Casting Kids? Check How Spielberg Realized He Had the Wrong Lead for E.T. and Switched for Henry Thomas
Casting might be an underrated job without Oscar recognition, but it’s also a key moment in the filmmaking process and about everybody agrees to say that a good story with bad casting won’t go far. And if casting adults can be tricky, casting kids requires one fine nose and a good bag of acting tricks. As Leonardo DiCaprio mentioned, kids can absorb really quickly how to please adults and play the part, and your job, along with your casting director is to find gentle ways to see through that.
This is exactly what happened to Steven Spielberg and casting director Marci Liroff as they were trying to cast the kids for E.T. If you recall the film, kids are the movie, and particularly the kid playing Elliott, the human hero of the film. Spielberg had cast all the kids playing the secondary roles, and thought he had found his Elliott, but wanted to make sure that his potential lead had a good chemistry with the other actors.
Spielberg and his team came up with a simple, clever and efficient way to make sure their first instinct was right, and casting director Marci Liroff explains what they did:
“We wanted to see how [the kids] would interact together by playing a game. We invited them all to the writer Melissa Mathison‘s house to play Dungeons and Dragons, and we sat around outside of the room watching them interact. In about three minutes it became very clear that nobody liked this little boy. I just think when you play a game sometimes your true character comes out and these kids just didn’t really liked him, he became very bossy, it just showed that he was not our kid. So, I basically had to start over.”
I thought that was a very interesting technique to have everybody drop their guard and be natural, and I can see how this can be especially effective on kids. It’s also important to see that what your first instinct tells you when you see an actor alone might not be enough, and you need to make sure there is good chemistry between your different parts.
As you know the story for E.T. ends well, and that’s thanks to a phone call from Raggedy Man‘s filmmaker Jack Fisk who had just worked with little Henry Thomas and recommended him to Spielberg. The second part of the video shows how Thomas nailed his casting audition and, despite the heavy and distracting score added in editing, you can feel the emotion pouring out of this little kid and why he was Elliott.
Watch Thomas’ amazing performance below and remember this casting technique if you ever had to cast several kids for your film:
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