By JUDY SLOANE
Special to Front Row Features
This is one of several vintage interviews with beloved Hollywood celebrities reflecting on their most famous films. All of the interviews were conducted by veteran Hollywood correspondent Judy Sloane, who is now a regular contributor to Frontrowfeatures.com. We hope you enjoy taking a walk down memory lane with Judy and the various celebrities talking frankly and openly about the films that made them famous. This installment is an interview with Henry Thomas who recalls making “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial,” which launched his career into the stratosphere.
HOLLYWOOD—Forty years ago, the world met a lovable alien in Steven Spielberg’s iconic motion picture “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.” The sci-fi movie premiered June 11, 1982 and spotlighted the relationship between E.T., a being mistakenly stranded on earth, and 10-year-old Elliott, his human savior. The boy has to find a way to get the alien home before he dies from the planet’s incompatible atmosphere.
With an extraordinary performance by Henry Thomas as Elliott, the movie also starred Dee Wallace his mother as well as Robert MacNaughton and Drew Barrymore as Elliott’s siblings, Michael and Gertie.
I spoke with Thomas in 1997 about the movie. In celebration of its 40th anniversary, here’s part of that interview.
Judy Sloane: How did you get the role of Elliot?
Henry Thomas: I got the audition through a stroke of luck and happenstance. The editor and the director of “Raggedy Man” sent Spielberg a clip of the film while I was in L.A., doing the post-production.
Sloane: What do you remember about the audition?
Thomas: I don’t even remember the scene that was read. I don’t think it was in the final script. I did really horribly at the reading. I could tell that I did. So, they asked me to do an improv and it was something like you found this thing and a government man is trying to take away your friend. I guess through some stroke of 10-year-old charm, I made everyone burst into tears. Right after that Steven said, “Kid, you got the job.”
Sloane: Did you know who Steven Spielberg was at that time?
Thomas: I was very much in awe of him when I met him for the first time because I’d just seen “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” It’s what made me want to get into films—that kind of adventure and fantasy. I cared so little about this new part, all I wanted to do was sit and ask him questions about “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”
Sloane: What do you remember about seeing the character of E.T. for the first time?
Thomas: I saw a drawing. I thought it was very strange. It never struck me as frightening, but it looked odd. I didn’t think aliens would look like that.
Sloane: What was the first scene that you shot with E.T.?
Thomas: It seems like it was the stuff in the cornfield (where we first meet him.) We shot that chronologically. I think Spielberg wanted to build a relationship, from what I remember.
Sloane: The rapport between Elliott and E.T. was extraordinary. Did the character of E.T. ever become real to you?
Thomas: No, it was impossible because I was there from the very beginning when there were technical rehearsals with the creature and I just knew it was fake. I mean, there were wires running out of the damn thing and people coming in every once in a while and spritzing it.
Sloane: When E.T. is dying and you have to say goodbye to him, that was so emotional and real. Did you use something in your childhood?
Thomas: Yeah, you dredge up something.
Sloane: I read that a puppy you had died.
Thomas: That’s something I drew on for quite a while because it was very dramatic for me. But at that point (in shooting the movie), I don’t know if it was so much using something from my childhood. It was just putting myself in the character’s position.
Sloane: What was your favorite scene in the film?
Thomas: Probably the stuff in the closet with Robert and Drew. I think just because I was so close to them at the time and it was our scene together.
Drew at the time was very funny. She was there, but she would go off in her own little world because she was 6. She was just a little kid. I was 10, but there’s a lot of difference between 6 and 10. Drew would always space out and either Robert or I would have to give her a nudge, and then she would come to and say her line.
Sloane: What was Steven Spielberg like to work with?
Thomas: He always had this clear idea of what he wanted, which is the most important thing for a director, both in performance and camera placement. I don’t know how he is now, but as a director then he was very much a whirlwind of energy. You could see that if he could do it all by himself—if he didn’t need other people there to get things done—he’d much rather do it. If he could get around using actors I think he probably would, or at least back then he would have.
Sloane: Was it true that you were asked to keep the plot of the movie a secret from your friends?
Thomas: Oh yes, from everybody. I didn’t really have anybody to tell that would have gone and blurted it out to the press. It’s funny because, it very much was to be kept a secret on penalty of death. That’s what it seemed like anyway.
We shot it in Northridge, in Laird Studios in Culver City, right down the alley from where “Gone with the Wind” was shot. (Laird Studios also was used to film part of the burning of Atlanta in that movie.)
Sloane: Did “E.T.” dramatically change your life?
Thomas: Yeah, it changed my life quite a bit. I always wanted to act, but it was odd because I had done one film before and it had come out and I had basically accepted that that’s the way things worked. Nobody bothered you. But here I was in my hometown. I couldn’t go to the mall or the supermarket. It was very difficult to go from being a completely unknown child actor to being someone that people would instantly recognize.
I was a movie star for a while, and I wasn’t prepared for that. And, every once in a while, a mental case would come up and go, (he does dead-on impression of E.T.’s voice) “Be good.”
Sloane: What was your first reaction when you saw the movie?
Thomas: I couldn’t watch myself in the film. Of course, you always look at your work and go, “God, I could have done better.” But I enjoyed the film. The first time I saw it I was pretty amazed that it was as good as it was.
Portions of this interview were first published in Film Review Magazine.