Thirty years ago, Henry Thomas was a quirky little loner with a bug-eyed alien for a best friend in Steven Spielberg’s timeless blockbuster “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial.” Today, Thomas is a 40-year-old actor who has since worked with actors the likes of Brad Pitt, Matt Damon and Anthony Hopkins and directors such as Martin Scorsese and Lasse Hallstrom.
This week, the San Antonio native adds another legendary name in entertainment to his growing roster: He plays country music star Hank Williams in “The Last Ride,” which opens in limited release Friday.
The low-budget drama, directed by Harry Thomason, the force behind TV’s “Designing Women,” revolves around the last few days of Williams’ troubled life as he is driven by a young man to New Year’s shows in West Virginia and Ohio. Williams, whose life had become dominated by alcohol and drugs, never made it to those gigs, dying at 29 on New Year’s Dayin 1953 of heart failure in the back of his powder blue Cadillac.
Thomas took some time recently to discuss his career since helping his pal phone home so many years ago.
How has acting changed for you over the last three decades?
I think 30 years ago when I got the part in “E.T.,” it was still kind of a whirlwind adventure for me. I had gone out for three auditions and I had gotten all three of them. I was fascinated with film sets, how everything was done and breakaway glass and special effects. I never thought about it as work until I was an adult.
You took time off when you were a teenager.
I wanted to finish school. We weren’t show business people. My dad was a trumpet player, but he wasn’t Hollywood by any means. I don’t know if my parents took it as a serious career that was going to continue to happen for me. I think it was more like this is an interesting experience for Henry, but we are not going to disrupt our lives and move to Hollywood and become show people.
Do you think it is because you had a relatively normal life in Texas that you weathered a lot of the trials and tribulations of most child stars?
I think so. I was still living in my parents’ place until I was in my mid-20s, so I didn’t spend my roaring 20s out in Hollywood gallivanting around. Also, I know a lot of people in the industry, and I do have a few friends that work in the film industry who are actors or crew people, but socially I have never been drawn to that. As an actor, one of the things that gives you inspiration is to talk to a lot of different people from different walks of life. When you stop doing that and you inundate yourself with that kind of insular social agenda, that to me is when it kind of goes south. I don’t think that social scene can hold anybody’s interest for long.
Were you nervous playing someone so iconic as Williams?
I was really intimidated by the role. I started obsessing about trying to look like him … and all of the things that go through your mind when you start focusing on playing a person who’s that iconic. You don’t want to drop the ball.
Where did you shoot the film?
We shot this entirely in Little Rock, Ark. We shot this in 16 days for around $1 million, give or take a few. We worked all of these scenes in the interior of the car in one day in front of a green screen like a play. It was something like 60 pages.
You are member of the band Farspeaker. What type of music do you play?
I write the songs, and the band and I arrange the songs. It is definitely rock — it’s all electric guitars, not acoustic. But I think the sensibility of the music — it can also be considered folky to an extent because I write the songs and I have a lot of folk influences. I am just a hillbilly in Hollywood.