The lure of the dark side for bright young things

Hollywood's new generation is tearing up the rulebook to mix mainstream movie appearances with deeper, more challenging indie fare. Tom Teodorczuk hears why

The Seyfried syndrome" is how one LA producer describes the increasing trend for young Hollywood stars to mix making big blockbusters with appearing in low-budget indie films. He was referring to the 24-year-old actress Amanda Seyfried, who switches between acting in undemanding studio rom-coms (Mamma Mia, Dear John) and small, little-seen, edgy independent movies (Chloe, Boogie Woogie).

It's not just Seyfried though. The low-budget indie movie has joined non-stop paparazzi scrutiny and the unruly hairstyle as essential components of young Hollywood stardom.

Up-and-coming stars have long gravitated in the direction of doing small-scale movies. Consider John Hughes's 1980s muse Molly Ringwald following up Pretty in Pink with an appearance as Cordelia in Jean-Luc Godard's ill-fated remake of King Lear, or River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves hustling their way through Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho. And Leonardo DiCaprio became an A-lister with Titanic on the back of gaining credibility in indie films made during his teens. But the changing nature of the film business has accelerated this trend. The credit crunch resulted in many sources of funding for independent film drying up, leading to a drastic reduction in the number being made. At the same time Hollywood studios are more risk-averse than ever, focusing on remakes and sequels. The "middle-budget" film, so long a haven for young acting talent, has become a rare commodity.

Now you'll see young heartthrob Zac Efron move from High School Musical to headlining Me and Orson Welles, Richard Linklater's comedy about the 1937 Mercury Theatre production of Julius Caesar. After sitting on the shelf for a few years, Me and Orson Welles died a death at the box office, illustrating the principal peril of the indie leap – an alienation of the actor's fanbase. The commendable efforts, for instance, of teen pop stars Hilary Duff and Mandy Moore to send themselves up, in War, Inc and American Dreamz respectively, were barely noticed.

Yet occasionally the gamble can pay off handsomely. The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow's Iraq-war Oscar-winner, is an example of a low-budget film ($11m) reaping dividends for its three leading actors Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty. When I caught up with Bigelow during The Hurt Locker's awards season march, she said she thought the new breed of stars possessed a more creative spirit than previous generations: "It's undeniable – they're the wave of the future. That's my personal belief. They're so inspiring."

According to one independent film producer, speaking on condition of anonymity, landing a teen celebrity suits both parties. "With a teen star attached we can secure the funding to get the movie made and they get a shot at being taken seriously," he says.

"For them it's liberating to be in a film where they experience creative freedom and not have a studio breathing down their neck."

Take the stars of the Twilight saga. Away from their vampire and virginity antics that do such a roaring trade in the multiplexes, Robert Pattinson and Kristin Stewart eschew more lucrative offers to act in smaller films. Greg Mottola, who directed Stewart in last year's quirky coming-of-age comedy Adventureland, thinks by doing so they can escape being casualties of the 21st-century fame freakshow. "They want to cut their teeth, and it's impressive to me that they're confident enough to do that and not be worried that they'll risk cutting into their fans," he says. "I think they are savvy enough to see that people who don't tap into that burn out, become tabloid fodder and are deemed irrelevant so quickly. They used to be famous and within a year or two they've become yesterday's news."

Stewart, Mottola says, "is a very serious person. She came on the set every day totally prepared like a supreme Method actor ready to do whatever it takes." Yet Twilight devotees don't seem to have been all that interested in seeing any of her other work. Welcome to the Rileys, directed by Ridley Scott's son Jake, in which Stewart plays a stripper opposite James Gandolfini, will finally be released in America in the autumn almost two years since it finished filming. Despite rave reviews at the Sundance Film Festival, The Runaways, a musical biopic featuring Stewart as Joan Jett, didn't take flight upon its American release in February, though. Indeed, disputes over the The Runaways's distribution led to the resignation of Bob Berney, the head of Apparition, the independent movie studio that released it.

Robert Pattinson, Stewart's Twilight co-star and reported love interest, is also blazing the indie trail. At a pre-release London premiere last year of Little Ashes, in which he portrayed Salvador Dali, Twilight fans snapped up tickets to the advance screening in such numbers that Little Ashes's director, writer or producers couldn't get in to watch their film. But even though Pattinson appeared naked in Little Ashes, "Twi-hards" found the notion of a Euro arthouse film depicting the relationship between Dali and Federico Garcia Lorca to be of limited appeal; Little Ashes still never expanded beyond 16 screens.

Amber Heard, a 24-year-old starlet who rose to prominence in teen TV shows before graduating to indie film in The Joneses alongside David Duchovny and Demi Moore, and the Bret Easton Ellis adaptation The Informers, insists the objective is to stay underneath the radar. "Sometimes it's nice to do films based on the merits of the script without the lure of it being seen by a ton of people or being popular or widely distributed," she says. "Sometimes it's nice to work on a project just because it's a good project."

Veteran director Joel Schumacher, who directed Kiefer Sutherland in The Lost Boys, Julia Roberts in Flatliners, Colin Farrell in Tigerland and seemingly most of the Eighties brat pack in St Elmo's Fire, claims the shifting movie-business landscape suits teen actors. "The worst thing a young actor can do in Hollywood is to keep doing the same thing," he says. "They have to experiment with more innovative, darker movies to advance their career. If the film doesn't work, it's not their fault."

Schumacher's next film is Twelve, an adaptation of Nick McDonell's gritty New York novel, which stars Gossip Girl's Chace Crawford and Emma Roberts, Julia's niece. Roberts can soon be seen over here in Lymelife. Having established herself with a Nickelodeon TV series and playing the title role in the film of Nancy Drew, portraying a precocious, angst-ridden teenager in Lymelife – opposite Alec Baldwin and Cynthia Nixon – marked something of a departure for Roberts. Lymelife director Derick Martini admits to having reservations casting Roberts in his debut film. "I was a little depressed at not having found the right girl for that role when the casting director said Emma should come in and audition," he says. "I'd never seen anything she'd done and when the casting director said she was in Nancy Drew, I thought, 'well forget it, that strikes the wrong chord for me'. I fell into the trap of just assuming she was a kid actress who was going to be stuck in that rut and not going to give a truthful performance. Boy was I wrong. I was floored by her performance."

Historically, Hollywood agents have advised their young stars to be wary of plunging into independent film's choppy waters. But Martini says Emma Roberts was actively seeking a role like her part in Lymelife: "Her management was intentionally looking to do a mature quality piece."

One agent I spoke with said that blockbusters are becoming an increasing source of frustration for young actors. He cited the instances of Megan Fox (being fired from Transformers 3 for saying, "Michael Bay wants to be like Hitler on his sets, and he is") and Shia LaBeouf (who recently confessed Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull, in which he played Harrison Ford's son, "dropped the ball" as regards to the legacy of the Indiana Jones films).

"The movie's now so much the star in Hollywood that the trend for [young actors] to go off and do indie movies will proliferate," the agent said. "The challenge lies in getting their fans to be as interested in paying to see the movies as they are in looking at the on-set pictures online."

'Lymelife' is released on 2 July. 'The Runaways' is released on 27 August