Henry Thomas Recalls the Moment He Knew E.T. Was a Classic

Henry Thomas Recalls the Moment He Knew E.T. Was a Classic

There’s a difference between talking to a legend about a new project and talking to them about the project that made them a legend. Actor Henry Thomas has been around forever. In recent years, in fact, he’s become a staple of the horror genre working with Netflix on shows like The Haunting of Hill House and The Midnight Club. And if we were to talk to him about those shows, sure, you could sneak in a question about the movie that made him a star: E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, but it couldn’t be the focus of the whole interview.

So when I got an email asking to talk to Thomas about E.T. on the occasion of the film’s 40th anniversary, and in support of a new Blu-ray, I jumped at the chance. E.T. is not only one of the best, most revered sci-fi films of all-time, it may be one of the best movies of a generation, period. The possibilities for conversation are endless… but then you realise you only have seven minutes.

What follows is my conversation with Thomas about E.T. in which I tried to explore my curiosities about the legacy of the film and, just because it’s tradition, ask him about another project from the time that I hold near and dear to my heart.

Thomas has found a new niche working with Mike Flanagan.  (Image: Netflix)
Thomas has found a new niche working with Mike Flanagan. (Image: Netflix)

Germain Lussier, Gizmodo: Obviously, E.T. was a huge hit right out of the box. But I was wondering, was there a point where you realised there was something bigger going on than just a hit movie?

Henry Thomas: Well, after it was in theatres for a couple of weeks, it had been number one at the box office for a while. And it became a sensation. They were reporting about the [theatre] lines around the [block] on the news and local news and around the country. And then it became a worldwide hit. So it was pretty apparent early on that it was going to be around for a while, but I didn’t ever think 40 years later I would be talking about this film.

Gizmodo: Yeah. It’s actually funny you mentioned the early box office. One of my favourite bits of trivia about E.T. is that two weeks after it opened, two other sci-fi movies opened on the same day, and then bombed in part because of E.T. Those movies were Blade Runner and The Thing, which have since gone on to become classics. Were you aware of those films being released at the time and what do you think about that sort of weird Hollywood intersection?

Thomas: I was very aware of Blade Runner because Harrison Ford, of course, was on the set of E.T. for for quite a bit, because he was [writer] Melissa Mathison’s partner. But yeah, I only really learned about The Thing in recent years. I think the studio [Universal, which released E.T. and The Thing] was trying to hedge its bets a little bit because the idea of a benevolent alien movie wasn’t really jiving with the spirit of the times. Because all of the big successful sci-fi things, they had these malevolent aliens like Alien, but then they gave The Thing another release a couple of years later to kind of get it back on the radar. But it’s a great film, The Thing.

Gizmodo: I’d say all three are pretty great.

Thomas: Yeah.

E.T. phone home. (Image: Universal)
E.T. phone home. (Image: Universal)

Gizmodo: But can you enjoy E.T. like everyone else does? Can you detach yourself from the film, watch it with your family and find that connection? Or are you still too close to it?

Thomas: No, I can never watch anything that I’m in. I can’t separate myself.

Gizmodo: Oh ok. Now, E.T. is one of the rare original films that we haven’t had a sequel of in the last 40 years. But looking back, I read online that apparently there was treatment for a sequel written by Steven Spielberg and Melissa Mathison called E.T. II: Nocturnal Fears that had evil aliens in it. Is that real? Were you aware of that or was ever pitched to you?

Thomas: No. I don’t know. [Laughs]

Gizmodo: So was there ever a point you thought a sequel might happen?

Thomas: In the early ‘80s I think it was in the realm of possibilities. Because the film was such a success, I think there was a big push from the studio and the financial side of things to follow it up with another hit. But Steven was always reticent to touch it again, and I think it’s his classic film. It’s a feather in his cap, and I don’t think he wants to mess with that at all.

Gizmodo: Absolutely. Though, instead, we did get that extended commercial a few years ago which is so magical. Were you sceptical about that originally? I know you’re happy with how it turned out, but tell me a little bit about your kind of emotions doing that and if you were scared about it.

Thomas: Well, I’ve been approached pretty relentlessly over the years for commercial spots having to do with E.T., but it’s really a question of whether or not Steven Spielberg approves of any of these ideas because if he doesn’t then they don’t go through. This was one that had his stamp of approval. So I thought I was in good hands to do it. And I think it turned out great. And I think it’s as close to a sequel as we’re going to get. I think it gave audiences what they were looking for and when they were looking for a sequel. It also spawned this whole online fervor of, “Oh, is this just a teaser for a new sequel?” Which might have been an intention of his as well, to gauge the the reception of a sequel should he decide to do one. But. I don’t know anything. I’m just an actor.

Gizmodo: Oh, I understand. As you can see behind me [we were talking on video chat], I’m a movie prop collector. Do you have or did you keep anything from the film? Or is it represented at all in your home?

Thomas: No, I didn’t. I have some photographs and you know, everything up here [points at head], and that’s mainly what I collect.

Gizmodo: Fair enough. Now this probably has be be my last question but as much as I love E.T. I’m also a big fan of Cloak and Dagger. I grew up with that movie and they just released that awesome Blu-ray set which you were involved in.

Thomas: Yeah, isn’t that great? 

Gizmodo: Oh, it’s so cool. That’s a really dark film when you rewatch it, so I was wondering what kind of memories do you have from working on that one?

Image: Universal
Image: Universal

Thomas: Well, that was a fantastic experience for me. And, you know, it’s actually my first and only starring role in a studio film was Cloak and Dagger.

Gizmodo: Oh wow.

Thomas: Yeah. So it was filmed in my hometown of San Antonio and we had a great cast and it was a wonderful summer.

Gizmodo: That’s great. Well, that’s a great movie. And obviously E.T. is a great movie. Thank you so much for your time and I also have to say, I’m glad to see you out there working on all that Mike Flanagan stuff. It’s really special.

Thomas: Oh, thanks very much. Yeah. Thanks for watching.

E.T. the Extra Terrestrial is now available in a new 40th anniversary release available in most formats, physical and digital.

Want more Gizmodo news? Check out when to expect the latest Marvel and Star Wars releases, what’s next for the DC Universe on film and TV, and everything you need to know about House of the Dragon and Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power.