley Quinn Smith) and became a Chanel brand ambassador at 16—told Elle in an interview published Nov. 16 that, as Johnny Depp and Vanessa Paradis' daughter, she was "familiar" with the nepo baby tag.

But, she added, "People are going to have preconceived ideas about you or how you got there, and I can definitely say that nothing is going to get you the part except for being right for the part."

Vivien Killilea/Getty Images for Karma International

That caught the attention of Hailey's cousin Ireland Baldwin, who took to TikTok Nov. 22 to relay her own experience as the daughter of Kim Basinger and Alec Baldwin, including meeting with modeling agents who were "just in awe of my mother's presence."

"In anything that I pursue and anything that I do in my life, people are always going to say I have what I have because of my parents, which is true," Ireland said in a follow-up video. "I wouldn't be where I am, I wouldn't have gotten where I am and been able to do what I can do if it weren't for my parents, and I think really where you go wrong is denying that."
But, the 27-year-old continued, "You can continue to work hard and be your own person. And either you're talented, either you're capable or you're not."

Famous Families

She said she understood where Lily-Rose—who's "proven herself in a lot of ways," Ireland noted—was coming from: Surely the two-time César Award nominee was tired of fielding questions about her family and wanted to be treated as her own person with her own accomplishments.

And yet, Ireland noted, there was no denying the difference between being the child of celebrities and coming out of nowhere.

"I think maybe saying what she said is coming out of a defensive place," Ireland observed. "When things could be a lot more simple and understandable and relatable if you just are honest about what you have and why you have what you have."

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She and Lily-Rose were both onto something as far as staying power goes, though.

Sure, the list of actors who got their start thanks to a family member is long—and the number of people who've been able to stick around because of who they're related to is not small—but that last name only gets you so far.

So posited Ben Stiller when he waded into a Twitter debate in July 2021, responding to producer Franklin Leonard's dig at Hopper Penn being cast in a short film from Destry Spielberg and Owen King, in which he tweeted, "Hollywood's a meritocracy, right?"

The 57-year-old son of Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara wrote, "Too easy @franklinleonard. People, working, creating. Everyone has their path. Wish them all the best."

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Leonard, who founded The Black List—which keeps track of the most well-received, still-unproduced screenplays circulating in Hollywood—replied that he wished people like Sean Penn's son, Steven Spielberg's niece and Stephen King's son well, but thought it "important that we acknowledge those paths."

Stiller, who directed Sean (also the son of actors) in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, agreed, but added, "Just speaking from experience, and I don't know any of them, I would bet they all have faced challenges. Different than those with no access to the industry. Show biz as we all know is pretty rough, and ultimately is a meritocracy."

The back-and-forth continued, with Stiller acknowledging that a historic lack of diversity in Hollywood that affects who's making the decisions and getting the opportunities remains a major issue and he himself owed "a huge debt to [his] folks." But, he clarified, "I'm saying that untalented people don't really last if they get a break because of who they are or know or are related to."

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Count Zoë Kravitz among those who was deeply self-conscious about her family and for years didn't want to talk about them at all in relation to her own acting aspirations.

"People would always assume that if I got a job, it was because of that," the 33-year-old daughter of Lisa Bonet and Lenny Kravitz (himself the son of The Jeffersons actress Roxie Roker and news producer Sy Kravitztold Elle in February. "That was hard. But I was incredibly privileged. I got an agent easily. I'm not going to pretend like it didn't help me get into the room. But I had to remember that I work hard, and as a child, I was putting on performances in my grandparents' house. And it had nothing to do with who my family was. It was because I loved it."

Steadily climbing the ladder to bigger and better roles helped root out that insecurity, and now, Zoë said, "It's nice to be in a space where I feel like when people ask me about my parents, I'm not like, 'Let's not talk about that.' I'm like, 'They're awesome. I'm grateful to be their child. And I also am my own human being.'"

Rabbani and Solimene Photography/Getty Images for Versace for H&M

Besides, you can't cast a stone in Hollywood without hitting someone who also has family in the biz. One of Zoë's first movies, 2010's Twelve, co-starred Emma Roberts (niece of Julia, daughter of Eric) and was narrated by Kiefer Sutherland, who shared with The Guardian in January that he once told his father's agent "that I could do a really good Donald Sutherland for half the money."

Kiefer, who's been acting for 40 years, said his dad's influence "was to make my career as diversified and interesting as possible, which he taught me by doing, not by saying, which was really cool."

Many others would agree. (About their own experience, but probably about Donald Sutherland, too.)

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"It is an amazing privilege to be a child of someone who works in an industry that you are interested in and eventually work in," Bryce Dallas Howard, daughter of actor turned Oscar-winning filmmaker Ron Howard, told The Daily Beast in 2020. "It's a privilege for that person to have success in their own right. But there was no greater privilege than the fact that my dad was supportive of me, empowered me, and showed me respect—real respect—from day one."

Like Colin Hanks, the Jurassic World franchise star got her start in one of her dad's movies, playing "Redheaded Audience Girl" in Parenthood when she was 8—but the now-41-year-old knows she's put in the work since.

"So sometimes insecurities can creep up, or you'll hear somebody say, like, 'Oh, she only got that because of X, Y, or Z,'" Bryce said. "But that's very small. That's a very, very, very tiny, tiny, tiny downside in comparison to all the encouragement and support and inevitable opportunities that are very, very real. So it certainly is not lost on me that it is a best-case scenario."

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Maya Hawke, who made her acting debut five years ago playing free-spirited Jo March in Masterpiece's Little Women miniseries, also couldn't help but fall in love with the profession she was privy to since birth as the daughter of Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman. (The exes' son, Levon Thurman-Hawke, is also an actor and happens to be in Zoë Kravitz's upcoming directorial debut, Pussy Island.)

"I'm very grateful for the fact that they made it so easy for me to do the thing that I love," the 24-year-old told People in May 2021. "I think I'll get a couple chances on their name and then if I suck, I'll get kicked out of the kingdom. And that's what should happen. So I'm just going to try not to suck."

After watching her steal every scene as wisecracking Robin in Stranger Things, the people Maya is not related to have spoken—and they want to see more.