Henry Thomas on Better Things, Stranger Things, and ’80s Nostalgia

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When Better Things introduced Sam’s new love interest in Thursday night’s episode, “Robin,” he undoubtedly looked familiar. That’s because he is played by Henry Thomas, the veteran actor best known for his role as Elliot in one of the most successful and beloved films ever made, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial.

Thomas, now 46, chatted with Vulture earlier this week about his role on the FX series, what it was like working with star and director Pamela Adlon, and why he still hasn’t watched Stranger Things, a.k.a. that other show with things in the title.

Did you and Pamela know each other from being in the business?
No, actually, we didn’t know each other. We’d never met or worked together. I actually just went in and auditioned for it. You know, it was one of those things that came up out of the blue. I wasn’t really familiar with the show. I had heard of it, but I hadn’t watched it. I just went in and did the reading and did what I did in the audition. Everything else was just icing on the cake, in terms of the both of us being recovering child actors.

I guess it’s silly, but I assumed that you would have known each other somehow. Her first film credit was in 1982 and that’s when you were in E.T., and I just figured, “Oh, they must have crossed paths at auditions or things like that.” But I guess not.
We worked with the same people. Like, Alan Carr, who produced Grease 2, produced a film I was in called Cloak and Dagger back in ’84. We had probably crossed paths but, you know, it’s that crazy Hollywood thing where you don’t really ever meet anybody except at award shows and things like that, and I don’t frequent many of those events.

How would you describe your Better Things character, and how did Pamela describe him to you? Because I watched the episode twice, and the first time I had a slightly different impression than I did the second time.
Oh, that’s interesting. What was your impression the first time?

My initial impression was that Robin seems really great for Sam, and they seem to have so much in common. I felt like you had really nice chemistry together onscreen.
We did. We get along great and it was so much fun working with her. For such a small lady, her personality is probably about 200 times the size of her. She’s the leader and you’re the follower on set. She’s running the show. It was great.

One thing that Pamela stressed to me about Robin is that he’s a really genuine, good guy. He is not a loser; he’s doing well for himself. I think he’s a very standard person that you might meet in Los Angeles, especially. Maybe somebody that had his dreams crushed a couple of times, but he’s still there. He’s resilient. He’s not giving up and he’s looking for what’s best. He really wants to be in a productive relationship and he wants to be the best person he can be. There’s no real red flags yet. But the red flags that happen in Robin’s case are, you know, maybe stupid mistakes that are innocent mistakes.

A lot of the guys that Sam has been involved with, especially in the episode that aired prior to this one, have been real jackasses.
Right, yeah. It’s always that. They seem really cool, then you get under the skin a little bit and you realize, “Oh, this guy’s all wrong and really messed-up.” And Robin’s not like that. He’s not one of those guys. He’s a genuinely good guy and he has the best of intentions for Sam. He likes Sam. He likes her from the minute that he meets her.

I will say, there was one red flag in this episode. That’s what I picked up on the second time I watched it. It’s that moment when Sam says she wants to get separate hotel rooms and he seems a little annoyed. He apologizes for it later, but something about his reaction made me go, “I don’t know about that.”
Yeah, that is the mistake that he makes. He jumps into it too fast. That’s a classic single-parent mistake. It’s like, “Oh, this seems good, let’s just go for it.” And then, “Oh, no, I should have thought that through.” Robin is caught up in the moment. He’s caught up in the fact that this is going great and they’re going to spend the weekend together. I guess the mistake is he wrote the script and read it and he didn’t share it with her. [Laughs.]

I’m curious about the filming process, especially the stuff that you did at the vineyard. Where did you shoot that?
That was shot out in Malibu. There’s actually a vineyard in Malibu and it looks very much like the wine country, like, up north of Santa Barbara where I think they’re meant to be. L.A. is amazing for that because you can always find places that don’t look like L.A.

I got the sense that it was a little improvisational. There’s a montage where you don’t hear what they’re saying, they’re just hanging out. How much of it had that feel?
Yeah, there was a lot of that. There was a dreamy aspect in their meeting that was more easily conveyed through montage than talky-talky stuff.

I think it was planned, but we did a lot more of that than what’s scripted because it seemed to be going so well. We spent a long time filming ourselves having an unscripted conversation, so in terms of that, it was improvisational. But it was more like Pamela telling me, “Talk to me. Talk to me.” She got me talking on a subject I was very interested in and just kind of capitalized on that.

Do you remember what you were talking about?
Well, the only thing that Pamela knew about me was from the casting agent Felicia Fasano, who I am friends with on Instagram or something like that. I’m kind of into home-brewing, so I usually post photos of my batches that I’m about to bottle or the process of what I’m doing on my Instagram feed. So Pamela was like, “Wow, I really don’t know anything about you except you’re like a mountain man and you make your own, you know, cider.” She got me talking about the process of making cider, which is really uninteresting but, you know, I kind of fell in love with me a little bit in the montage. So I guess it worked.

Do you brew your own stuff for yourself and your friends, or do you have your own microbrewery?
No, I’m like a mad scientist. I don’t sell it because I don’t want to go to federal prison. It’s good enough to sell, though. I could sell it if I had a license.

I was going to say, I would buy your beer and try it. Maybe there’s a market for it.
Yeah, I could do a whole Elliot line — E.T.-related, themed, and titled drinks. Really cash in.

Sure, why not? E.T. was a drinker. I’m just sayin’.
[Laughs.] Well, let’s see how long the unemployment lasts this time.

How much can you say about whether Robin will be a recurring character? Have you talked about whether he might come back beyond this season?
It’s doubtful, but there was never a real hard yes or no. I think he’s in the [Better Things] universe now. You never know. The last time I did the show it seemed a bit final, but I think Robin would definitely think about another opportunity to be with Sam.

So, you brought up E.T. earlier.
It’s my fault.

Yeah, I’ll blame it on you. That film was so significant that it’s always going to be around, but it feels like a lot of the movies and shows that are becoming popular — Stranger Things more than anything — are harking back to that time and type of storytelling. Why do you think it’s in the air now?
I don’t know, we have these weird 20- or 30-year nostalgic things. I guess it’s generational. I remember when I was a kid in the ’70s and ’80s, the ’50s were really cool. And then the ’60s were really cool. And then the ’70s. I think it’s always about what people remember from their childhood. It’s almost a grab at recapturing their youth, maybe subconsciously. Seeing a time period captured in film, you know, it does make you feel nostalgic. You say, “I remember that.” Or, “I remember seeing pictures of my family dressed like that with those hairstyles.” It feels familiar.

What’s interesting is they’re riffing on filmmakers that weren’t really, like, cool filmmakers. It was just commercially successful filmmakers. The cool filmmakers from that time were doing bizarre things. But who am I to say what’s cool and not cool? I don’t know. It’s whatever you like, I suppose.

Have you seen Stranger Things?
I haven’t seen it because all my friends would call and say, “Hey, did you audition for Stranger Things? Did they ever contact you for Stranger Things?” I got so tired of everybody talking about Stranger Things, I think I developed a mental block against watching it. I have to go and watch it.

It’s interesting what you were saying about the 20-year nostalgia cycle. I feel like that’s definitely true, but I also feel like it’s changed a little bit because of the internet.
No, definitely. Definitely. You can access any of those things at any time.

Right. Based on the 20-year cycle, we should be more focused on the ’90s, and there is certainly a lot of ’90s nostalgia right now. But the ’80s stuff won’t go away. I feel like people are passing it on to their kids. Like the Duffer brothers: They weren’t kids when some of the movies that inspired them came out, but they watched them on VHS, and they have become their touchstones. I feel like some of it is still a touchstone for kids who have no memory of that time at all because we’re foisting it on them, basically.
That’s really interesting. I had a moment the other day that blew my mind, related to this topic. My son, who is 7, he passed a car in a parking lot that was probably a 1998 model and he said, “Wow, Dad, look at that old car.” I was looking around for an old car and I realized that my old car maybe stops at 1965. Everything before that is an old car, but everything after that isn’t an old car. It’s really interesting because it’s all perception and it has a lot to do with your parents. Gauging where they were in time before you arrived, you know?

Have your kids seen E.T.?
Oh, yeah, they’ve seen it. I was going to surprise them, like, “Do you know who that guy is?” in reference to myself as a child. But there was a trailer for the film in front of one of the movies that we had on DVD, so they had seen the trailer for it hundreds of times and they already knew it was me. So when I did it and I said, “Hey, do you know who that guy is?” they looked at me and they said, “Yeah, Dad. It’s you. As a kid. We know that. This is the movie you were in, the famous movie.”

You can’t even impress them with that.
Then I was like, “Oh, okay. Well, I guess I’ll go out in the backyard and wait until the movie’s over.” And that’s what I did.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Henry Thomas on Better Things, Stranger Things, and the ’80s