C. Thomas Howell recently received some bad news from his publicist: A magazine was featuring him in a ”Where Are They Now?” piece. ”I was like, ‘Helen Keller must be their editor, man,”’ an exasperated Howell recalls. ”I mean, go into a Blockbuster and you’ll see right along with everybody else, I’m working. It’s not like I’ve shriveled up and stopped acting.”
True, but at Blockbuster you’ll find The Miracle Worker a lot faster than most of the 50 movies Howell, 29, has starred in. His early work — the roles that made him a famous teen — is easily tracked down: E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (at 13, he was cast as one of the kids on bikes), The Outsiders (at 14, he landed one of the lead roles), The Hitcher, and Soul Man. But you would have to dig deep for such nuggets as 1994’s Jailbait or Teresa’s Tattoo. ”I’m the king of the B movies,” Howell admits.
As a homicide detective pursuing vampires on the new Aaron Spelling series Kindred: The Embraced — his first starring role on a TV series — Howell is hoping to upgrade his status by extending his domain. ”All I’m trying to do is raise my notoriety with the American public,” he explains. ”I’m saying ‘Look at me, I’ve grown up, check this out.”’
Howell’s frustration is palpable at a recent lunch in a noisy L.A. restaurant, some 40 miles south of the ranch where he grew up. ”I’ve done many films that I knew I shouldn’t do, and had to do for financial reasons,” he says. ”I feel that I’m a good actor. I don’t feel that I’m a great actor. I care a little too much about what people think of me to be great. And I don’t have the tools of somebody like Juliette Lewis, who is phenomenal. She’s raw, and nobody taught her that.” But, Howell adds, he’s also ”worked hard as hell and I’m still not in a space where I’m getting Brad Pitt’s roles. I’ve been banging my head on the wall for three years competing with people I can’t compete with.”
Even on Kindred: The Embraced, Howell often can’t compete. As a conventional flatfoot, he’s upstaged by the mysterious mafiosi-style vampires. ”Frankly, I have a far less interesting role,” Howell concedes. ”I would have rather played [vampire godfather] Julian. He’s the true star of the show. But that’s okay. I’m not interested in becoming a star. I don’t want to be on Vanity Fair with 12 other little Hollywood boys that are going to be the next James Dean. F— all that! I’ve had the Porsches and the ego and the hot and cold running girls.”
Now he drives a sensible Chevy and has a 3-year-old daughter, Izzy, with his wife, Sylvie. He also has ambitions to direct, a road that is proving as tortuous as his quest for good parts. ”I want to be applying the knowledge that I’ve accumulated over the past 20 years from Coppola and Spielberg and Zeffirelli,” says Howell, who has already piloted two movies, the straight-to-the-shelf Hourglass and the yet-to-be-released Pure Danger, both starring… C. Thomas Howell. ”But it’s been a f—ing struggle for me to convince people that I’m serious because I’m not on the cover of US. I don’t go to movie premieres, and I don’t [pose for] pictures with Johnny Depp and his model girlfriend.
”My turn will come,” Howell insists. ”I’ve got the capabilities to become as big as Mel Gibson — or to go away and never do another film again.” For now, he adds with a shrug, ”I’ll be the cop chasing vampires.”