IAR EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Henry Thomas Talks 'The Last Ride,' 'Big Sur' and His Long-Lasting Career

Sunday, 23 June 2013 15:30 Written by  Jami Philbrick
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IAR EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Henry Thomas Talks 'The Last Ride,' 'Big Sur' and His Long-Lasting Career

Navigating a child actor’s career into becoming a successful adult actor is not always easy and there are many causality cases such as Lindsay Lohan and Amanda Bynes. But a few rare examples, like Natalie Portman, Jodie Foster, and Jason Bateman, prove that it is possible to make the transition. Another name that can be added to the short list of child stars turned accomplished adult actors is Henry Thomas

Thomas is still to this day most famous for one of his earliest roles, playing Elliot in director Steven Spielberg’s classic E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, which also co-starred former child star turned successful adult actress Drew Barrymore. As a child actor he went on to star opposite Dabney Coleman in Cloak & Dagger before transitioning into adult roles with a string of successful films including Legends of the Fall with Brad Pitt, Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York, and director Lasse Hallstrom’s Dear John. Thomas will soon be seen in the film adaption of author Jack Kerouac’s Big Sur, but first is taking on the iconic role of legendary music pioneer Hank Williams in The Last Ride, which is currently available on Blu-ray and DVD. 

The film, which was directed by Harry Thomason (The Hunting of the President), centers on the final days of Hank Williams' (Thomas) life when he was being driven by a young auto mechanic named Silas (Jesse James) to his New Year's Eve shows in West Virginia and Ohio. The Last Ride chronicles their relations, their adventures, and Williams' drug and alcohol dependency, which later resulted in his death on January 1, 1953. In addition to Thomas and James, the movie also features former Senator and republican presidential candidate Fred Dalton Thompson (Die Hard 2: Die Harder). 

I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Henry Thomas about his work on The Last Ride, his upcoming film Big Sur, and his long-lasting career. The accomplished actor discussed his new film, taking on the iconic role of musical legend Hank Williams, how he prepared for the part, working “inside out,” the relationship between Hank and Silas, his respect for co-star Jesse James, working with young actors, having no patience for lazy actors, how he successfully navigated his own career, what he looks for from a director, how he chooses his projects, Jack Kerouac, and his upcoming film Big Sur

Here is what he had to say:

IAR: To begin with, when playing a real life musical legend like Hank Williams, what kind of preparation or research do you have to do to prepare for the role?

Henry Thomas: Well, he was sort of an iconic figure so I didn’t want to take it lightly at all. I knew there were a lot of fans and there’s a real passionate fan that’s the Hank Williams fan. It was just a responsibility to do my research and there was a lot of research that I wanted to do. You know there’s no information to research so most of what I did was read about his life and watch old films of him conforming and getting my best physical imitation of his walk and his mannerisms that I could based on what I could find. There was some footage of him getting out of a car that I watched probably 3000 times just to see the set of his shoulders and stuff like that. Things like that don’t sound like much, but actually probably 40 percent of my performance was physical mimicry. 

When you get a character’s movement down, does that really help you to embody the role, and do you always work “inside out” that way?

Thomas: Yeah, because you can kind of reverse engineer it. You just say, well, how does this feel to me to stand like this? Wow, my shoulders feel really stiff. My spine feels really weird. My lower back hurts, and things like this that kind of inform the next step, which is okay, well, now that I feel like this, how does this affect me? You walk around like that for a little while and see how irritable you might be, or how distracted you might be. Then you kind of start to build a picture of somebody like that. The frustrating thing for me with this film was that we didn’t have enough money to really take our time with it. We didn’t have enough money to have the leisure of saying that we’re going to start production in five months. We were kind of flying by the seat our pants all the time. When (director) Harry Thomason called me it was like, well, we’re going to start shooting in two weeks in Littlerock, are you ready to go? This was kind of the third time that the production had almost gotten off the ground and there was a delay or something that happened. I would’ve loved to have six months to lose thirty pounds and be really skinny. To really try and look like him as much as I could. That was the only thing. But I just concentrated on what I could control and hoped that the audience would realize it’s all an illusion.

Did you speak to any of Williams’ family at all, or did you try to stay away from that and just stick to watching the film and getting his movement down?

Thomas: I didn’t speak to them. They weren’t really involved other than the fact that we were kind of worried that at any moment one of them could’ve stepped in and said, “I don’t want this film to happen,” and it would’ve just disappeared. It was after we did the film that I met Jet Williams, his daughter and talked to her a little bit. But she never knew her father and so out of the context of what needed to be done for the film, I really didn’t put my time in too much of that. Getting a feel for the man wasn’t as important for my performance as it was to get the look of the man, because I let the script dictate who the man was. But it was definitely tempered with who Hank Williams could have been and I just tried to stay as true as I could to what I knew about him and kind of let the story play out from there. 

Can you talk about the relationship between Hank and Silas, and how it is depicted in the film?

Thomas: It was very important to Jesse (James) and I that we get those moments and those themes down as best we could. So since we only shot this film in 16 or 17 days, Jesse and I had to do at one point I think 30 pages of dialogue. It was all the interiors of the car traveling scenes. We had to do all those scenes in one day. So it became kind of like a play that we rehearsed as much as we could in our spare time. Then when we got to work that day and we just performed it, and it was great. I think if we hadn’t put our time in to it wouldn’t have been anywhere near as good as it was. I think Jesse needs to get credit for that because as a young actor he has a really good work ethic. He was really concentrating on making the best film that he could be a part of and it was really awesome to work with him because it was kind of inspiring to see someone that young who was really into the work. I think that that really shows.

As yourself someone who started off as a very young actor, could you kind of relate to that? With your own personal experience, when you’re working with a young actor do you feel like you have a different outlook than maybe another actor would?

Thomas: Yea, I think I do. I’m a bit of a snob. I don’t like lazy actors. I don’t like to watch lazy actors perform and I don’t like to work with them. When I work with a lazy actor it drives me crazy. A lot of young actors these days are kind of lazy. To me when I work with someone like that it’s inspiring and it proves to me that I shouldn’t make generalizations.

You’ve had the luxury of working with some of the greatest directors in the history of cinema such as Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, and Lasse Hallstrom. As an actor, what do you look for from a director and how did Harry Thomason deliver on that level for you while making this film?

Thomas: I think the most important thing is just to have a clear vision and all of the best directors I’ve worked with have a clear vision. It’s not really like a dictatorship, it’s just a vision of where the film’s going and Harry had that because he didn’t have a choice, we only had 17 days. So he didn’t have a lot of room to maneuver, but even with that he was calm, we got the scenes, we took as much time as we could, and he held the thing together and got it done. A lot of directors are impatient. A lot of directors are screamers or they take out their frustrations on one cast member, the whipping boy of the production, whoever it is. Whatever frustrations of the day get taken out on that one person. You see a lot of bad behavior in the film industry, but you also see people with a very high level of professionalism and fortunately Harry Thomason is one of those people.

When you are choosing projects, what do you look for in a script and what do you attribute to the success you’ve had navigating your career from a child actor to an adult?

Thomas: I can’t take complete credit for that because some of it’s been sheer luck and just getting an audition or getting an offer for something. Some of it’s just been purely accidental as well or that the films were flukes that people responded to. My whole career has kind of been a fluke so at a certain point you kind of have to realize that your career is just what happens after you choose projects and keep working. People are going to look at it later and they’re not looking at it right now. So the thing that I think about is just whether or not the script is good, first of all. Even if the script isn’t great, is the character something that can elevate the piece? Often times it’s not and sometimes it’s just believing in a director or believing in another cast member and wanting to work with certain people. A film can go wrong at many stages, but the script gives you a pretty good idea and the more that you read I think the better you get at it.

Finally, what can you tell me about your upcoming film Big Sur? Are you a big fan of Jack Kerouac’s work?     

Thomas: Yea, I was a fan of Jack Kerouac but I wasn’t a total beat guru guy. I didn’t know everything about the era. I read On The Road years ago, but I only knew a little bit about Jack Kerouac. I knew a little bit about Big Sur too because I was a fan as well. I’ve been up to Big Sur and my friend Orian Williams (Control) produced this film. He basically brought me in to meet director Michael Polish (The Astronaut Farmer) and he pretty much offered me the role of Phillip (Whalen). So I signed on and it was a great cast, but it’s a very surreal film. I don’t actually know how much of the movie I’m in because I haven’t seen the final product. There’s a lot of voice over. Not a lot of people have a lot of dialogue in this film because a lot of it is Kerouac’s voice-over done by Jean-Marc Barr (Breaking the Waves) over images. If you do see the film and you see me in it, the character I was supposed to be playing was basically one of Kerouac’s contemporaries. He’s a poet and he wrote several things that were kind of famous in and around San Francisco at the time. But he’s more famous posthumously as being the guy who introduced Zen Buddhism to San Francisco and founded it’s first Zen Buddhist temple there.          

The Last Ride is currently available on Blu-ray and DVD. 

Big Sur premiered in January at the Sundance Film Festival and is scheduled for release later this year. 

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