Henry Thomas has been acting since he was 11, when Steven Spielberg cast him in the lead role of Elliott in 1982’s immortal E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. It can be difficult to forge a career following such a legendary start to it, but after taking time off for school, Thomas gradually transitioned to adult roles in movies like Legends of the Fall, Fire in the Sky and Gangs of New York. He’s made a horror picture here and there, but the new Ouija: Origin of Evil is the highest-profile genre piece he’s done to date.
In the movie he plays Father Tom, principal of the school attended by sisters Paulina (Annalise Basso) and Doris (Lulu Wilson), the latter of whom exhibits a latent ability to possibly contact the spirit world through a Ouija board that her mom – the widowed fake medium Alice (Elizabeth Reaser) – brings home one day. Also grieving the loss of his wife, which drove him into the priesthood, Tom is conflicted by his attraction to Alice, his fear of the forces her daughter may be tampering with, and his determination as a man of faith to help this family.
In other words, Tom is a fairly complex character – a trademark that director and co-writer Mike Flanagan has ported over from his own movies (like Oculus) to this sequel to the 2014 surprise horror hit. Den of Geek spoke with Thomas recently about working with Flanagan, playing a priest and whether his own background as a child actor helps him work with young thespians now.
Den of Geek: I was scanning through your filmography but I didn’t get a chance to look at every single thing and I was curious: have you ever played a priest before?
Henry Thomas: I’ve never played a Catholic priest before. I did a role where I was some traveling 19th century Christian reverend or something. This was the first Catholic priest I’ve played., so that was kind of fun. Different, you put the uniform and that’s 90% of your work. Then you just have to look official.
Did you any specific ideas or preconceptions of how to play a man of the cloth? How did you find your way into him?
This guy was interesting to me. A lot of these characters are grieving. Elizabeth’s character’s grieving the death of her husband. My character in a lot of way entered the priesthood to mourn the death of his wife. I like that he’s not really having second thoughts so much, but he’s conflicted. He’s worried about his faith. He’s worried about his parishioners. He’s a complex guy and it was very different to read that in a horror genre, because usually the Catholic priests are simply spouting off liturgy. Saying the “Our Father” and throwing holy water everywhere. This was fun to play a guy with a back story, and there’s a little sadness there because he realizes what he can’t have.
The “date” scene with Elizabeth was really well done. In a different film that could’ve gone a very different and somewhat more predictable way but it doesn’t. There’s clearly a connection there, but he stands by what he’s committed himself to.
Mike Flanagan is really brilliant for a lot of reasons, but especially because he gave us a whole day to shoot that. He really wanted us to make that scene something elevated from the page, and he gave us a real opportunity to do it. He gave us all day to do it, and it was so well worth it to me. That scene is the reason I did this film.
Is that often the case? When you get a script, is there that scene that you really look forward to playing?
To an extent. Not everything really jumps off the page like this scene did. For me when I read that scene I thought, “Oh, wow this could make the film something that you haven’t seen before.” It can make it really interesting for a genre film to have. In fact, I was thinking in the back of my mind that scene was going to end up on the cutting room floor, but I was hoping that it wouldn’t.
One of the things that is interesting about this film is that it pays a lot attention to character development, which you don’t often get in this genre.
Yeah, and to use Mike’s words he said, “We’re going to build all of these relationships for the first 2 acts, and then we’re going to take 3 days in the third act and just destroy it all. That’s the genre, I want to build it before we destroy it.” I said great and Elizabeth said fantastic, because the characters don’t know they’re in a horror film. They want to have their moments and they want to be in love, that’s what they want.
You’ve worked with Spielberg, you’ve worked with Milos Forman, you’ve worked with Martin Scorsese. When you’re on a set with a director who maybe you’re not as familiar with, can you tell if they have that potential to become one of these great directors?
For sure. You definitely know when somebody is helming and they’re in control. They’ve got it and they’ve figure it all out, or at least they’re doing a good job of piecing it together while you’re there. You can tell the guys who are inept. I told Mike that when we worked together I said, “You have that quality because you know exactly what you want. Like all the great ones.” They know exactly what they want, they know exactly what they need. They have the ability to move the camera and talk to the actors in a way that other people don’t. That’s what I see in a great director.
They’re equally as good at talking to actors and getting a performance out of them, as they are at knowing where to put the camera and know which shots they need. Otherwise you’re making other people work for something that you may or may not use. That’s lazy on the part of the filmmaker. If you do your work ahead of time nobody has to jump through any hoops.
Lulu Wilson carries a lot on her shoulders in this film as Doris. Do you feel like you have any special insight that you can give a child actor in that position, having started out in a movie, E.T., where so much of it was on your shoulders?
I relate to the experience because it was my experience too, to some degree. It’s funny, I feel as performers we’re all sort of in the same boat. I feel like Lulu could give me advice. I feel like she’s much more together at 10 years old than I was, or even that I am at 45. I think she’s got a handle on things. I think that’s something that everybody carries with them, you either have it or you don’t. I sympathize with her position because I was in a successful film when I was a kid, and I didn’t know a lot about the industry. I was thrust in it and “you do well or fail” was the view.
I commiserate with that, but I think she had a leg up because she’s got a great family. They’re very smart and they’re watching what she’s doing and helping her. She very intelligent. She’s going to make good decisions. She has good taste and she’s got a lot of talent.
Before we go, what’s next for you?
I’ve currently not lined anything up, but I’m waiting to hear back on a couple of things. Mike Flanagan wants to work with me again, and I would love to work with him again. Hopefully on one of his upcoming projects pretty soon, I’ll get a call. (note: Thomas was announced for the cast of Flanagan’s next film, an adaptation of Stephen King’s Gerald’s Game).
Ouija: Origin of Evil is out in theaters this Friday (October 21).