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'E.T.' Star Still Carries Lessons From Steven Spielberg's Sci-Fi Classic 40 Years Later

Actor Henry Thomas reveals how intense and focused the director was on the set of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.

Sean Keane Former Senior Writer
Sean knows far too much about Marvel, DC and Star Wars, and poured this knowledge into recaps and explainers on CNET. He also worked on breaking news, with a passion for tech, video game and culture.
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Sean Keane
5 min read
E.T. makes his heart glow red as Elliot stands beside him

Elliot from E.T. might be all grown up, but the 1982 movie hasn't aged a day.

Universal Pictures

It's been 40 years since E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial landed right here in our memories, and watching this sci-fi adventure classic remains a delight in 2022. The movie stands among director Steven Spielberg's finest work, with timeless visual effects and another stellar John Williams score.

E.T. follows 10-year-old Elliott Taylor as he befriends the alien botanist who's accidentally left behind on Earth. If you somehow haven't seen it, put it at the top of your list. The 1982 film is a stone-cold classic, and it surpassed Star Wars to become the highest-grossing movie ever (until Spielberg's Jurassic Park took that spot in 1993). 

To mark the milestone, Universal released a 40th anniversary edition of the movie on 4K Blu-ray, Blu-ray and digital 4K last month. It includes more than 45 minutes of new bonus features, including a retrospective of the film and its lasting legacy, and a featurette with Spielberg reflecting on his career and the making of E.T. 40 years later, as well as the extras from previous releases.

At the heart of the movie is the bond between E.T. and Elliot, played by Henry Thomas. You might have seen him reunite with E.T. as an adult in a nostalgic 2019 Xfinity commercial.

Henry Thomas lies on a couch and stares at the ceiling in The Haunting of Bly Manor

Henry Thomas' acting career has taken him to excellent horror series like The Haunting of Bly Manor.

Netflix

Thomas' acting career has gone from strength to strength in the decades since. He's a regular in the work of horror filmmaker Mike Flanagan, with roles in Netflix shows The Haunting of Hill House, The Haunting of Bly Manor, Midnight Mass and The Midnight Club. He'll soon be seen in The Fall of the House of Usher, which doesn't have a release date yet (but will probably come out in October 2023).

I recently got to chat with a thoughtful Thomas on Zoom about his memories of working on E.T., the lessons he learned from Spielberg and the pressure of playing the main human role in a major movie as a 10-year-old. 

Here's a transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for clarity.

I watched E.T. for the first time in many years last night, and it's still incredible. It's crazy how good it is. Do you revisit it often? Or just when anniversaries come around?

Thomas: No, it's just when anniversaries come around. The last time I watched it in its entirety was 20 years ago, so I haven't seen it in a while.

It must be quite strange for you to watch it?

Yeah, I have a hard time watching myself. But it's a little easier [with E.T.] because I'm not a boy anymore. So I can separate myself a little bit more. But then I usually just end up recollecting that was the day I had this for lunch or whatever.

How vivid are your memories of being on set? My memories of being 10 are pretty hazy.

I definitely have days that I don't remember, but I have a lot of great memories from making the film. Because we were there for eight or 10 weeks, and it was pretty full on. You remember those intense times.

That's kind of an intensity most children don't experience.

Well, it's different. You're expected to perform professionally at a certain level. It's not a vacation, it's work. But I had a good time as a kid. And I really loved being on a film set and making films.

It's definitely evident in your performance. Your audition video makes the rounds on the internet every so often, and it's pretty wonderful to watch. Are there any acting lessons that you learned while making E.T. that you still carry with you in your career?

Just working with Steven Spielberg is an education in itself. He expected us to roll with new ideas, whatever he threw at us during the take. So I got used to adjusting to him throwing things in on the fly and being fluid with that. And I didn't realize it at the time. But later, I looked back and said "Oh yeah, I don't get flustered because I'm used to that."

Right, finding the improvisational elements within the structure.

And not being so rigid in your approach to how the scene is going to play out. Being open to things changing in midstream.

How was Spielberg on set otherwise?

He was very intense and very focused. I think if he could have, he would have done every job on set, including acting.

Steven Spielberg points to something as Henry Thomas looks away on the set of E.T.

Working with Steven Spielberg made Thomas more fluid in his acting. 

Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images

He had so many spinning plates at that time, when I look at his filmography from that era. It's felt like hit after hit. Intense focus was probably the only way he could do that?

Yeah. He also had some failures at that point; he wasn't as established as he is now. Of course, he had JawsClose Encounters [of the Third Kind] and Raiders of the Lost Ark. But there had also been 1941 and Used Cars [directed by Robert Zemeckis and produced by Spielberg]. They were taking a chance, and he was taking a chance in making [E.T.].

How aware were you day-to-day that you had a $10 million movie riding on you? You're not the only thing in the movie, but you're in it a lot more than I remembered -- just about every scene.

Yeah, it lives and dies with Elliot in a lot of respects. But I was pretty insulated. I had a good group of people around me, and we were all working towards making the best film we could. And it was an exciting project. There were a lot of laughs. As we filmed more and more, we started to think "This is going to be special."

Yeah, you must have felt that energy. I'm also a huge fan of your collaborations with Mike Flanagan. You're just magnificent in each role. Can you say anything about your role in The Fall of the House of Usher?

I play Frederick Usher, who's the eldest son and heir to parents of this pharmaceutical empire. But he's completely inept. And horribly unsuited to be a business leader, or any kind of CEO at all. So he's this darkly tragic, comedic, bumbling guy at first, but there's a dark twist.

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