32 actors who played the 'girl next door' perfectly

We round up the actors who embodied the girl next door trope to perfection, from Jennifer Aniston to Doris Day

A composite image of Jennifer Grey, Jennifer Aniston and Katie Holmes, three examples of actors who played the 'girl next door' perfectly.
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The ‘girl next door’ is one of the most enduring tropes of film and TV, and though the character can seem a bit old-fashioned, there are several examples of girls next door who redefine the characteristics of the figure.

The girl next door often actually lives next door (or across the street) from the male protagonist and is sometimes his childhood friend. Often portrayed in contrast to a more outwardly seductive, outgoing woman in the narrative, she is sweet, down-to-earth, supportive and approachable. The examples we’ve featured here range from film to TV, recent examples to Old Hollywood icons, but these actors all played the classic role to perfection.

32 actors who played the 'girl next door' perfectly

Jennifer Aniston in Friends and The Object of My Affection

Jennifer Aniston.

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After being cast as the literal girl next door in Friends and starring in a range of romcoms in the 90s and 2000s, Jennifer Aniston’s off-screen personality also started being associated with the trope. One of these examples is the late-90s film The Object of My Affection, in which Aniston plays a charming, down-to-earth social worker who falls in love with her new roommate, played by Paul Rudd.

Mia Sara in Ferris Bueller's Day Off

Mia Sara.

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In the classic 80s film Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Matthew Broderick’s Ferris bunks off from school and goes on an adventure with his best friend and girlfriend, the girl next door Sloane Peterson. Sloane is supportive of Ferris’s (often misguided) decisions and is played perfectly by Mia Sara, who decided to mostly step away from her acting career in the 2000s.

Kirsten Dunst in Spider-Man

Kirsten Dunst.

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The character of Mary Jane in the Spiderman series is a typical girl next door, but especially when it comes to Kirsten Dunst’s portrayal of the love interest in Sam Raimi’s 2002 film. She lives next door to Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker, who has had a crush on her since childhood, and she is sweet, energetic, bubbly and a little naive. This film also produced one of the most iconic on-screen kisses, now known simply as the ‘upside-down kiss’ or ‘Spider-Man kiss’.

Laura Prepon in That 70s Show

Laura Prepon.

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In the 90s-released That 70s Show, Laura Prepon’s Donna is an independent, smart and witty feminist, reflecting the second-wave movement of the time. But she still fits into the trope of being the main character Eric’s girl next door, as on top of actually living across the road from him, the two have been friends for years, and eventually settle down and marry.

Claudia Wells in Back to the Future

Claudia Wells and Matthew Broderick.

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Along with Sloane Peterson in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Claudia Wells’ Jennifer was another 80s girl next door who reflected the ideals of the time. Described by the director as an “All-American girl”, Jennifer is positive and open-minded, providing support to the film’s protagonist Marty McFly.

Doris Day in several films

Doris Day.

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.In the 50s and 60s, American actress Doris Day was widely known as the girl next door throughout her extensive filmography. She rarely strayed from the sweet and innocent persona and there’s even a biography of her life named after the trope. In the 1978 film Grease, Rizzo sings about Day while mocking the squeaky-clean Sandy.

Alexis Bledel in Gilmore Girls

Alexis Bledel.

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While Rory was an outspoken feminist and made some problematic choices throughout the iconic noughties show, in the first couple of seasons, she was portrayed as a sweet, down-to-earth, if sometimes naive character. Of course, her love of the cosy, wholesome small town in which she was brought up, Stars Hollow, is another reason why she was seen as the classic girl next door to several of her love interests.

Heather Langenkamp in Nightmare on Elm Street

Heather Lengenkamp.

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Described by director Wes Craven as an “all-American, girl-next-door” character, Nancy Thompson in Nightmare on Elm Street was smart, sensible and self-reliant. Her resourcefulness also makes her one of the earliest and most iconic examples of the ‘final girl’ trope in horror cinema.

Kaley Cuoco in The Big Bang Theory

Kaley Cuoco.

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Penny (whose last name we never officially find out) is a literal girl next door in the comedy series The Big Bang Theory, as she lives across the hall from Leonard and Sheldon. She fits into the trope by being supportive, happy-go-lucky and down-to-earth, but she later becomes a main character in the series with her own storylines, rather than just supporting the storylines of the boys.

Alyson Hannigan in Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Alyson Hannigan.

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Alyson Hannigan got her breakthrough role as the shy, sometimes naive and vulnerable Willow, who became one of the most popular characters of the show and of the 90s and 00s television in general. Hannigan would later play the girl next door in several more roles, such as in the American Pie film series and, to some extent, in the sitcom How I Met Your Mother, where her character Lily is contrasted with the more independent, career-driven Robin.

Jennifer Garner in 13 Going on 30

Jennifer Garner.

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Jennifer Garner’s iconic 2004 romcom sees her fall in love with her ‘boy next door’, played by Mark Ruffalo. A wishful 13-year-old who wakes up in her 30-year-old body with her dream life as a fashion editor, Jenna is unsurprisingly naive and idealistic and learns throughout the film that popularity is not everything.

Rachel Weisz in The Mummy

Rachel Weisz.

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In the beloved late-90s film The Mummy, Rachel Weisz’s Evelyn is introduced as a clumsy yet intelligent librarian. As well as being fun-loving and easygoing, she’s portrayed as a sweet and wholesome character.

Anne Hathaway in The Devil Wears Prada

Anne Hathaway.

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Hathaway’s girl-next-door performance in The Devil Wears Prada is a key part of the storyline, as her decidedly ‘unfashionable’ looks and clothing sense is integral to the journey she takes as Miranda Priestly’s initially hapless, then brilliant assistant at fashion magazine Runway. While she becomes more glamorous throughout the film and begins to fit more and more into the world of fashion journalism, her caring and down-to-earth personality never wavers.

Lili Reinhart in Riverdale

Lili Reinhart.

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Based on the Archie Comics character, Lili Reinhart’s Betty Cooper in Riverdale is the quintessential girl next door. She’s domestic, caring and often found looking after children or animals, while also being smart and level-headed. As it was her breakout role, Lili Reinhart was often perceived to be a girl next door in real life, too, and she played against that by starring as a sex worker in 2019’s Hustlers.

Mandy Moore in A Walk to Remember

Mandy Moore.

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This tearjerker film from 2002 depicted Moore’s Jamie as a typical girl next door who was sweet, idealistic and not popular at school. She falls for Shane West’s rebellious Landon Carter and, despite her illness, they share a romantic summer together.

Rachel Leigh Cook in She’s All That

Rachel Leigh Cook.

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One of the most popular teen movies of the 90s included a now-iconic ‘makeover’ scene with Rachel Leigh Cook’s smart and introverted Laney Boggs. As is typical with the girl next door trope, Laney is set up in opposition to prom queen and ‘mean girl’ Taylor, played by Jodi Lyn O’Keefe.

Thora Birch in American Beauty

Thora Birch.

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While a literal girl next door in terms of living across the street from her love interest, Thora Birch’s Jane redefined the trope in the late-90s movie American Beauty. Though much more shy and introspective than her cheerleader best friend Angela (Mena Suvari), Jane is also revealed to be nihilistic and frustrated with her suburban lifestyle.

Donna Reed in It’s a Wonderful Life

Donna Reed and Jimmy Stewart.

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In the classic 1946 Christmas film, It's a Wonderful Life, Donna Reed’s character Mary spends the majority of the movie in love with protagonist George Bailey, She acts as one of the most important reminders to Jimmy Stewart’s character that his life is actually very full, despite not having ever left his hometown. In contrast to her husband, Mary loves their small town of Bedford Falls and has no desire to go anywhere else.

Lana Condor in To all the Boys

Lana Condor.

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A recent example of the girl next door is Lana Condor’s Lara Jean in the To All the Boys… film trilogy. Studious, smart and intent on making others happy, Lara Jean typifies the trope while also being at the centre of each of the films, and ultimately making decisions for herself, rather than for those around her.

Jenna Fischer in The Office

Jenna Fischer.

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One half of the much-loved sitcom couple Pam and Jim, Pam Beesly is shy, sensible and domestic. She initially plans to marry her childhood sweetheart, before realising she has feelings for her ‘boy next door’, Jim, who she works with at Dunder-Mifflin.

Katharine Ross in The Graduate

Katharine Ross.

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The iconic 1967 film The Graduate is perhaps best known for its portrayal of an affair between Dustin Hoffman’s slacker Benjamin Braddock and the older Mrs Robinson (Anne Bancroft). But it also features a girl next door trope with Mrs Robinson’s daughter, played by Katharine Ross. Ross’s Elaine is naive and innocent, in comparison to her much more forthcoming mother.

Ali Wong in Always be my Maybe

Ali Wong.

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The 2019 romcom Always be my Maybe features a girl next door and a boy next door. Sasha and Marcus were childhood friends who later drifted, but are brought back into each other’s lives in their 30s. Comedian Ali Wong stated that she wanted to make a new version of the classic romcom When Harry Met Sally.

Judy Garland in Meet me in St Louis

Judy Garland.

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One of the characteristics of the girl next door is that she’s often a ‘homebody’ who loves the small town or city where she grew up. In the classic film Meet Me in St Louis, Judy Garland’s Esther is horrified at the thought of having to leave their Missouri home, and spends much of the film enamoured with her ‘boy next door’.

Katie Holmes in Dawson’s Creek

Katie Holmes.

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Dawson’s Creek was one of the most iconic and well-known teen sitcoms in its day, propelling the careers of many of its stars. One of these was Katie Holmes, who played Dawson’s best friend Joey, a classic girl next door who has been close to Dawson her whole life. Joey is initially intimidated by newcomer and ‘cool girl’ Jen, played by Michelle Williams, but they later become friends. 

Jennifer Grey in Dirty Dancing

Jennifer Grey.

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The girl next door is often contrasted with a more sexually liberated, outwardly erotic woman and in Dirty Dancing, several women at the Kellerman’s resort where the film takes place are set up in opposition to protagonist Baby. Stepping out of relative obscurity to play the main role in one of the most beloved films ever made, Jennifer Grey became synonymous with her girl-next-door persona.

Molly Ringwald in Pretty in Pink and Sixteen Candles

Molly Ringwald.

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Molly Ringwald appeared in several of director John Hughes’ teen movies from the 80s, including Pretty in Pink, Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club. Her characters were often popular, sweet and all-American and Ringwald later said in interviews that the girl-next-door persona she was connected to was very different to how she really is.

Robin Wright in Forrest Gump

Robin Wright.

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As is common with the trope, Jenny meets Forrest when they’re both children, and he is immediately smitten. While the two are great friends in childhood, they later drift, and Wright’s character strays from the trope as she gets involved with the hippie movement in the 70s, providing a foil to Forrest’s salt-of-the-earth persona. However, for a few years before her untimely death, Jenny becomes the girl next door that Forrest has always seen her as, living with him as they raise their child together.

Drew Barrymore in Never Been Kissed

Drew Barrymore.

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Despite her tumultuous childhood and teen years, including issues with alcoholism and drug addiction when she was just thirteen, Drew Barrymore would later be known for her bubbly, friendly and naive persona in several of her films, including Charlie’s Angels and Never Been Kissed

Daisy Edgar-Jones in Normal People

Daisy Edgar-Jones.

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As with plenty of more recent portrayals of the girl next door, Daisy Edgar-Jones’ Marianne in the 2020 adaptation of Normal People differs from the more classic examples of the trope. While shy, smart and definitely supportive towards Connell throughout the series, she’s also not afraid to stand up for herself and is shown to be very independent.

Olivia Newton-John in Grease

Olivia Newton-John.

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Grease’s Sandy Olsson is one of the more over-the-top examples of a girl next door, whose innocence and naivety often frustrate those around her (especially Rizzo, the ‘leader’ of The Pink Ladies, the group of girls Sandy befriends when she joins Rydell High School). However, she is repeatedly shown to be smart, sensitive and sure of herself, and by the end of the film, she has transformed into a ‘greaser girl’.

Kirsten Dunst in The Virgin Suicides

Kirsten Dunst in 1999.

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While not a romantic comedy - the genre in which we often find the girl next door trope - Sofia Coppola’s 1999 feature film debut The Virgin Suicides flips the trope on its head, revealing the dangers of romanticising the girl next door without really seeing her. Each of the five Lisbon sisters can be said to fit the trope, but Kirsten Dunst’s Lux Lisbon is the most alluring to the group of boys who watch her from their windows.

Cara Delevigne in Paper Towns

Cara Delevigne.

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As with John Green’s earlier novel Looking for Alaska, Paper Towns and its subsequent film adaptation is an example of the girl-next-door trope re-examined. Nat Wolff’s Quentin has been obsessed with Cara Delevigne’s Margo since they were children, and he sees her as the kooky, ‘manic pixie dream girl’ type figure he wants to be with. But both the novel and film go to great lengths to prove that Quentin’s refusal to truly ‘see’ Margo for who she is is one of the reasons they don’t work together.

Hannah Holway
Shopping writer

Hannah is the UK Shopping Writer for woman&home. As a shopping writer, Hannah has written on everything from period pants to wine subscriptions, and is especially interested in sustainable alternatives to well-known products, as well as books and homeware accessories. 

Before she joined the team at woman&home Hannah headed up the social media accounts for Wonderland in 2019, where she was also a Contributing Editor for the magazine’s sister titles. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Hannah also explored evolving shopping trends at New York Magazine’s The Strategist UK, researching everything from face masks to status candles and even pens.