Kurt Russell Couldn't Stop Asking John Carpenter One Question About The Thing

Much has been made of "The Thing," John Carpenter's 1982 box office bomb-turned-genre darling. Whether it's Bill Lancaster's adapted script of John W. Campbell Jr.'s 1938 novella "Who Goes There?," Rob Bottin's gnarly special effects (with an assist from dog-Thing creature designer Stan Winston), or Carpenter's meticulous direction that's light on the jump scares and heavy on the dread, the result is now considered one of the great gargoyles in the horror movie pantheon. Though the story is about an alien organism infiltrating an Arctic research post, and though there are plenty of tentacles about, the narrative is largely character-driven as paranoia and mistrust grow among the isolated cadre of men, led by Kurt Russell's pilot, R.J. MacReady.

A 2016 LA Weekly interview with the cast and crew yields insights from the film's production. Therein, Carpenter called the shoot "intimidating," as he had to wrangle multiple accomplished actors — some of whom, like Keith David and Donald Moffat, came from the theatrical stage. It would be during a half-month of rehearsals prior to filming that these actors fine-tuned their characters further than Lancaster's script or Carpenter's extensive storyboards had. Naturally, they turned to their captain for direction. Carpenter told LA Weekly:

"I didn't have experience working with an ensemble cast. So I brought an actor into my office and talked with him about his process. That conversation didn't give me any specific ideas for the movie, but it got me thinking about what my job is: Giving the actors whatever they need to give a good performance. So for two weeks I rehearsed with all of these guys. I asked questions of them, and they asked questions of me."

For some, the chief question was just where the line of delineation lies between the Thing's consciousness and the person it occupies.

If I was an imitation, a perfect imitation, how would you know if it was really me?

In the movie, senior biologist Blair (A. Wilford Brimley) and physician Copper (Richard Dysart) address the mechanics of the Thing, albeit in a limited way. "What we're talkin' about here is an organism that imitates other lifeforms," observes Blair, "and it imitates 'em perfectly." It attacks, absorbs, and shapes itself as a carbon copy of its host, indistinguishable from the person it targets. You don't need a whole taxonomy classification to understand that; as Richard Masur's Clark says, "It's weird and pissed off, whatever it is."

The Thing can't be detected unless it's compelled to reveal itself (such as in the celebrated blood test scene), and several cast members questioned if and when their characters knew they were infected. David Clennon, who plays assistant mechanic and resident stoner, Palmer, recalled hours of rehearsal time spent "discussing f***ing metaphysics" about the infection:

"Some of the actors were obsessed with this question: When you become the Thing — when the alien takes over your mind and body — do you know that you've become the Thing? Or do you just go on thinking that you are your old self? I couldn't see the point of solving that silly riddle."

Carpenter remembered Russell as being the most persistent with this question. He told LA Weekly:

"The big question that kept coming to me was: If you were a Thing, would you know? I think Kurt Russell started that one. I said, 'I think you would.' But he kept asking that question, so I don't think that answer was sufficient."

It's an answer /Film's Eric Vespe keeps in mind as he explores the theory that MacReady was not only infected at some point, but he knew it. Dive down that rabbit hole here.