Henry Thomas On Crawlspace, E.T. At 40, His Collaborations With Mike Flanagan & More [Interview]

There is a gigantic stigma around the phrase "child actor." The words conjure images of once-promising stars that have since fallen out of favor with Hollywood, or fell victim to poor decisions as a result of success at a young age. But Henry Thomas, known for his breakout role as Elliot in Steven Spielberg's "E.T. the Extra Terrestrial," is not one such former child star. In fact, Thomas is doing some of the most compelling work of his career right now, 40 years after he delivered one of the all-time great performances in a summer blockbuster.

Thomas' most recent film is "Crawlspace," a horror/thriller that sees him taking the lead role. He plays a plumber named Robert, who, after witnessing a murder in a remote cabin, is forced to hide in a cramped crawlspace while killers search the cabin for a hidden fortune. It then becomes a fight for survival in a very confined space. Sure, there are other cast members in the film, but director L. Gustavo Cooper placed the bulk of it on Thomas' very capable shoulders. He's a long way from "E.T." in this one.

Beyond that, Thomas has been collaborating with Mike Flanagan in recent years on shows like "The Haunting of Hill House" as well as the upcoming "The Fall of the House of Usher." I recently had the good fortune to speak with Thomas in honor of "Crawlspace" being released on VOD. We discussed what it was like working in a cramped space for weeks on end, how he ended up becoming a horror mainstay as of late, whether or not an "E.T." sequel would be a good idea now, and more. Let's dig in.

'Crawlspace is sort of Home Alone meets Die Hard'

In your own words, can you tell us what people can expect from "Crawlspace?"

Well, "Crawlspace" is sort of "Home Alone" meets "Die Hard" underneath a cabin in the woods. It's the story of a plumber who goes to do a job at a remote location. He witnesses a murder, and the murderers witness him witness the murder and set about trying to bring about his early demise. And he's got to fight them off with his plumbing skills and his plumbers' implements.

It's funny, I watched it and I would've never thought of the "Die Hard" comparison, but it's there. It's the particular set of skills element, it's totally there.

Yeah. And he is just trying to get back to his family.

100%. It's the same. It's the John McClane thing, but a little different. If I were to guess, this doesn't seem like it was the most fun thing to film because you are largely in a crawlspace. What was that like? It seems like it was worth it in the end, but it seems like a pretty big ordeal having to film it, actually.

It was. Going into it I was thinking, "You're slightly claustrophobic. Do you really want to do this? Because it's going to be five weeks, or six weeks in a tight space — even if it's on a stage, it's going to be tight." They built it on a stage, and it was probably about four feet high and six feet wide, but it narrowed down in some places. Being in there all day for weeks got a little monotonous, and everybody on the crew hit their head on the beam.

God. Geez.

Everybody was sick of it by the end. Everybody was wearing back braces and stuff because you'd have to hunch over to walk around down there to move fast if you didn't want to crawl.

People talk about the phrase "movie magic" all the time and you never think about, "Oh, what happens when something's filmed in a crawlspace? Well, they've got to build a crawlspace and everyone's got to walk around in it for six weeks."

Well also, we're like a lower budget production and we're shooting on a tight schedule. So we're shooting 14-hour days or so.

Oh, brutal.

And so for three weeks of that, it gets really, really old.

'It's a lot of ego-driven pressure'

You've been doing a lot more horror and thriller stuff lately, because you've been doing a lot of stuff with Mike Flanagan over on Netflix. Was that by design, or has it just become sort of a happy accident that you've found yourself as a mainstay of the genre as of late?

It's entirely because of Mike Flanagan, because he's been working in that genre and he's hired me. We just finished our eighth project together, so he's hired me consistently since 2014, and as a result, my face has just popped up in that genre so much over the course of the last few years that people associate me with it. But no, it wasn't by any personal design. Although, I do like the material that Mike has been writing and producing, and I think it's its own genre in a lot of ways. But it's really cool to be a part of, it's kind of a repertory feel in terms of the actors and the consistent collaboration.

Well, especially because Flanagan really has, over this period of time, asserted himself as one of our finest storytellers in that department, for sure. I realized you guys have been doing it together for a while, I just didn't realize there's been that many collaborations already. That's pretty awesome. Do you have a favorite of the bunch so far since you guys have done so many?

I really liked "The Haunting of Hill House." In terms of how it all came together and the end result, I think it's a really succinct and well-told limited series, right?

Oh, it's so good. In a lot of those Flanagan collaborations, you've been very much part of an ensemble. This, though, "Crawlspace," is very much the kind of thing where the movie is on your back. It's totally your movie. Especially because you mentioned it's an indie film, you don't have all this time. How much pressure do you feel when you have a movie like that and you've just got to carry it on your back and it kind of rides or dies with you?

It's a lot of pressure, but it's a lot of self-imposed pressure. It's a lot of ego-driven pressure. If you can put your ego in the back seat and not worry about it, then you're pretty much okay, because there's really no pressure other than showing up and doing the work. The funny thing is, though, that it speaks to your ego as the guy who is the lead. You do feel a responsibility to be as great as you can be in this scene, because it's all about you, or something like that. But at the same time, you have to check yourself and remember that you're serving a story, and there's a lot of other people who are making it happen and watching out for things like that. So usually the best thing to do as an actor is do your work, read the scene, hit your mark, and say the words, dummy.

Only because we touched on it a little bit, you wrapped "Fall of the House of Usher," I believe, is what you were referring to.

Right. Yeah. I just wrapped last week. They're still filming until, I think, the second week of July.

I'm sure you can't say too much about it, but how does it compare to the other Flanagan series you've been involved with, be it "Midnight Mass" or "Hill House?" How does it compare in a broad sense?

In a broad sense? Okay. All three things we're talking about, which are "The Haunting of Hill House," "The Haunting of Bly Manor," and "The Fall of the House of Usher," they are all three limited series based on the literary works of an author. Shirley Jackson for "Haunting of Hill House," Henry James and his short stories for "Haunting of Bly Manor," and also for "The Fall of the House of Usher," it's the collected works of Edgar Allan Poe told out in front of the backdrop of "The Fall of the House of Usher." Then each of the episodes are sort of one, or two, or a conglomeration of short stories by Edgar Allan Poe. The various characters are based on different characters in the writings and things. But yeah, it's going to be really cool, and it's very darkly comedic, and it's, I think, going to be something that audiences will really get a great kick out of.

That's awesome.

I hope.

Well, I think his track record's good. I think out of any of them, heading into it as a fan, this is the one on paper that I'm the most excited about, because the Edgar Allan Poe source material, that just lends itself to ... if there's one guy that I think could make that work right now, I think that's the guy.

Oh, yeah. Yeah. And the cool thing is it's he and Michael Fimognari, who has been his longtime cinematographer. He and Mike Flanagan directed all of the episodes.

'I think it should be left alone, but there's always been talk of a sequel'

That's really awesome. I normally wouldn't even ask you about it just because I'm sure you've talked about it so much over the years, but we just crossed the 40th anniversary of "E.T."

Oh yeah.

That is huge deal on its own. But this happened at a weird time where "Top Gun: Maverick" just made a billion dollars at the box office. There are certain movies — a few weeks ago, I would've said, "You never touch 'E.T.'" But right now, I feel like studios are instantly going to start looking at, "All right, what do we have?" Then the only other thing I would say is, you did that commercial a few years ago, and I thought that on its own was so good [as a sequel]. And that's because of you, I should add. You sold that whole thing.

Oh, thanks.

Is there any part of you that thinks there is a way to do a sequel now, or do you still feel like leaving it alone is the best way to go?

Oh, I think it should be left alone, but there's always been talk of a sequel. There was talk in the early '80s, because the studio was really pushing for it in light of the success that it had theatrically. But I don't know. I think it's really sad that we've lost Melissa Mathison, who was the screenwriter of "E.T.," because if anybody could have made it happen, it was her. And that would've been the best kind of throughline for a sequel. But I don't know. I don't know. I think the commercial was as close as we're going to get to a sequel, and that's why Spielberg okayed it.

Yeah. Well, I mean, look, if that's as close as we get, it was pretty good in my opinion. So, you know.

I guarantee you, there are a few men in a very big room now salivating and using their abacus and slide rules to come up with some really, really big numbers.

"Crawlspace" is available on Digital and VOD now.