Steven Spielberg, Henry Thomas, and Drew Barrymore reunite to discuss the movie that defined their blossoming careers

By Anthony Breznican
October 05, 2012 at 04:00 AM EDT
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Steven Spielberg’s E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial couldn’t have made a greater impact on kids of the ’80s if the spaceship had actually landed on their lawns. The bittersweet tale of an abandoned alien longing for home turned into a global blockbuster and an indelible part of childhood for everyone who has grown up since. E.T.‘s minor details became obsessions, as the movie famously helped popularize everything from Reese’s Pieces to Kuwahara bikes to red hoodies. It even made squeaky-voiced little brothers seem cool — at least temporarily.

Spielberg has often said that working with Henry Thomas (then 10) and Drew Barrymore (then 6) was so much fun, it made him realize he wanted to have kids of his own. Thirty years — and seven children — later, Spielberg, 65, is now a grandfather of three. Thomas is 41 with three kids, and Barrymore is 37 and gave birth to her first child, daughter Olive, on Sept. 26. They sat down at Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment offices and talked about how E.T. is taking a new generation over the moon.

Henry, you were so young when the film came out — were you aware of the influence E.T. had on your peers?

Henry Thomas Sort of. I was aware of it after the fact. I wasn’t the tastemaker of 1982.

You should say, ”I saw all of that coming.”

Thomas [Strikes a more confident pose] Yeah, I started all of that. [Laughs]

When was the last time you three got together?

Steven Spielberg It’s been a while, but I’m never that far away from either of these guys. There’s a whole other kind of bond that was formed when we were all kids — including myself. This is a memory that just won’t go away.

It’s also a movie that’s never really been gone from the culture. But you all have kids in your life now. At what point do you introduce them to E.T.?
Spielberg My grandson Luke saw it for the first time last summer. I talked him through the movie because I wanted him to know that E.T.’s going to be okay and Elliott was going to find what he needed and no one was going to get killed. He was only 3 years old. So I was really, really careful. My daughter, his mom [Jessica Capshaw], thought it would be okay if I told him what the [upcoming] scene was going to be. So I started talking right through the whole movie, and halfway through I’m explaining to him, ”He’s going to be okay. He’s going to turn a little bit powdery. It’s going to seem really sad for a while, but it’s going to be okay.” And at 3 years old, he just threw his hand up in front of my face and said, ”Don’t tell me!

Drew Barrymore [Laughs] You give them the cinematic safety net, and then they don’t need it.

Did Drew and Henry need reassurance? At those ages, the line between what’s real and what isn’t can be hazy.
Spielberg There was a moment in the early usage of [the E.T. puppet] where Drew comes in, and she suddenly sees wires coming out of E.T.’s behind, running down his leg and disappearing behind a wall. Drew comes over and says to Henry, ”What are those wires doing there?” And Henry says, ”What wires? I don’t see any wires. That’s E.T.’s feet.” Henry covers for Drew so she doesn’t have the fourth wall torn apart right in front of her.

Thomas Drew was 6 or 7, and her imagination was so far beyond where I was at 10. Reality was already creeping through the veil. But we thought, ”Oh, we don’t want Drew not to believe.” Drew would come and wrap a scarf around E.T.’s neck when we left for lunch. She brought him to life in a lot of ways.

Do you remember any of that, Drew?

Barrymore I have a really profound memory of everything. E.T. feels like it was a couple years ago. It seems in some ways a lifetime ago, but not in the memory department…. I loved taking care of E.T. I loved how much I felt nurtured and safe with these gentlemen. It was a really perfect environment, and I was just happy every day.

Steven, you’ve said E.T. made you want to become a dad. At what point did you show your kids the movie that made you want to have them?
Spielberg My kids have seen the movie at very different times. There’s never been just one screening of E.T. I have seven kids, so it’s all kind of staggered, and most of the time, they’ve seen the movie without me. When they got old enough, they would wind up going to somebody’s house and seeing it with a friend.
Barrymore I cannot wait to show my child. There’s nothing I could be more proud to be a part of. It’s, like, this and Ever After. I can’t imagine what it’s like to show your kids. I’m so excited to learn.

Thomas I’m gonna show Hazel, my oldest. She’s 8. I feel like she’s ready to see it and enjoy it now. They’ve seen a trailer — which was on one of their DVDs — and they were watching it, and I thought I was going to be real clever and say, ”Who do you think that guy is?” And Evie, the 3-and-a-half-year-old, she goes, ”That’s you, Dad, when you were a boy.” So she knew. Couldn’t get it past her.

Where is E.T. now? Does anything remain?

Spielberg There’s nothing left. Latex is all gone. The armature exists. I possess the [metal skeleton] of E.T., but there’s no skin on the bones.

Now you’re talking scary.

Spielberg [Laughs] Yeah, it would be very scary to see that.

Update: The E.T. Cast and Director

Steven Spielberg

The director, 65, has just finished Lincoln (out Nov. 9), starring Daniel Day-Lewis, which follows the 16th U.S. president in the final months of his life. He’s now in preproduction on Robopocalypse, a sci-fi saga about a futuristic war between humans and machines.

Drew Barrymore

Barrymore, 37, most recently appeared in the save-the-whale movie Big Miracle, with John Krasinski. She and husband Will Kopelman just welcomed their first child.

Henry Thomas

Earlier this year, the 41-year-old actor played country icon Hank Williams in The Last Ride. He recently shot Big Sur, a film adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s novel about life on the Northern California coast.

E.T. Behind the Scenes

All E.T. ever wanted was to go back to where he originated — and that’s what many fans wanted for the movie, too. The 30th-anniversary Blu-ray edition of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (out Oct. 9) not only presents the film in a pristine new format but also undoes the changes Steven Spielberg made for its theatrical rerelease 10 years ago, such as digitally replacing guns with walkie-talkies.

Most of the Blu-ray’s special features are holdovers from previous discs, but one major addition is a must-see documentary called The E.T. Journals, which consists entirely of behind-the-scenes footage edited together. The treat in The E.T. Journals is seeing Spielberg work with the child stars. ”I need you to pretend it’s nothing more than an animal,” a boyish Spielberg says to Henry Thomas, directing the actor’s first up-close-and-personal encounter with the alien. ”It’s some sort of a deformed cross between a coyote and a rabbit — but all of a sudden it’s showing great intelligence, and that cracks you up.” Later, he asks a tiny Drew Barrymore, ”Isn’t this better than going to school?” Barrymore heartily agrees. Who wouldn’t?

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