Having already appeared in films such as Tremors, Spaced Invaders and Timescape, young actress Ariana Richards landed her most prominent role in the 1993 classic, Jurassic Park. While Stan Winston’s realistic dinosaurs were understandably the main draw for audiences, their presence wouldn’t have been the same without a vital, human dimension – and Richards’ performance as Lex Murphy brought a great sense of adventure and fear to a visually stunning movie.
With Jurassic Park out now on Blu-ray, we spoke to Ms Richards about her role in the film, the impact it had on her career, and what it was like to work with Steven Spielberg…
How have you enjoyed revisiting your time making the film as the promotion for this re-release has gone on? Have you enjoyed going back over your memories?
It’s actually amazing to me that I haven’t gotten tired of talking about Jurassic Park yet, after all these years! I have so many memories, and it was a very rich experience. Out of 30 or 40 films I’ve been in, this one really is a standout, and there is so much to talk about.
Is there a particular memory that’s your fondest recollection of the production?
There are so many memories that stick with me – I would say the fact that I got to film it as a child actor, it was especially exciting for me, because Steven often says that he wanted to create a world one day where he could interact with dinosaurs safely. And he never got to experience that as a boy, but as an adult he created Jurassic Park. And Joey [Mazzello] and I got to step onto that set, where you never knew what dinosaur would be there that day, and experience the full impact of what that would be like.
So you were the two children in the world who actually got to play with dinosaurs…
Exactly! We got to experience that world first-hand…
Your performance in the film is especially remarkable for the sheer sense of genuine terror that you get across throughout – where did that come from?
Actually, Steven asked me the same question when filming! When we were filming the scene of the T-rex with the jeep, during the moments between scenes Steven came over to me once and said, “Ariana, you reach such a deep level of fear and terror – what do you draw from? Were you scared by a clown when you were three? Don’t tell me, I don’t want to know!” And then he smiled and walked away.
It seems to be a feature of Spielberg’s films that the young actors tend to be so good. Based on your experience, is there anything particular about him as a director that would make that the case? Has he just got a good knack for picking people, or is it something in his direction?
I think he is very good at casting roles and choosing actors. And I think he chooses actors that bring the kind of natural quality to their roles that he wants to see. As young actors he gave Joey and I the gift of allowing us to be very natural – and directing us without actually directing us, often asking for our input into scenes.
Was it much of a stretch to play someone with an adolescent crush on Sam Neill?
No, I remember thinking he was quite handsome! And after that, that was quite a part of my character. In fact, not much of the filming was very difficult to make believable – as I stepped onto that movie set it was easy to imagine that I was in that world.
So for how much of the filming would you be interacting with actual physical effects, and how much were you having to imagine what was there?
I would say about 80 per cent of the time, the dinosaurs were actually present – and only a small portion was CGI. The dinosaur models were absolutely incredible – the team that Stan Winston put together to create these dinosaurs, they were absolutely amazing. These dinosaurs were so life-like, and so I got the chance to relate to them in person.
In fact, when the T-rex was crashing down on the Jeep, it really was. And they had to do a bit of dinosaur dental work between the takes!
Were you excited by dinosaurs before making Jurassic Park, or was it doing the film that gave you a sense of how exciting they were?
Doing the film was what really got me interested in palaeontology and dinosaurs – the fact that the dinosaurs were so realistic, and I got to learn about the different types of creatures. And the fact that Jack Horner – who was the person Alan Grant’s character was based off of – was present on the set so much of the time, meant we could talk with him… in fact, at the end of the filming he invited me to come out to the dig in Montana, and actually dig for dinosaur bones! And I went, and it was an experience…
I remember walking around the dry hills of Montana with him, and at one point he said we were walking on Cretaceous soil, and he ended up walking down and pointing out a ‘raptor forearm that was actually sitting on the surface of the ground… and he gave it to me! So I have a ‘raptor forearm in my collection!
Why do you think the film resonated with people so strongly at the time, and still does?
I think there’s a quality of this world that Steven created – and he’s not the only one who as a young person longed to experience the world in a different way, almost to go back in time into prehistory and experience exotic creatures like dinosaurs in your midst. And he created that world for us, and I really do think that Joey and I, of everybody, were such lucky kids to get to experience that world firsthand every day that we walked onto that film set.
Did you find after Jurassic Park that it was a positive or a negative factor in the sort of work you’d get offered afterwards?
Well, I think that it was one of those films that I worked on and enjoyed every second of filming, and afterwards, when it got so big… well, that was a surprise. I’ve been in about 30 films, but the role of Lex is definitely a standout, and always will be. And I think that everybody sees it that way – the amount of fan mail that I got after the film was absolutely flooring.
You’ve had a pretty successful career as an artist outside of acting – how did you get into that, and how did it become your full-time vocation?
I was painting early on, and now I’m a professional portrait artist. But during the filming of Jurassic Park I was inspired to create a watercolour that I did shortly thereafter, titled Raptor Vision. For me it’s more difficult to put something as multi-faceted as the experience of playing Lex into words, and so I decided to paint a watercolour of the ‘jello’ scene.
What does your painting give you creatively that you don’t get from working in cinema?
I see myself as coming a bit of my own director, so to speak! I get to create the image and the vision that I want to get across to people, and express the essence of the character that I’m painting, and put it down on the canvas for people to experience.
Are you still interested in acting as well?
Oh, yes – being interested in acting never changes. Acting is in your blood, and of course I’ll always be interested in it.
Another of your films that I quite enjoyed was Angus, which I think is generally a pretty underrated film of its type. That was a bit of a move away from the sort of thing you’d done with Jurassic Park or Tremors – what are your memories of that?
Oh, yeah. Angus was a very special story, with an excellent cast – people like Kathy Bates and George C Scott. And it was an interesting role, a departure from some of the things I’d done in the special effects world. I played a cheerleader who was bulimic, and troubled… it was an interesting challenge. I’m proud of that film, and the role that I played, and I’m pleased that even though it wasn’t widely experienced, more and more people are getting to know it these days through the release of DVDs and so on.
So have you actually sat and watched Jurassic Park recently, with this re-release having come along?
Well, I don’t actually watch it very often – but I have to say the fact that it’s coming out on Blu-Ray and in HD is going to give me a very good reason to get it out again and enjoy it!
Ariana Richards, thank you very much.
The Jurassic Park Ultimate Trilogy is out now on Blu-ray.