Henry Thomas discusses playing music icon Hank Williams in The Last Ride, currently available on Blu-ray and DVD
Henry Thomas captured America's heart as Elliott in the 1982 classic E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, and he hasn't stopped working since. He starred in one of my personal childhood favorites, Cloak and Dagger, and in notable films such as Valmont, Legends of the Fall, Suicide Kings, All The Pretty Horses, Gangs of New York, Dear John, and many more. The actor returns to play music icon Hank Williams in The Last Ride, currently available on Blu-ray and DVD. Set just days before the country singer passed away, this drama is based on the true story of a young man (Jesse James) hired to drive Hank to a series of concerts over the New Year's Eve holiday, and the bond that formed between these very different men. I recently had the chance to speak with Henry Thomas over the phone about The Last Ride. Here's what he had to say.
I recently got to see this, and I wasn't too familiar with Hank Williams story, but it was quite an intriguing story. This is based on an actual story, but can you talk about what kind of fictional elements that were added into this story? Was there a balance there?
Henry Thomas: Thank you, first of all. Most of the dialogue was pretty fictional. You can find the true account of the trip, as told by the real chauffeur, a guy named Charles Carr, from Montgomery, Alabama. He was the real Silas, and there are several conspiracies about what happened on that journey, based on his account.
When you play someone as iconic as Hank, how much research goes into the mannerisms, the way he talks, and the way he moves, especially with his condition. Was there a lot you went into, after you got this role?
Henry Thomas: Yes, there was a lot of research on my part. The frustrating thing, for me, was, because of the nature of the project, and the fact that we didn't have very much money, I was doing other jobs in between, before we were getting to the production phase. I felt a little bit like I didn't have enough time to put into it, because it felt like such a big character to play, and such a responsibility. I started to get a little obsessed with getting it right, and worried that I didn't look exactly like him, and that I was going to mess everything up. I didn't have enough time to lose enough weight, all of these things. I think, ultimately, what happened was, I just started concentrating on the things I could control, and that was creating a character based on what I knew of Hank Williams, and really trying to tell the story, more than anything. Hopefully the audience will believe in the illusion a bit, and part of that was watching how he moved and his performances on stage. Concentrating on the physical things helped me. Also, I'm a guitar player and I sing as well, and even though I don't perform in the film, a lot of me discovering who he was, was actually going through his songs in my trailer, before I would go on set.
This is very much a story of that time period too. I always kept thinking that if someone as big as Hank Williams was just walking around like that today, he'd be mobbed by the public. You do see instances where he's recognized, but I thought it was interesting that it was a portrait at that time, where people weren't as obsessed with singers and celebrities as they are now. I thought it was an intriguing aspect that he can sit down with those guys in West Virginia and hang out and talk about life.
Henry Thomas: Sure. The director, Harry Thomason, he was always saying that not a lot of people, especially on the backroads, had TV's at the time. Not everybody would have known what Hank Williams would have looked like. They'd know what he sounded like, or maybe they'd see a picture in the paper or something, but that'd be it. He wouldn't be over-exposed like now (Laughs).
Can you talk about working with Harry Thomason and how he wanted to shape this story?
Henry Thomas: This kind of gestated for a long time, and Harry has been a part of it for most of it's life. I think he had to struggle with a lot of budgetary restraints, but he stuck with it and got it done. It was a hell of a work load, but I really think, considering what we had and how we had to shoot this, we got some amazing stuff out of it.
I loved the chemistry between you and Jesse. It was such an interesting arc, how contentious it was at first and how the ice began to break. It was really cool to see how that relationship evolved. I know a lot of times, when actors play contentious characters like that, they're separated on the set. Did you have that at all on this project?
Henry Thomas: We did the opposite. Jesse and I got together all the time, and we would rehearse things off the set, because we didn't have a lot of time to rehearse when we were on set, and we'd have dinner together and talk about the day. We actually became really good friends, and I talk to him now all the time. We acted all that (Laughs). It was good that, for a young actor, I mean, Jesse wasn't even 21 at the time we were shooting, he had a really good work ethic and he was really all about getting the best performances we could out of each moment we had. I was really glad for that. That was a big issue in our minds, when we were going into it.
Is there anything you can say about Big Sur? There is just a fantastic cast in that. What can you say about your character, and have you heard anything about release plans?
Henry Thomas: Well, I still haven't seen the film, but it's kind of funny because this character I play, I don't really have that much dialogue, and nobody in the film has much dialogue, because it's mostly voice-over of Jean-Marc Barr doing Jack Kerouac, which is often-times lifted straight out of the novel. I really don't have any idea of how much I'm in the film, or anything. It's really weird, because it was kind of a surreal film, but I'll tell you the guy I'm supposed to be, if you don't see me in the movie. I play, basically, one of the contemporaries of Jack Kerouac, who is essentially responsible for bringing Zen Buddhism to the West Coast. He was a poet and a bit of an artist, but he was mainly famous as the guy that introduced San Francisco to Zen Buddhism, and founded one of the Buddhist temples there.
Is there anything you're working on this summer you can talk about?
Henry Thomas: I did a pilot for ABC called Betrayal, and that got picked up, so I'm officially going to be on everybody's TV, if they're tuned to ABC on Sunday's at some unspecified time. They can watch me every week, which is a first for me, but we'll see how it plays out. I'm starting up in mid-July in Chicago for the next nine months or so. I play a character who's the son of a very rich and powerful man, but he suffered an accident and he has brain damage. He's high-functioning, but mentally deficient, a little slower on the uptake. It's kind of an interesting character.
Henry Thomas: I'm really happy that people are now able to find it. Everyone I mentioned it to, I was always met with the same reaction of, 'When can I see that?' I got a little sick of saying, 'I don't know if you'll ever get to see it,' so I'm just really happy that it's out there, and people can find it. Check it out.
That's all I have. Thanks so much Henry. It was great talking to you.
Henry Thomas: It was great talking to you, Brian.