When we think of iconic child performances in film, Henry Thomas’s portrayal of Elliott in “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” undoubtedly stands out. But what many might not know is the story behind his casting, a tale that showcases raw talent and the power of improvisation.
Henry Thomas was only nine years old when he auditioned for the role of Elliott. By then, he had caught the attention of Steven Spielberg due to his performance in “Raggedy Man,” released a year prior to his audition for “E.T.”.
Spielberg, intrigued by the young actor’s potential, invited him for a reading. While his initial reading was decent, it was an improvised scene that truly sealed the deal.
In this now-famous audition tape, Thomas was given a scenario where someone from NASA had come to take E.T. away, his newfound alien friend.
The young actor was told, “He’s come with a search warrant, and he’s come with permission to take the creature away, and you’re not going to let him.”
What followed was nothing short of cinematic magic. Drawing from the painful memory of his pet chihuahua, Urso, being killed by a neighbor’s dog right in front of him, Thomas delivered an emotionally charged performance that left everyone in the room, including Spielberg, in tears.
Spielberg, clearly moved by the young actor’s raw and heartfelt emotions, can be heard off-camera exclaiming, “Okay, kid, you got the job!”.
It’s a testament to Thomas’s natural talent that he could tap into such deep emotions at a moment’s notice, showcasing a maturity and depth far beyond his years.
The film’s concept itself was deeply personal to Spielberg. It was based on an imaginary companion he had conceived as a teenager, following his parents’ divorce. This imaginary alien was a representation of “a friend who could be the brother I never had and a father that I didn’t feel I had anymore.”
With such a poignant backstory, it was crucial for Spielberg to find the right actor to bring Elliott to life. And in Henry Thomas, he found just that.
Thomas’s audition wasn’t just about tears and sadness. It was a nuanced performance, showcasing a range of emotions from confusion and withdrawal to anger, defiance, and finally, acceptance.
Spielberg, in a 1982 interview, praised Thomas’s controlled and methodical approach, stating that his performance was “just a breadcrumb at a time, but he takes you in a wonderful direction to a very, very rousing catharsis.”
Today, “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” remains a beloved classic, and Henry Thomas’s portrayal of Elliott is a significant reason for its enduring appeal.
His audition tape serves as a reminder of the raw, unfiltered emotion that children can bring to the screen, making us believe in the magic of cinema.