Henry Thomas, child star of 'E.T.,' reflects on classic film on 30th anniversary
TORONTO - There was a lot of pressure resting on Henry Thomas's tiny shoulders when he was cast in "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial," since the potential success of the tear-jerking fantasy classic was in part pinned on the pre-teen's ability to form a believable bond with the titular alien.
But Thomas, who was 10 when the influential film was released, was fortunate — he was too young to realize how much the film's prospects might have hinged on his emotional performance.
"I felt the pressure just as a day to day thing — it was a lot of work — but I didn't delve past it, didn't start to build it up in my mind or anything," Thomas, now 41, said in a recent telephone interview.
"I didn't stress out over it. Because I was 10 (and) I was worried about other things.
"If I had to do it now? I'd probably be a nervous wreck."
Those were innocent days for Thomas, who recalls that even when he walked into the audition with director Steven Spielberg — now a three-time Oscar winner — he wasn't at all starstruck. Thomas was just another sci-fi obsessed child excited to meet the man who helped bring "Star Wars" and "Raiders of the Lost Ark" to the screen.
Thomas's crucial audition for the role of Elliott — a lonely boy in suburban California who befriends and protects a gentle alien that's stranded on Earth — has been immortalized on YouTube, though it's also one of the many special features bundled into the film's lavish new Blu-ray release, which hits stores Tuesday and includes a startlingly fastidious visual restoration.
During the audition, Thomas improvises with an offscreen line-reader portraying a government agent who wants to capture E.T. for study. Thomas, his lip quivering and eyes welling up with tears, shouts back: "You can't take him away, he's mine!"
As soon as the try-out ends, Spielberg waits just a matter of seconds to give Thomas the good news: "OK, kid, you got the job."
"That was great," says Thomas now. "If every audition was like that, it'd be perfect."
Filming "E.T." brought its own set of challenges, however.
Spielberg made the unusual choice of filming the movie in mostly chronological order, hoping to help his inexperienced actors better convey the story's emotional arc (Elliott's siblings were portrayed by Robert MacNaughton and, of course, an adorable Drew Barrymore).
But Thomas was still left acting most of his scenes opposite E.T., which often meant reciting his emotionally charged dialogue to no one in particular — a special challenge for a fledgling actor.
"I was acting to invisible things, or marks on tape, marks on a flag, or the creature itself," he said, referring to the alien puppet that reportedly cost $1.5 million to create.
"But usually, the thing that helped my performance out a lot was the fact that there was a mime named Caprice Rothe who was doing the hand-acting for E.T.... I kind of piggybacked onto her as a human presence and that sort of informed my performance a lot more than what you would think."
Of course, "E.T." was a pop-culture sensation upon its release, becoming the highest-grossing film of all time globally — a mark the movie held until it was surpassed by another Spielberg creation, 1993's "Jurassic Park." It won four Academy Awards and, perhaps less notably, sold box upon box of Reese's Pieces.
For a while, Thomas quite frankly wanted to disassociate himself from the film juggernaut.
"When I was 22 and I wanted to be an edgy, young Hollywood guy," he explains.
Well, any attempts to distance himself from his breakout role didn't work. Even though he's acted steadily since then — most notably landing roles in 1994's "Legends of the Fall" and 2002's "Gangs of New York" — he's still most often approached by enthusiastic "E.T." fans, even 30 years later.
"I get more people coming up to me about 'E.T.' than any other thing I've ever done," he said.
"They recognize me from 'E.T.' They're afraid to say it, though. And I've gotten to the point where I just jump the gun. People say, 'you look familiar.' I say, 'Oh yeah, I'm the guy from "E.T."'
"You know, it's an accomplishment to have a film that you were a part of that had any kind of modicum of success. 'E.T.' was and is a very successful film, and I'm proud to say that I'm a large part of that."
At the time of this interview, Thomas admitted he hadn't recently revisited the film — "I didn't do my homework," he cracked.
But it won't be long before he gives it another look.
"I'm planning on showing it to my oldest daughter, who's eight now," he said.
"It's pretty much right up her alley."