The Complete Evolution Of Elisabeth Shue

Over the course of her life, Elisabeth Shue has been many things. She's been a soccer player, a commercial actress, an '80s teen fave, an Oscar-nominated leading lady, a mother, a college student, and a television mainstay, though not necessarily in that order. She's had periods when she had many movies coming out at once, and she has had times when she's gone a while between high-profile projects.

The sense that Shue frequently disappears from public life for long stretches at a time might stem from the fact that she is uninterested in her own celebrity, but she loves being an actor. That's why, no matter how her career is going at any given time, she seems ultimately fine with where life takes her. "I just really enjoy the work that I do," she told Pop Entertainment. "I find things. Every year, I seem to find one movie. Even if it doesn't see the light of day, I still find a film that challenges me as an actress. I still work with people I really respect. As long as I can do that, that's really the point."

That state of acceptance, however, took a while to settle into. Read on for a look back at the complete evolution of Elisabeth Shue, from her time on television in the '80s all the way up through her current status as a happily working mom of three who doesn't mind getting older. 

Her childhood wasn't always happy

Elisabeth Shue grew up in South Orange, New Jersey, as the only daughter in the family; she had three brothers. Her father was a lawyer who ran for Congress when Shue was only 5 years old, and she helped him campaign. "We drove around in parades and met people in bingo games," she later recalled to The Boston Globe. "We've always just grown up with this sense of idealism about politics."

Unfortunately, it seems that Shue's home life was not always a happy one. According to an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Shue's parents divorced, and her father was largely absent from their lives after that. Her brother Andrew Shue told the newspaper that they used to have to make milk last longer by adding powdered milk to it, and the four kids mostly spent time on their own while their mother commuted to work at a bank.

As a teenager, Elisabeth began dipping her toe into the world of entertainment. She picked up roles in a number of commercials. The future star helped sell everything from Chewels to Honeywell, but her longest gig was what she later referred to on "The Rich Eisen Show" as "the Burger King girl." One ad even put Elisabeth Shue on screen with fellow stars-to-be Lea Thompson and Sarah Michelle Gellar! 

She was the Karate Kid's love interest

One of Elisabeth Shue's first big roles was as Ali in "The Karate Kid," the love interest of Ralph Macchio's character Daniel. Shue was a bit intimidated on set; she later recalled to Sports Illustrated that she and the other kids were in awe of Macchio. "Ralph was a big star compared to the rest of us," she said. "We were all like: Woah, he has a manager."

She later joked about being better at both soccer and karate than Macchio was, though her character wasn't as good at soccer as she was. As for martial arts, well: "Of course, I didn't train," she joked on "The Rich Eisen Show." "I'm sure I would've been much better if I had trained ... I could've kicked his ass." Furthermore, Shue said she wasn't sure the movie would be a hit. "I was worried," she confessed. "I thought it sounded a little strange. 'The Karate Kid'? And Ralph being Ralph, I didn't think that he would have any credibility as a karate expert."

The movie was a hit after all, and Shue is proud of how the movie has demonstrated staying power all these decades later. "All my kids have watched it," she said. "There's so much that's good about it." Shue herself was one of the good things about the movie, and the budding star's role would soon lead to bigger and better opportunities for her.

She starred in Adventures in Babysitting

Elisabeth Shue's next big role was "Adventures in Babysitting." She played the titular babysitter, Chris, a teenage caretaker from the suburbs who, through a series of misadventures, gets stranded in Chicago with the kids she's watching. The movie was mostly a critical success.

Nowadays, the film represents an important part of Shue's early career. After all, it was Shue's first time as a leading lady. She reflected on the movie's legacy in an interview with Today, ruminating, "Looking back at the few great roles that I feel like I've had, and I think there are a few, and I really do believe in my heart that is one of them because she gets to carry the movie." 

The following year, Shue was paired with Tom Cruise in "Cocktail." While filming the flair-bartending romance, Shue and Cruise shot a scene involving a helicopter. According to camera operator Bill Bennett (via The Sun), Shue ran toward the chopper and Cruise stopped her before she could injure herself on the tail rotor. "Tom is a pilot, rated in both airplanes and helicopters, and instantly saw the danger," Bennett wrote. "He lunged after her, but only was able grab her legs, tackling her to the ground. He rolled her over, dragging her at the same time, and you could see the momentary anger on her face." Thankfully, she realized that Cruise had just saved her life.

She witnessed the tragic death of her brother

The year 1988 turned out to be a pivotal one in Elisabeth Shue's life. She went on vacation with her family, and her older brother William fell out of a tree while on a tire swing. He died from his injuries. According to the book "Healing: Advice for Recovering Your Inner Strength and Spirit from the World's Most Famous Survivors," Shue witnessed his death. "[My brother's] death stripped away the dishonesty in my life," she said. "What happened to Will taught me that human beings are fragile. His death taught me not to be afraid anymore of who I was." Shue said the incident put her in therapy, which wound up being beneficial.

Also around this time, Shue met and fell in love with documentary filmmaker Davis Guggenheim. At the time, she was still struggling with William's loss. Guggenheim later told the Los Angeles Times, "I don't think you can continue after that and live on the surface. You cannot approach life without seeing there's a wonderful, horrible duality to things." Guggenheim acknowledged that the shocking event may have provided an unexpected gift for his now-wife's career. "What it means is that she can suddenly, as an actress, dig a whole lot deeper," he said.

The Back to the Future franchise increased her star power at a tough time

While Elisabeth Shue was experiencing the emotional fallout of her brother's death, "Back to the Future" star Claudia Wells dealt with her own family tragedy when it came time to bring Jennifer back for "Back to the Future Part II." "My mother had fourth-stage lymphoma," she later told The Huffington Post. "I had so much happening personally that deep down, I never considered reprising my role, and deep in my soul, I knew this was the right choice for me."

Elisabeth Shue instead took over the role of Jennifer in "Back to the Future Part II" and "Part III." The character was heavily involved in the second film, giving Shue something to focus on through her recent loss, but the character only appeared briefly in the trilogy's concluding film.

The relationships Shue formed in the sequels, however, would go strong for decades. In 2012, she worked with Christopher Lloyd again on "Piranha 3D." In 2023, her husband, Davis Guggenheim, directed "Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie," a documentary about Shue's former co-star Michael J. Fox's life and his experience with Parkinson's disease. Michael Harte, the doc's editor, revealed to The New York Times that Guggenheim wasn't as familiar with Fox's oeuvre — or his wife's! — as one might have expected. "I don't think Davis had seen the 'Back to the Future' films before this, and his wife is in them," he said. 

Leaving Las Vegas brought her critical recognition

In 1995, Elisabeth Shue entered a new phase of her career. While she had previously starred in major commercial successes, with "Leaving Las Vegas," the actor found something new: massive critical acclaim. In the film, she plays Sera, a Las Vegas sex worker who befriends a suicidal alcoholic (Nicolas Cage). In the past, most of Shue's films had been less adult, but she told Roger Ebert that she was ready to tackle the film's more challenging material. 

She hypothesized that she was used to playing good characters because she was trying to impress her father, but that was no longer at the front of her mind. "I think that's probably why I played so many good roles — because that was who I pretended to be, while I was getting away with what I was really doing in my life," she reflected. "When you grow up and become a woman, you're finally accepting yourself and not trying to hide."

The movie was very well received. Shue's performance was singled out for awards recognition by a number of voting bodies, and she was nominated for a BAFTA, a Golden Globe, and an Oscar for her role. Unfortunately, she didn't win any of the three, but she didn't let that get her down. As she told The Virginian-Pilot, "I knew what the outcome would be. I wasn't surprised. I was glad for Susan [Sarandon, who won the Oscar instead]. I felt she deserved it."

She went back to Harvard to finish her degree

In the 1980s, Elisabeth Shue was a star on the rise, but she had other aspirations. She had attended Wellesley College and Harvard University but kept having to leave to manage her acting career. "The only problem with taking time off from school to make a movie is the break in continuity of my studies. It's kind of chopped up," she told UPI. "I've been going to college for six years now."

Though she only had one semester left at the time, her acting career really took off, and Shue didn't finish her studies. She went back to Harvard in 2000, this time determined to finish. "My brain was starting to dry up," she told Movieline. "In Hollywood, you're fortunate if you get a role where your brain is engaged, but those experiences are rare." Though it might have been distracting to have an Oscar-nominated actor walking around Cambridge, Shue had some cover: Natalie Portman was there, too. She told People that she saw Portman around campus many times but never introduced herself. "I think that it also helped my anonymity because there was already someone there who was already much more famous there on the campus," she said.

This time, she stuck with it, graduating with a degree in political science. She told The Morning Call, "Graduating was the greatest achievement of my life so far, apart from being a mom."

She turned her pain into art

Almost two decades after her brother William died, Elisabeth Shue's family approached by her with a proposition. Her brother Andrew Shue (a former "Melrose Place" star) and her husband, Davis Guggenheim, were developing a film called "Gracie." The movie would be about a young girl who plays on an all-boys soccer team, as Elisabeth herself once had. It was also inspired, in big part, by Elisabeth's relationship with William. Furthermore, they wanted her to play a version of her mother. "At that point, I didn't have any choice," Shue told The Traveler Watchman. "Looking back, I'm glad that they did get me involved."

The filming experience was an emotional one. "There were many surreal moments during the filming that really took me by surprise, very emotional moments," Shue reflected. The biggest hurdle, she said, was filming the older brother character's death scene. According to New Jersey Monthly, the family financed the film without studio backing and chose to film it where they grew up, in New Jersey. "It's where we met our friends, where we felt our first moments of independence," Shue explained. "We roamed. The entire town was our backyard."

The movie was ultimately a mild critical success. Still, the experience of turning their pain into art was a cathartic one. Guggenheim said that the film gave them "that sense of incredible transcendence — where you're able to look outside yourself and outside your family."

She played herself in Hamlet 2

For the most part, Elisabeth Shue had a relatively quiet 2000s. In 2008, however, she returned to the big screen playing one of her most unusual roles yet: that of Elisabeth Shue. In Andrew Fleming's raucous musical comedy "Hamlet 2," Shue played herself as an out-of-work actor now making a living as a nurse in Tucson, Arizona. "I just, you know, got kind of sick of the business, you know? Just sick of all the horrible people," her character explains to a starstruck Dana (Steve Coogan), the film's main character.

Shue told Pop Entertainment that she was flattered by Dana's joy. "I would love it if people recognized me the way he recognizes me in the movie," she said. "It's so entertaining and over the top. You feel so much love and appreciation." Furthermore, Shue wasn't offended by the film's joke that her career in Hollywood was over. "Sometimes your ego suffers when you go through the ups and downs, but I'm actually happier now than I've ever been. So, I think I was probably in a very confident spot in reality to say how great to make fun of my insecurity," she said.

A few years after the film's release, Shue told she wished it had done better. "I mean, you're so used to the disappointments of films that don't turn out to be what you had hoped," she said. "But it is sad when something so worthy [doesn't find an audience]."

Shue is a mother to three kids

For an Oscar-nominated star who was in some of the most famous movies of the 1980s and '90s, Elisabeth Shue keeps a relatively low profile, as far as her personal life goes. After her Oscar nomination, she told The Virginian-Pilot, "The celebrity thing is bad news. It's a reality I never had to face before. ... I wasn't prepared."

Shue has, however, shared that she is a mother three times over. She and Davis Guggenheim have a son named Miles and daughters named Stella and Agnes. "It changed me in a lot of ways and then it didn't change me at all in a lot of ways, which I think is very positive," she told Moviehole. "I think that it deepens your life, most obviously, and the focus is not always on you, which I think is very helpful." 

Having children made Shue reconsider her priorities. On "The Tavis Smiley Show," she spoke about the fact that she found herself deciding what she cared about more: her family, or her career? She picked family. "I thought, 'Okay, at the end of my life I'm going to have videos that are stacked up on a shelf or I'm going to have three children that will be my bed when I die,'" she said. "And that choice was so easy when I thought about each film. It's an amazing experience, but it ends up just being a video, in the end."

She was grateful to join CSI

Right after she starred in "The Karate Kid," Elisabeth Shue spent a year on the single-season Craig T. Nelson show "Call to Glory." After the show was canceled, she returned to film and spent the bulk of her career there, save a guest appearance here and a two-episode stint on "Curb Your Enthusiasm" there. In 2012, however, Shue's career entered yet another new phase: television star.

The "Piranha 3D" star joined the cast of long-running CBS procedural "CSI," playing crime scene investigator Julie Finlay. Reflecting that her time on the show coincided with the release of films like "Chasing Mavericks" and "House at the End of the Street," Shue named one emotion in particular: gratitude. "I'm very grateful to be working. I'm always grateful," she told The Columbus Dispatch. "And the older you get, you get more grateful and appreciative."

In a behind-the-scenes interview for the Golden Globes YouTube channel, Shue made sure to point out the fact that she had joined a show that had been on air for more than a decade. "What I find amazing about 'CSI' is that the crew who have been working 13 years, they are completely committed. And I think when you show up on a set where the crew cares so deeply, it makes it a lot easier for you to bring your best." Shue would ultimately spend four seasons on the show, filming 71 episodes.

The Boys brought her back to television

Some of Elisabeth Shue's most famous roles are in genre films. The "Back to the Future" sequels are sci-fi comedies; "Hollow Man," "House at the End of the Street," and "Piranha 3D" are all horror movies. It seems inevitable, then, that Shue would eventually dip her toe into the most popular genre currently dominating Hollywood: superheroes. However, she's never been one to follow the expected route. Rather than joining a blockbuster, Shue's first superhero experience is instead the Amazon Prime series "The Boys."

On Season 1, Shue starred as the deliciously devious Madelyn Stillwell, an executive at Vought, the company managing the supes. After complimenting the show's writing, Shue told JoBlo, "I loved my character. I just thought she was really complicated and a character I don't usually get a chance to play." She elaborated that she was a fan of the superhero boom when it started, but she began to resent the genre's ubiquity in Hollywood because it offered few roles for people like her. "What's wonderful about this show is that we wouldn't be here without the superhero genre, but we get to take that genre and make it character-driven, so that I can actually be in this!" she said.

Though (spoilers!) Shue's character was killed off in Season 1, she's still part of the "The Boys" family. In 2022, she voiced Stillwell in the animated spinoff "The Boys: Diabolical."

Cobra Kai let her close the loop on Ali

While Elisabeth Shue's character Ali was an integral part of the first "Karate Kid" movie, her character wasn't in the sequels. Looking back, that didn't sit right with franchise star Ralph Macchio, who told Entertainment Weekly, "I would've handled it totally differently now. When that character was written off, I would've picked up the phone." He explained that he was simply too busy to consider Shue's feelings then, reflecting, "I never looked at it from her perspective. It was always from my perspective."

"The Karate Kid" franchise picked up years later with the television show "Cobra Kai," and Shue got a chance to bring Ali back for a more fitting ending. Shue told Entertainment Weekly that the part came about because she was working with director Dan Trachtenberg on "The Boys," and he was a massive fan of the series. Shue looked into it and met with producers, and she was convinced to return after she watched the show. "When I saw how they actually structured the show and the sort of beautiful immaturity of the characters, who haven't really grown up as much as you would hope in 35 years, I can see why Ali would still be a part of their journey," she said.

The stars got along great when they found themselves back on set together. "It was literally like a high school reunion; it felt like no time had passed," she reflected. "Like none at all."

She likes getting older

When she was younger, Elisabeth Shue was nervous about getting older. She expressed her aging anxiety in a 2000 interview with Movieline after the journalist reminded her she'd once said, "The best thing about getting older is accepting yourself for who you are and not taking any bulls***." Shue confirmed that she still felt that way, adding, "The hard thing is that when you finally start feeling good about yourself inside, your outsides start going away."

Over two decades later, Shue's outlook on life seems to have changed. She told AARP in 2017 that she was focused on maintaining her health by playing tennis, explaining, "You need to embrace getting older as a gift. I do believe that. One of my brothers passed away when he was nearly 27, so I'm always very aware of how lucky I am to grow older."

Nowadays, Shue has made peace with both her insides and outsides. She told Page Six in June 2023 that she was no longer nervous about getting older, and in fact, she said she's looking forward to it! While she refused to rule out ever getting plastic surgery in the Movieline interview, Shue now has no plans to do so. "I'm curious to see one day what I was intended to look like as an old lady," she revealed. "I want to know what it's going to be like, and I want to see it, and I'm not afraid."