Henry Thomas On His Dreamy, Disastrous Storyline On ‘Better Things’

Henry Thomas knows what you’re thinking and yes, he is that kid from E.T.

Being a child star in a beloved ’80s film directed by Steven Spielberg means that you’ll always be recognizable, even if it takes people longer to dig up those memories thanks to some graying facial hair. But maybe his latest gig will give you something else to remember him by.

Thomas scored an arc on the second season of Pamela Adlon’s brilliantly funny Better Things and his character made a pretty lasting, if not cringe-worthy impression in the show’s third episode, “Robin.” Thomas plays Robin, a single dad and potential love interest for Adlon’s Sam. Things start out promising between the two – a weekend trip to a romantic vineyard takes place at one point – before the guy fucks things up over a shared hotel room dilemma. (Thomas would probably like to defend Robin right about now but I’m writing this intro so I get to say it’s all his fault.) We talked with Thomas about his pretty secretive role on the show, dates gone wrong, and his home brewing hobby. And yes, we asked about Stranger Things. You’re welcome.

You’re playing Sam’s love interest on the show in this episode. How was the role described to you when you took it?

Pamela is very hands-on, and I got the impression early on that this was her baby. She made it clear that Robin is not a loser, per se. He’s an earnest guy and I think the redeeming thing about Robin is that he’s able to call himself out. He knows he’s not perfect, he knows he makes mistakes but he’s able to articulate that, he’s able to apologize when he messes up. I think that’s kind of an admirable quality and a lot of people aren’t able to do that.

Better Things is really grounded in realism; it feels easy and comfortable watching it. It feels like there’d be a lot of room for improv and ad libbing on set.

It’s easy sometimes to think, “Oh, comedy, that must be fun and loose and there’s no structure and you just do whatever you want.” But it’s actually quite the opposite. It’s more dependent upon tone and timing. There were some improv moments like when we were doing the montage sequence, where you kind of meet Robin and Robin meets Sam. A lot of that was just kind of off the cuff because Pamela had a vision about the dreamy montage thing and there’s only so much you can script in terms of that. So yeah, we spent a little time just kind of chatting. You can’t hear what I’m saying, but she got me talking on a subject that I’m interested in personally. It was great fun.

What was the topic of conversation?

I’m kind of into home brewing and making my own cider. Pamela and I didn’t really know each other at all. That’s the only thing that Pamela knew about me, because on Instagram I have a bunch of photos of my home brewing stuff, so she got me talking about the process of making cider.

There’s a good amount of drinking on this show, so that was probably interesting.

Yeah, it’s not interesting at all. You can just watch people’s eyes glaze over when you start about it.

Well she looked like she was having a good time …

She was acting. She’s a good actor.

That montage sequence is one of my favorite scenes of the show so far but the romance between Sam and Robin moved very quickly. Was her weekend trip with Robin a form of escape?

Yeah, and I think it’s kind of for both characters. [There’s] a moment where the escapism overshadows the reality until it gets too real and then it becomes, “Oh wow, what am I doing?” It’s that pitfall in new relationships sometimes when it’s seems perfect, and you’re like, “Let’s just see what happens,” and I think Robin realizes he was too caught up in what he wanted and what he thought instead of looking at the bigger picture.

Personally I really hated you during that vineyard scene. Everything was going great and you had to fuck it up.

Yeah, I know. I know, that’s what I do.

It’s nice though that Sam doesn’t apologize for calling Robin out like that, for not automatically making his feelings more important than her own. It can be frustrating to see female characters constantly elevating the importance of men’s feelings.

I think the thing is to take the differences between men and women completely out of it and just look at it like a blank canvas. Realize we always have to pay attention to everybody’s feelings, because we’re all people with feelings. We can all be offended. It’s not to say we all have to walk on egg shells but, you know, be nice. Just be kind to people.

Have you ever been on a date in real life that went south so quickly?

Yeah, it’s been a long time since I was on a date, per se, but yeah, it’s just horrible, isn’t it? It’s a horrible situation to be in because you have all these hopes and expectations and they can be killed in their infancy so quickly. Take this for instance. It looked so promising; there were no problems at all. Then it’s one little thing but how does she ever really get over that? How does she get past that, especially when your guard is up? How do you look at it with an open mind afterwards?

Especially when it becomes so awkward.

She didn’t even ask though. There were two queens in the room. She didn’t even ask, man.

You’re not going to let this go are you?

We’re adults here, right? Two queens in the room, Sam. I’ll get the first ice bucket, you get the second one.

Has this experience turned you on to doing more comedy?

I would like to but, you know, it’s all perception. People remember me from certain things and those are the things that they bring me in on. Whenever I can get things like this, it’s so much more exciting for me because it’s a slightly different take on what I’m usually able to do.

Well I have to bring up E.T. now. Have you seen Stranger Things?

You know, I haven’t. When it first came out, everyone was going, “Hey, did you read for Stranger Things? You gotta be in Stranger Things. Did they call you? Are you going to be on that show? It’s like E.T. man.” After that I was like, “Oh, okay. I guess I don’t have to watch this show.” But no I need to catch up. It takes me a while to catch up on TV now.

Any advice for those kids?

Get a good agent. Get a better agent than I had.

I think that’s solid advice.

My agent that I had back then is dead now so I can say these things. Just remember, kids, life is long.

And some things will stay with you forever …

Yeah. Life is long and film is forever, how about that?