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Henry Thomas on E.T. turning 40, Steven Spielberg, and that notorious Atari video game

If you’re a horror fan, chances are you’ve seen Henry Thomas a lot in the last few years. The veteran actor has starred in a multitude of projects by writer/director Mike Flanagan, including The Haunting of Hill House, Midnight Mass, The Haunting of Bly Manor, and most recently, The Midnight Club.

Yet the greater public still remembers him as young Elliot, the boy who befriended an alien and made Reese’s Pieces a popular candy to consume. In celebration of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial turning 40 years old this year, Thomas sat down with Digital Trends to talk about the film’s lasting legacy, working with Steven Spielberg, giving one of the best auditions of all time, and whether or not he played the notoriously awful E.T. video game by Atari.

Please note: This interview has been condensed for length and clarity.

Digital Trends: It’s been 40 years since E.T. was released. What are some of the fondest memories you have of making the film?

Henry Thomas: Well, I remember getting the part, going into pre-production, meeting the rest of the cast, and being in a lot of meetings with Steven Spielberg. It was a big project to be a part of because it was a Spielberg film and while he wasn’t nearly as famous as he is today, he was still pretty famous back then. It was only my second film so the fact that we’re here 40 years later talking about it is amazing. It never crossed my mind at all that it would ever be as big of a success as it is even today.

Elliot stands next to his alien friend in E.T. the Extra-terrestrial.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

What was the biggest challenge in embodying Elliot?

Well, I think the biggest challenge was doing the scenes opposite a puppet. [Laughs] As real as he looks on film, E.T. wasn’t as life-like while shooting. Viewers didn’t hear the stretching of the latex by the puppet masters. It was very distracting. Carlo Rambaldi did an excellent job creating the creature. It was just, at the end of the day, it’s a puppet. It’s not another actor. So the challenge is kind of making that puppet real. And that’s mainly what I did as Elliot. I just made E.T. real.

E.T. was a very personal story for Spielberg. He’s been quoted over the years as saying that Elliot was a stand-in for him as a young boy. Can you describe your working relationship with Steven during the film?

Yeah, it was great. Steven was able to speak to you as a child and not make you feel like you were being talked down to. I felt like I was a colleague and a peer and that we were collaborating on the film together. Also, I was ten years old. I just wanted to make everybody happy and do a good job. There was never a bad day on set. We always had fun.

There’s a viral video of your audition for Elliot, which has been called one of the best auditions of all time. Do you recall auditioning for E.T.? Have you looked at that video since and thought, “Man, I did a great job”?

Henry Thomas audition för E.T. "Ok kid, you got the job".

[Laughs] Well, it’s funny because I don’t look at it like it was a good audition. I see a scared kid trying to get a job. At the same time. I appreciate that it shows that I had my foot on the throttle, so to speak. As a kid, I could access those emotions. So when I see that, I think that’s good. But when people say it’s the best audition of all time or that it’s being shown in acting schools, I think that’s crazy.

I think it’s well justified. You recently reprised your role as Elliot in an Xfinity ad in 2019. We live in an age of sequels and reboots. Are you willing to come back to the role in a proper follow-up?

Extended Cut | E.T. Came Home For Christmas ?☝️ | Sky Christmas Ad 2019

I’m an actor, so I’ll always say yes. But I don’t think that Spielberg wants to tarnish the nature of E.T. by building onto it. I think he wants to leave it as it is. It’s kind of a feather in his cap. But of course, I would be a part of it if it ever came to be. I think I would have to be. [Laughs]

Digital Trends is a tech site that covers not only movies but also video games. I would be remiss if I didn’t ask this question: Have you ever played the notoriously awful E.T. Atari game?

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (Atari 2600)

[Laughs] Yes. I received one back when it was first released. I played it and got stuck in the hole and I couldn’t get out so I never played it again. I was pretty excited that they made a video game of E.T. when I was a kid. I thought that was really cool.

What’s the legacy E.T. leaves behind both now and for future generations?

Well, I think the film has a special place in people’s hearts because it speaks to universal human compassion and a sense of nurturing. It also appeals to the need for friendship and a healthy disregard for the rules.

Elliot stares at E.T. in E.T.
Universal Pictures

I think that is why it’s still popular 40 years later. Everybody can relate to it. Everybody has a good memory of the film and thinks highly of it. Ultimately, what E.T. shows is that there is a lot of goodness in people. It’s a really good feeling for me to be a part of something like that.

The 40th-anniversary edition of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial is available on Blu-Ray and 4K Ultra HD Digital formats.

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Jason Struss
Section Editor, Entertainment
Jason is a writer, editor, and pop culture enthusiast whose love for cinema, television, and cheap comic books has led him to…
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