Kenneth M. Chanko
July 23, 1993 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Lassie. Flipper. E.T. Behind every pop-culture beast, it seems, is a devoted boy. Take Free Willy, the new film about a melancholy whale and the lad who befriends him. Below, its 13-year-old star, Jason James Richter, talks about fame, the perils of celebrityhood, and what a whale’s tongue feels like.

Q: What were your first impressions of Willy?
A: Well, his real name is Keiko, and he was really cool. We made a deal: As long as he didn’t bite my hand off, I’d be his best friend. He even let me pet his tongue! It felt like Bazooka bubble gum.
Q: If Free Willy becomes a hit, what will be your biggest challenge?
A: Dealing with the press and figuring out who my real friends are. Also, I’d have to figure out how not to get harassed every time I go down to the Taco Bell.
Q: Of all the actors and actresses out there, whom would you most like to meet?
A: I wish I could meet Spencer Tracy. I loved that movie A Guy Named Joe. But he’s dead. Now it would be probably be Sean Astin. Not only was he in The Goonies, but he was in Encino Man!
Q: What kind of movie would you like to do next?
A: If the material is good, anything. But I won’t do stupid horror movies. Or trash, like Hoffa.

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