Dee Wallace AND the Alien 40th Anniversary Interview
Steven Spielberg wanted to do something a little different after the colossal cinematic triumphs of Dating of the Third Kind and The Raiders of the Lost Ark. After delivering a pair of modern classics, the young filmmaker set out to do what actress Dee Wallace calls a “little movie between his big blockbusters,” while speaking with SYFY WIRE. This little movie, as we now know, turned out to be AND the extra-terrestrialwhich turned out to be anything but little.
A perfect synthesis of Spielberg’s trademark narrative themes (the power of youthful innocence, awed wonder, broken families, the unexplained magic that lurks somewhere in the night sky), the film – written by the late Melissa Mathison — fulfills a premise about as simple as it comes: A young boy who comes to terms with his parents’ impending divorce forms a special bond with a stocky visitor from beyond the stars. Fast forward 40 years later, however, and we’re still talking about the little alien with the glowing finger and the desire to return home.
SYFY will host a AND the extra-terrestrial marathon tomorrow (Saturday, June 10), with the film streaming between 1 p.m. EST and 8:30 p.m. EST. Click here for the full schedule. If you can’t log in, don’t worry – the track is also available to stream on Peacock until the end of the month.
“They say never work with children or dogs. Well, I wouldn’t have a career without [them]”, says Wallace, half-jokingly, about her role as Mary, a single mother of three children and one of the few adult characters in the film. Growing up, Wallace witnessed the experience of a parent alone – something that may have subconsciously influenced her performance as the mother of Elliott (Henry Thomas), Mike (Robert MacNaughton) and Gertie (Drew Barrymore).
“My dad was a severe alcoholic, so for all intents and purposes my mom was a single mom who raised her three kids. And then [my father] committed suicide in my senior year of high school,” she explains. “So I was used to a family with a mother running things. I did not consciously base this [character] about my mother, but I knew what motivated a single parent. I had seen her trying to get to work on a bus at 7am and my grandma taking us to school and my grandma picking us up from school and going to grandma’s house for lunch . Then my mother would come home and cook dinner. It was always rushed and rushed and loving. Incredibly in love. So I knew that mother’s love, combined with the allure of her homework.”
After landing the gig, Wallace, unaccustomed to working on bigger studio projects, made an important character-based decision that at first surprised Mr. Spielberg. “I know he was a little mad at me and looking back, I don’t blame him,” she says. “I had long hair back then and used to do a lot of independent films where I had my own look. And so when I started resenting Mary, [I saw] she was a busy mother, she was a working mother. I thought, ‘Oh, I need short hair. I need something that I don’t have to worry about all the time. So I went and got my hair cut and he left [the first day of shooting] and he went, ‘Dee! you have your hair [cut]!’ I said, ‘Do you like it, Steven?! It really is Mary, isn’t it? I’m not sure he did. I didn’t want to cross any lines or anything – it was just the way I had always worked up until then. But when I watch the movie, I think it’s perfect for her.”
Beyond this small misunderstanding between the actor and the director, the production, which mainly took place on the Universal Pictures backlot soundstages, went smoothly. Even with a cast of mostly kids that can get out of control at times, the set maintained an organized and professional atmosphere.
“I don’t remember it being chaotic at all,” Wallace adds. “The kids were totally professional…they weren’t Hollywood kids. Most of them were just getting started. Robert, [who played] the eldest son, had a lot more experience, especially on stage, and he was just amazing. Henry, had had a few films at that time under his belt, I think. And Drew was just, ‘HI! I AM DREW AND I WILL TAKE THE PLACE!’ So whenever they had breaks, if they weren’t in school, they would play outside, hoop or in Steven’s office, play with the arcade games he had. It was really a family feeling throughout the set and I think that really carries over to the film.”
Of course, much of the credit must go to the director, whom Wallace calls “a kid at heart,” a descriptor attributed to Spielberg for decades. “He loves what he does. It’s a game for him. That being said, he’s also a unique professional [and] knows exactly what he wants, but is also open to input from everyone, which is what any great director does. What I enjoyed watching the most was watching Steven work with the kids… He was one of them. While he told them what he needed, he bonded with him and had fun and played with the toys. He got down to their level.”
The filmmaker has also “gone to great lengths” to ensure that the radio-controlled ET animatronics (famously designed by the late Carlos Rambaldi) felt like another living cast member. “[Carlo] captured a soul in this little rubber being that he made,” Wallace says. “In the beginning, E..T. was tucked away in a corner, then we found Drew there, talking to him. So Steven had a couple of guys named to run ET all the time and kinda keep him alive. So Drew…because at that age, reality and fantasy overlap, and she’d be right there, talking to ET.”
Speaking of Barrymore’s character, Wallace’s favorite scene to shoot was the one in which she reads Peter Pan like a bedtime story to Gertie while ET peers through the bedroom closet slats. “I loved the sweetness and the intimacy. I didn’t have a daughter yet, but I wanted a daughter. It reminded me a lot of sitting with my mother and grandmother, reading stories. It’s such a simple little scene, but it meant a lot to me.”
While every last second of the film is iconic, there’s no denying the emotional punch of those final moments when Elliott and ET share a tender goodbye before the spaceship lifts off, which would reduce even the toughest individuals to a puddle of sob. tears and snot. What you might not know is that most of the crew members’ stomachs were probably growling something fierce during filming.
“I was sitting in my dressing room…and the DA came in and said, ‘Come on, Dee! We need to get the scene done before lunch!’ I said, ‘Okay!’ We run to the plateau [and I ask] ‘What scene are we making?!’ He said we were doing the very last scene, where you see ET take off. So I come on set, I take my mark, and I’m like, ‘Steven, what do I see?’ [He says] “Well, you know, we had the big farewell scene with ET and you have Gertie in your arms, and you watch ET take off, and it turns into a rainbow. Alright, roll!” Thank goodness for the technique that I have, because I was right there and when I saw it in my imagination, turn into a rainbow, it hit my heart so hard that the tears came and l emotion came… and then we went to lunch.”
HEY crossed the Moon by bicycle and into the hearts of audiences around the world on June 11, 1982. The film was an instant box office and critical success and became the highest-grossing film of the year with over $359 million in global ticket sales. Everyone, including then POTUS Ronald Reagan, succumbed to her irresistible charms. Even so, no one — not even Universal executives — could have guessed how significant it would be.
“I saw it the first time in the studio with a bunch of executives and I came home and said to my husband, ‘I think my career is over. There wasn’t a single reaction,” Wallace recalled. “He took my hand and said, ‘You’re going to come with me, and we’re going to see him in a theater next week when he will open.’ We were queuing with everyone and it was amazing. People were laughing, they were crying, they were clapping, they were standing up, they were holding each other. Everyone at Universal didn’t want to react in case their boss did. I don’t react the same way. I do not know. But it was magical to see him with this first audience.
Thanks to numerous theatrical re-releases over the years, HEYThe worldwide box office circulation of now stands at nearly $800 million. More important, however, is the film’s timelessness and universality that transcends generational boundaries and continues to be reinterpreted by modern filmmakers like the Duffer Brothers. Although Spielberg was not directly involved in the development stranger things, his creative influence can be felt throughout Netflix’s nostalgic hit. Six years before Eleven, Mike Wheeler and the rest of the Hawkins gang rode their bikes onto the streaming scene, JJ Abrams paid homage to some facets of HEY on his own coming of age adventure – 2011 Super 8 – which the Spielberg executive produced.
“It’s touched so many creators that it’s no surprise they’re paying homage to their own work as it goes,” Wallace says before concluding, “I feel very lucky to have been a part of this. film. [and] always part of this movie. I have so many stories of how it changed people’s lives for the better. When I went to the studio behind locked doors and read it, I called my agents and said, ‘You know, I don’t think this is going to do much for me, but I think it’s going to do a lot for the world and I want to be a part of it. I knew that the minute I read Melissa Matheson’s incredible script. And I was right, wasn’t I?”
SYFY will host an ET the Extra-Terrestrial Marathon tomorrow (Saturday, June 10), with the film streaming between 1 p.m. EST and 8:30 p.m. EST. Click here for the full schedule. If you can’t log in, don’t worry – the track is also available to stream on Peacock until the end of the month.
Wallace has published a number of books on his work as a chain clairaudience. They are available for purchase on his website and via Amazon. Wallace says the most recent of his books – Born: Giving Birth to a New You – “contains the formula for creating everything in your life”.