Welcome to World Builders, our ongoing series of conversations with the industry’s most productive and thoughtful behind-the-scenes craftspeople. In this entry, we chat with Henry Thomas about living out his Die Hard fantasies in the new action-thriller Crawlspace.
You’ve heard this notion before. Actors are just children who never quit playing. That’s doubly true for Henry Thomas, the kid from E.T. who Mike Flanagan recently terrorized in shows like The Haunting of Hill House and Midnight Mass. As projects cross his desk, he often considers what longheld fantasy it could fulfill. His latest effort, Crawlspace, is a claustrophobic, anxiety-amped thriller, which also offers Thomas several opportunities to spit a one-liner before something badass happens.
Thomas plays Robert, the plumber. He’s a new dad. The bills are piling up, and the work is shrinking. His stress level is at an all-time high when he takes a gig crawling beneath a remote Oregon cabin. But he’s gotta work, and he’s thankful to have the job. Until a cadre of poachers rolls into the space looking for loot. Violence escalates quickly.
While watching the film, you cannot help but place yourself in Henry Thomas’ playful position. Trapped below with a floorboard ceiling millimeters from his head and walls of dirt seemingly encroaching, the actor appears to be going through hell. Caked in mud and blood, Thomas wears the exertion excruciatingly well; you almost don’t notice the twinkle in his eye. This kid is having a ball.
“I wanted to do the action movie thing,” says Thomas. “I thought this was a fun script because it was like Home Alone or Die Hard in a basement. It was cool, the working class hero aspect to it. This guy is just in the wrong place at the wrong time. I thought the banter between the characters was clever, and it could be funny at times. It seemed like a great summer movie, and I think that’s what we made.”
Yeah, yeah, yeah, but how about that basement? Henry Thomas spends nearly the entire film on his knees, rooting in the dark and filth. That could not have been a joyful experience. Or, at the least, if it was joyful, you couldn’t ignore the pain that comes with the pleasure.
“It was pretty tough,” he says. “I have to say; we weren’t under an actual house. We were on stage, and they built the set, but to simulate dirt and ground cover that wouldn’t kick up a bunch of dust every time I rolled on it, they placed a bunch of bits of ground-up old tires. There were like rubber chunks down on the floor. I got down there, and they were like, ‘Do you need knee pads or anything? You’re going to be doing a lot of crawling.’ I was like, ‘Nah, I’m okay without the knee pads.’ After rolling around on that stuff for three weeks, it looked like somebody had pelted me with a shotgun that fired rubber bullets. I was covered in dime and quarter-sized bruises all over, just from rolling around. Am I getting too old for this?”
An actor never knows when a film such as this will avail itself, so you must be ready and put faith in a crew that routinely makes action their mission. When it’s time to go, you gotta go.
“I just keep myself in relatively decent shape,” he says, “or try to anyway. That handles most of it because you have experts on set, like stunt coordinators that handle all the choreography. We had a great stunt coordinator on Crawlspace, [Colin Decker] was fast and safe and efficient. All you have to do as an actor in an action sequence is listen to the stunt coordinator and do what they say. And not have a heart attack from jumping up and down for five minutes or something, which I can do, thankfully.”
Finally living his best Die Hard life put a toll on Thomas’ body. But there’s no real worry about committing to the play. He throws himself into a system that is well oiled and finely tuned. Difficulty only occurs when the actor overthinks the performance. When you need to run, you run. The action itself is the character work.
“All the challenges arise from your actor brain kicking in,” continues Thomas, “and going, ‘Wouldn’t it be better if this moment was more because you always have to remember what genre you’re working in, right? I’m not going to crawl out of the basement like Leonardo DiCaprio, shedding the carcass of this thing and coming out of the freezing cold, and someone’s going to hand me an Oscar. At most, they’re going to write a nice review on Rotten Tomatoes or something. So, I have to remember, and I think all actors need to remember who they’re acting for and what the audience is expecting. You have to give them what they want a little.”
Henry Thomas is enjoying a mini-renaissance at the moment with The Haunting of Hill House, The Haunting of Bly Manor, and Midnight Mass. His partnership with Mike Flanagan began with Ouija: Origin of Evil in 2016 and Gerald’s Game a year later. He relishes the chance to work within horror as much as he does crawling under cabins pretending he’s John McClane, but he’ll go wherever Mike Flanagan takes him.
“Well, that’s all on Flanagan,” says Thomas. “He just keeps hiring me. So, whatever genre he’s working in, that’s where I end up working because the phone rings, and he’s like, ‘I have two parts for you. You could choose A, or you could choose B. I think B is more interesting.’ Yeah, he’s like this weird dungeon master that appears with a Choose Your Own Adventure book and says, ‘This way or that way.’ Flanagan is consistently in the thriller-horror genre, but I think his writing is moving more towards suspense-drama, and this last one, [The House of Usher], has a lot of comedic elements to it.”
As much as Henry Thomas delights in navigating genres and checking certain film types off his bucket list, the procedure in which he tackles those roles rarely changes. A movie is a movie. A story is a story. With every one, he starts at the same place.
“My rough process never changes,” he says. “It’s familiarization with the script, familiarization with the character. Anything that the character has that is specific to the character in terms of material things or skills, accent, language, all that stuff. That’s just the rough out. Then, the fine character work is dependent upon the project. If I’m playing a magician, or a musician, or a card shark, or something like that, then I would have to get very specific with those things for a time, to get that physical ease with it. For the most part, it’s just the story and the character on the page.”
Henry Thomas is giddy to be working. You can hear it in his voice. His relationship with play has not changed during his long career on the screen. If anything, it’s only intensified. He can’t let the sensation leave him, running from Crawlspace to The House of Usher to whatever sandbox will have him next.
“That’s what’s fun for me on this movie,” he continues, “thinking in that genre mindset, having these great one-liners and zingers that you feel so corny delivering. They are corny, but it’s a cliche for a reason because gimmicks work. As long as you have the audience invested in the character, they give you so much license to say crazy things, and they’ll still be on your side. You have to play it right. That’s all.”
Crawlspace is now on Digital/VOD.