Henry Thomas on ‘E.T.’ 30 years later and his new role as Hank Williams

Meriah Doty
Movie Talk

Thirty years ago today, "E.T." opened in theaters nationwide and eventually broke box office records, earning $435 million. In honor of the film's 30th anniversary, Yahoo! Movies caught up with the human star of "E.T." Henry Thomas, who played the curious, red-hoodie-wearing young Elliot.

To our surprise, Thomas admitted the enduring impact of the '80s blockbuster film, directed by Steven Spielberg, is only now hitting him.

Now 40, married, and a father of three, Thomas spoke candidly of his place in cinematic history, his admiration of Spielberg -- and other legendary directors he has worked with -- and his starring role in the upcoming film "The Last Ride" (in theaters June 22) -- about the last days of post-war era country music legend Hank Williams Sr., who died at the age of 29.

Meriah Doty: Since you play a country music legend in "The Last Ride," I'm curious: Are you country music fan?

Henry Thomas: I have been by proxy. I grew up in a rural South Texas community so I heard a lot of Texas music growing up. There's a soft spot in my heart for some old '60s and '70s country, but I'm not a big fan of the big commercial country music in any way, shape or form. I really like that kind of bluegrass, old-time music that Hank Williams' music came out of.

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MD: How much did you know about Hank Williams when you took on the role and how much did you have to research?

HT: I knew a bit about Hank Williams -- like everybody knows a little bit about Hank Williams I suppose. The research that I did was in a large part medical because I really wanted to understand what it would be like to have spina bifida, and also what it feels like to be on morphine and alcohol at the same time -- which I decided not to do a physical experiment with. Color me crazy. [laughs] There are a lot of myths surrounding him and there's a lot of footage that you can look at to get an idea of how he moved. My research beyond the script is usually only as much as I feel I need and I felt like this character was already about 80 percent there on the page. It was just kind of confining him into a form that resembled Hank Williams enough that it didn't deter audience members.

MD: You depict him at a time of his life when he's sick. It's clearly a dark time in his life. Did you find it personally difficult to take that on when you were shooting?

HT: Yeah, it wears on you after a while. Playing dark moments or dark places in people's lives. You certainly take your work home with you a little bit. There's also a great wealth of humor. I think the real Hank Williams -- he had a real sense of humor. You could tell from his song writing and everything. In this piece, I really enjoyed playing the comic moments of it just because you need that kind of levity.

[Photos: Classic 'E.T.' movie stills]

MD: In playing Hank Williams Sr. what was the biggest thing you learned?

HT: When you make something like this and there's never enough time, it amazes me when young actors step up and really do good work and I think that Jesse James [Thomas' co-star] really helped me go to work every day and do good work. All the interiors we shot inside the car -- we did that all in the space of one day. We shot something like 19 pages [of the script] in one day because it was all just blocked off and they basically changed the [camera] angles slightly and we had pages and pages of dialogue. So it became kind of like a play. I think in an environment where people hardly ever rehearse anymore, those days stand out. I'm really proud of our performances in the film just because I know what kind of pressures we were under to pull through. When you have somebody like Jesse, who was, I'd say 20, when we were doing this, it's great. It's nice to see the young folks are still doing good work these days.

MD: Well, you have my segue wrapped in a neat bow: Speaking of young actors... 30 years later, how do you think of "E.T." now? -- just the enormity of that movie and your part in it?

HT: It certainly wasn't something that I ever thought I'd be talking about 30 years from then. It's funny because I think it's just now starting to hit me how hugely successful it was and what a big deal it was.

MD: Wow, really?

HT: To a certain extent you feel like you're just kind of caught up in some after effect of a marketing strategy. But then you kind of realize the supply is there because there's a demand. People still really respond to this film. Now it's odd because I have people who are younger than I am saying how exciting that film was for them... It's the first film they remember seeing with their parents. So it makes you feel good to be associated with something that people still remember.

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MD: In working with Steven Spielberg, is there anything you took away that has endured over the years?

HT: Of all of the great directors that I've worked with, they all share a common trait -- you see it across the board. Spielberg was probably the most enthusiastic guy to watch off camera when the take was being filmed because he was so caught up in the film, really excited about it all the time. That level of enthusiasm for it and the passion is something that not everybody has. Whatever his achievements, whatever he's done, I think at heart the reason he's successful and the reason he continues to make films is to satisfy that enthusiasm. He has a real genuine love for film. I think all those guys do -- Scorsese does for sure, Milos Foreman for sure, yeah.

MD: What can we expect from you in the future?

HT: Stay alive. [laughs] I've decided as an actor, the level that I work at, I really don't have much control over my career. I kind of have to take it as it comes. I have parameters that I work under, but for the most part I just don't worry about it. As long as my kids are not screaming at me for food, I'm pretty okay. [laughs] I can survive.

Watch 'The Last Ride' Trailer: