HENRY THOMAS IS A THOUGHTFUL YOUNG ACTOR from San Antonio who’s trying to establish himself as a serious, possibly bankable cinematic presence. That’s not easy to do at a time when the road map to success seems to reside somewhere in the Palm Pilot of the casting agent of Dawson’s Creek, but the 28-year-old Thomas is doing all right. He has acquitted himself nicely in the past few years as Indie Film Guy, with parts in the Tarantino-esque caper movie Suicide Kings, the movie-biz satire Hijacking Hollywood, and the acclaimed road drama Niagara, Niagara, and now he’s on to bigger things. Next up he’ll appear opposite Matt Damon in one of Y2K’s most anticipated films: director Billy Bob Thornton’s adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses.
Of course, Thomas has been in mythopoetic major Hollywood pictures before. The most recent one, 1994’s Legends of the Fall, didn’t turn out to be the career boost it might have been, but he got a little bit of attention out of it. Critic Leonard Maltin said his performance was the only memorable one in the whole film, and more than a few female fans thought he was the cutest guy on-screen—pretty impressive, considering that Brad Pitt was the star. Then there’s his earlier effort, a little film called E.T. (Maybe you’ve heard of it?) Seventeen years after Thomas shared the screen with the heart-lit alien puppet in what became the highest-grossing flick of all time (until it was overtaken by the re-release of Star Wars in 1997), it’s still the thing that identifies him to laymen. It’s what prompts little kids to yell, “E.T., E.T.” when Thomas passes by. “I feel like I’ve said everything I could say about it,” he says. “It’s almost as if I’m a different person. I’m definitely a different actor.”
On this June day the different actor is in Sante Fe, where most of All the Pretty Horses was shot (the rest was done in San Antonio). Thanks to a combination of high-altitude sun exposure and an on-set collision with an iron fence, his nose shines red and flaky-raw. He is cowboyed out in the staples of his wardrobe: big white hat, Wrangler denim shirt, tricolored boots. People recognize him, but he is hardly the apple-cheeked moppet of his cinematic past. He’s tall and lean and somewhere between rugged and refined, with slightly sunken cheeks, brilliantly aquamarine eyes, and just a hint of facial scruff from the previous night on the set.
As he tears into a steak at a downtown bistro, he explains why E.T. has to be old news: so his career won’t be. Being remembered solely for it puts him, in the universe of former child actors, closer to Macaulay Culkin than, say, Elijah Wood. After Home Alone, he notes, Culkin “didn’t really do anything else. And that was the same with me. I did a bunch of other films when I was a kid, but they all bombed. E.T. was it.”
And that’s the way things are, even if they don’t seem fair. After all, people don’t refer to Drew Barrymore as “the little girl from E.T.” Then again, they’re probably too busy gossiping about her latest semi-famous boyfriend or her history of substance abuse. Maybe Thomas should be grateful for what he’s got, because the child-star-gone-bad role is one he’s never inhabited. He may have worked in a video store, but he never robbed one. “Thank God nobody ruined him like they do a lot of kids who start out early,” Thornton says. Thomas credits his parents, Carolyn and Henry, with keeping him sane during the crazy times. “I was raised to appreciate things and make do with what I had,” he says. “It hit me not too long ago how frightening it must have been for my parents to go from a certain kind of life to having to be my business managers. It was probably toughest on them. To me, it was just like a summer camp.”
Young Henry’s acting experience was limited to a local musical when he got a part in the 1981 Sissy Spacek melodrama Raggedy Man. That led to E.T., and suddenly everything changed. He was a product, a creative asset ready to be marketed. “There was a lot of, ‘Do this, this is a good move,’” he says. “Suddenly you gotta think in terms of a career—and I’m not even thinking in terms of college yet, you know? I mean, I can’t even plan my day. Now I have a real intense understanding of how things work in the industry as far as careers go.”
Back then, though, he withdrew. He worked a little, but for the most part he was just like any other teenager at East Central High School. He did some student theater but also painted houses and took up guitar and songwriting. He ended up becoming quite serious about the latter; until recently his Celtic-flavored rock band the Blue Heelers (also known as the Rain Dogs) was a semi-regular fixture around south-central Texas. And he had that job at the video store, where—don’t you know?—he got to see customers check out his movies time after time after time. “Oh, yeah, I had to suffer all kinds of indignation,” he says. “Very surreal. ‘There you go. That’ll be $3.99.’ [He mimes sympathetic recognition.] ‘So this is what you’re doing now, is it? Hey, can we get a picture with you in the store?’
“But it’s not a sob story,” he continues. “I enjoyed it at the time. It was really a moment of clarity. I realized I had a good opportunity to pursue something most people don’t ever get a chance to do.”
So he decided to go for it. He did a few movies while he was still in high school, including Milos Forman’s Valmont. He enrolled at Blinn College in Brenham but changed his mind and dropped out. Finally he began to work in