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 earnest. “There were times when I was really desperate for parts,” Thomas says. “If you look hard at my résumé, you can find those moments.” Yes, he was a young Norman Bates in the made-for-cable prequel Psycho IV, but a more prestigious indie flick, the 1994 adaptation of Sam Shepard’s Curse of the Starving Class, was followed by Legends of the Fall and a Golden Globe—nominated turn in the 1995 HBO movie Indictment: The McMartin Trial.

Still, his situation didn’t change, either creatively or commercially. “He’s been in some cool projects but hasn’t had that ‘breakthrough’ that propels him past Ethan Hawke, Brad Pitt, or the other ‘that age’ stars,” film guru Harry Knowles wrote in a review of Hijacking Hollywood on his Ain’t It Cool News Web site. “Why? I don’t know. He is charismatic as hell. An audience fave on-screen. But I believe he will break out again in a big way.”

The indie circuit proved to be Thomas’ métier. “What’s great about the industry is that if people know you do independent films, they call you first,” Thomas says. “So I guess I’m on some kind of independent A-list.” Niagara, Niagara is what put him there, and in the upcoming year he’ll solidify his slot by appearing alongside Teri Hatcher in the psychological thriller Fever and David Strathairn in a drama called A Good Baby.

Still, no matter what kind of movies he gets in, Thomas has never been able to escape the straight-man niche. Being overshadowed by a cuddly, craggy alien is one thing, but his everyguy qualities and subtle physicality have also been matched up with a big whale and a Star Trek captain (the 1998 miniseries Moby Dick, with Patrick Stewart), a beautiful babbling Tourette’s syndrome sufferer (Niagara, Niagara’s Robin Tunney), and Legends of the Fall’s blond hair and big furry collars (on Pitt and Anthony Hopkins, respectively). Thomas, by the way, is a little dismissive of his Legends role, that of the little brother who dies half an hour into the movie, leaving his love interest, played by Julia Ormond, to be picked over by the real movie stars. “I was a story element,” he says.

That comment hints at Thomas’ more outspoken side. If he weren’t just a little bit gracious and a little bit circumspect, he would be a perfect subject for one of those Movieline magazine to-hell-with-everybody interviews. For example, when it’s suggested that there are only five or six unnamed actors who can, as they say, “open” a movie, Thomas is quick to respond: “Absolutely, and none of them are very good.” One also suspects that if he were so inclined, Thomas would be entitled to gripe about his audition for Saving Private Ryan; he was not shown a script—top secret stuff, apparently—and did not even get within eye’s view of the film’s director, who happened to be the director of E.T.: some guy named Spielberg. Obviously he didn’t get the part, though it’s easy to imagine him as several of that film’s characters. He also leaves out all the good details when he tells a story about how, against his better judgment but in need of money, he tried out for “one of these ski-mask-type movies”: “I go into this audition thinking, ‘Christ, what am I doing here? This is dumb,’” he says. “The director is even sympathizing with me, going, ‘You know, I think you’re a really great actor. This isn’t normally the type of project that I do.’” Then, to top it off, the popular young actress he was supposed to read with didn’t show up, blowing the whole thing to bits.

Lucky for him, not getting that part meant he was available when All the Pretty Horses came up. It is the kind of movie that could bump him to another level—a high-profile picture with major potential in terms of both Oscars and dollars. Thomas’ character, Lacey Rawlins, may be second fiddle to Matt Damon’s John Grady Cole, but he’s in almost every scene that doesn’t involve the love interest.

For Thomas, it was a dream come true. He’s a huge Cormac McCarthy fan, and he’d kept tabs on the project from the day it was announced, watching as it became attached in both fact and rumor to various directors and leading men. “I kind of sat there a while going, ‘Okay, who can I possibly play in this film? How can I get in?’ They were trying to get Leonardo DiCaprio to do the lead, and I thought, ‘Damn, I’m too old.’” Then, when actors like Edward Norton and Brad Pitt were mentioned, Thomas thought maybe he’d be young enough to play Blevins, the runaway who tags along with Cole and Rawlins for part of the story. But when Thornton got involved, the door swung open, as the New York company the Shooting Gallery (which had worked with him in Sling Blade) had been responsible for Niagara, Niagara. “I knew Henry was perfect for this part way before he was hired,” Thornton says, “He turned out to be even more perfect. He shocked me a couple of times.”

Making the movie was nice, and help for his career would also be welcome, but the best part of the experience for Thomas was meeting McCarthy; how many people can say they have? “It was probably the greatest thing that’s happened to me in quite a while,” he says. “I mean, I’ve read almost everything the man’s written. I really admire him as a writer. But also it was important for me to get a sense of some kind of approval—to meet him and shake his hand, to talk to him. It’s not as if he came on the set and said, ‘Let me tell you a story.’ He sat there and told a lot of jokes. It’s almost like his writing: He’s interesting without forcing it down your throat.”

The same could be said about Henry Thomas.