Henry Thomas, who played Elliott in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, talks about winning his most famous role with an audition that's rumored to have made Steven Spielberg cry. He also talks about the challenges of child stardom and weighs in on whether he'd want his own kids to pursue the same path.
HENRY THOMAS: After that summer, that first year, "E.T." was out in '82. '82, '83, I really I couldn't go anywhere. I became super recognizable and people would-- people were excited to see me. I was famous.
HENRY THOMAS: Out. I lived out in the middle of nowhere in Texas in a really kind of small town. And I actually found acting through music. Because I was in a piano lesson every week from the time I was about five or six. My piano teacher, she was a music director for the local theater. I started getting little roles in the theater. And that was my first realization that I was having fun being an actor.
Six months to a year later, a film came through my hometown in San Antonio, Texas, or the major city next to my hometown. And they were holding open call auditions. And they took me. And I ended up getting the part. And it was a movie called "Raggedy Man" with Sissy Spacek, Sam Sheppard, and Eric Roberts. Hey, you're a sailor.
- You bet.
HENRY THOMAS: You better keep those hands up. Henry you can put the gun down now. He's one of ours.
- Thank you.
HENRY THOMAS: "Raggedy Man" was a Universal film. So by getting the part for "Raggedy Man", I was on the radar for people who were working at Universal. And one of those people was Mr. Steven Spielberg, who was in an editing bay across the hall from where they were editing "Raggedy Man". And he was working on a film called "Poltergeist". And there was talk back and forth. And they said, oh, we understand you're looking for a kid. Well, look at this kid. Well, he's mine and he lives with me. And he likes me. And he wants to stay here. He likes it here.
Honestly, I think I had the part before I went into the audition. I think the audition was just sort of a, let's make sure that we're not overamping and going crazy over this kid. So they created the scenario and I did an improvisation and I started crying and I got very emotional. And the end of the audition, you hear someone say--
STEVEN SPIELBERG: OK, kid, you got the job.
HENRY THOMAS: And that was Spielberg. And that's the only time that I've ever gone into an audition and known that I had it before I left the room. And it kind of spoiled me because actually, the first three auditions that I ever went on, I got, which was not something that I should have banked on happening for the rest of my career. Not so high. Not so high. It was a lot of fun because there were kids, there were lots of kids. And we were all in school together. It was during the school year when we were filming. It was in the fall. It was fun and exciting at the time, even though we had no idea that the film would be a success in the successful way that it ended up being received.
But it did feel like we were making something special. And it did feel like it was a moment in time. I grew up on sets. And yeah, I saw some crazy stuff sporadically here and there. But generally, I felt very protected. And I felt like I was in a safe place. And my mother always came with me until I was 17. My dad continued working. And that was hard for them because my mom would come away with me for months at a time and not see my dad. It's a huge burden on a family. And the film making process is not conducive to short hours and easy weeks.
And the film schedule and the way that it's done, it rarely makes sense. After that summer, that first year that "E.T." was out in '82, '82, '83, I couldn't go anywhere. I became super recognizable. And people were excited to see me. I was famous. And that was strange because I had never considered that as part of the deal. That wasn't why I got into it. It was kind of strange being treated differently all of a sudden overnight. I was an anomaly. And I was unfamiliar. And suddenly, even friends that I had gone to school with since kindergarten were kind of treating me differently.
I was never treated the same after that. Tristan.
BRAD PITT: Samuel. I'm coming.
HENRY THOMAS: Yes, sir.
BRAD PITT: No.
HENRY THOMAS: It wasn't that people wouldn't take me seriously. It was that I had become sort of iconic for that role. When that happens to you in Hollywood, they won't see you any way else. They can't. They only see you as that guy or the kid actor. So the only thing that really saved me was biology because I kept getting older. The only reason that I'm here is just through perseverance on my part. I just never quit. There were a few times where that seemed like it was the only option. There have been periods in my life where I haven't had anything for a year and a half or two years.
That's fine and dandy when you're 22 years old or something. But when you have a mortgage or a family and you're unemployed for two years, it's pretty grim.
I've warned them off of it. I've said, don't do it. I think two out of three, it's worked. But I do have one I think is going to be a performer of some sort. It's not necessarily a tenable career all the time. And it's not a very reliable way of earning a living. I just warn them about the real world because when the taxman cometh, they don't care about excuses. They just want their money. Run for you lives. Back to the river. Back to the forest. Run. I want to save you. Let's get out of here.
I was going to make a big deal of presenting the film to my kids at a certain point when I thought they were old enough to appreciate it. I did this big reveal only to find out that they had all seen the trailer a thousand times or something because it was on one of their Blu-rays or something at the beginning of their kid's movie. It went over like a wet sandwich. But my middle daughter Evelyn, the only thing she said was, dad, why are you hanging out with that alien?
And then my son just kind of cowered in fear every time E.T. came on the screen because he was a little bit too young then I think to watch it. So bad dad. I ruined "E.T." for him. I live outside of Portland in a very rural area. It's beautiful. Living in Los Angeles didn't make any sense to me anymore. I like LA, but I wasn't working there. And I was living there and I was never there. So I just said, I'm not going to do this anymore. And I'm going to live on some land. And I grew up on a farm and I wanted to have that for my kids.
I think that commercial is probably as close as we're ever going to get to an "E.T." reboot. I don't think Steven Spielberg wants to tarnish "E.T." in any way for anybody. And it's a standalone iconic film. But you can't deny that people do want to see a sequel. Because when that commercial was released, the questions about, oh when is this sequel coming out, it would be so contrived. What would the movie be about, just them catching up? How have you been? Great. Yeah, me too. That's why it's a great commercial, but maybe not a feature.