Portrait of the Young Man as an Actor
For much of the 1990’s, Jonathan Taylor Thomas was a TV star. The child actor even threatened to make the jump to movies for a bit, but his big screen efforts were less successful. Eventually Thomas left Home Improvement to focus on his education. Ever since, he has remained mostly out of the Hollywood spotlight. This profile from the August 1997 issue of Movieline took place when Thomas still seemed like he might be a movie star. But even at fifteen, Thomas seemed like he was ready to enjoy some privacy.
“This business is bizarre,” 15-year-old Jonathan Taylor Thomas quietly announces, moments after we slide into our booth in a giant cheesecake emporium in L.A.’s famed Valley. Yes, even in this establishment, where the most mundane events seem like action staged for a theme park, what we just witnessed did seem bizarre.
Here’s what transpired: a joyless little six-year-old, participating in some arcane ritual she apparently failed to comprehend, came up to Thomas and hit on him for his autograph. Whether out of shyness or business-is-business solemnity, she avoided even looking at him–in fact, she treated him so much like an object, she might as well have been sticking a card in an ATM machine. Thomas, for his part, was implausibly polite and gracious. “I liked it in Tom and Huck when Becky pushed you into the water,” the girl informed him in a disembodied monotone. “And on Home Improvement,” she added, referring to the hit TV show that’s been on since before she could crawl.
Thomas grinned and thanked her with the practiced spontaneity of a political candidate. No sooner had the diminutive autograph hound disappeared than a young boy sauntered over. “My cousin likes you, but she’s scared of you,” he announced, jerking his head toward a prepubescent girl at a distant table who was pretending to be studying her menu. “Scared?” Thomas asked, laughing, “I’m only five-foot-four. What’s to be scared about?” Amping up the charm, Thomas then asked the child’s name, whereupon the boy’s eyes opened wide with unpleasant surprise. “It’s Jason,” he boomed, clearly wounded that Thomas didn’t know him the way he knew Thomas. Again, adroitly professional, Thomas tried to buddy up, but the kid turned on his heel and slouched off without even bothering to get the autograph. Yes, this business is bizarre.
“Ah, the adoring public,” I comment. Thomas shrugs. “If someone had tried to explain this whole thing to me, I never in a million years would have understood it,” he says. “Those kids just now are at least polite. There are times when people act like your life, your concerns don’t matter to them. You can’t let it bother you because it’s part of the whole thing. It’s something you have to learn to deal with.”
You have to learn to deal with it only if you’re a celebrity, I’m thinking. And if you ask me, no form of celebrity seems to have quite so much to deal with as child-star celebrity. Face it: most 15-year-olds neither know nor care about contracts, labor laws, line readings, photo shoots or shopping-mall diplomacy. For years, journalists have tripped all over themselves declaring Jonathan Taylor Thomas the perfect young Hollywood citizen, normal as from-scratch apple pie despite all the hoopla, exceedingly likable, a pro. He’s reportedly smart and studious in school, responsibly parented, immune to wild behavior. He’s the town’s anti-Culkin. And right here in front of me, he’s animated, articulate and clearheaded. But for my money, the phenomenon of a well-adjusted kid actor is a little unsettling. What does “well-adjusted” mean if showbiz is what he’s adjusted to?
And indeed, though he may have come here fresh from private school classes, sporting inked initials on the backs of his fingers that spell out P.I.M.P. (the initials of his friends’ names, he tells me), he is not remotely like any 15-year-old I’ve ever encountered in the real world. His eyes already know things, and the set of his newly forming jawline suggests a shrewd customer, however friendly.
“Are there any aspects of the business you never quite learn to deal with?” I ask him.
Although this can’t be the first time anyone’s ever asked him this question, Thomas makes a show of mulling it over, pursing his lower lip and tilting his head. Then, with preternatural poise, he observes, “You never really learn quite how to deal with frenzy. A couple of years ago, I was doing an event at Universal and, that day, they had a big cheerleading competition. I’m only five-foot-four now, but then I was smaller. The numbers of people there–it was just overwhelming to get, like, carried off in a big group and not know where you are. It was like a big mosh pit. Even when someone says, ‘Well, you should just get used to it,’ how can you get used to that whole feeling? It’s not a natural feeling. But, mostly, I’ve always felt quite safe. And part of that comes from my belief that I live my life. I’m not going to live in a hole.”
“It’s a relief not to hear yet another young actor whine about what a bummer it is being great-looking, pampered, overpaid and overhyped,” I tell Thomas. “What would you say to those guys?”
“I’d say to them, ‘Go do something else,'” Thomas responds. “When I hear this stuff, I want to say, ‘Yeah, well, it’s rough and it can be frustrating and I certainly understand the need to live your life, but you chose this profession and you do have to make sacrifices. You cannot sit there and whine, ‘Why is this happening?’ You have to deal with it.”
“But you are a kid, Jonathan,” I say, hoping to tease out of him a little manic zip, a little aw-what-the-hell goofiness. “It’s great if you don’t whine, but don’t you ever feel tempted to cut loose?”
“If I felt the need to cut loose, I would just–” Thomas accidentally drops his salad fork, reddens slightly, laughs, regains his equilibrium–“Hel-lo! See? There’s an example of cutting loose.
“You know what, though?” he resumes. “I’m comfortable with who I am. I mean, I am cut loose. People have this conception that there must be this inner person that just wants to go and cause trouble. [But] I love to fly fish, to travel, to sit back relaxing in my room with the fan on, reading. Not every kid wants to go out and be crazy. Maybe it hasn’t come out yet, who knows? [But] I’m comfortable. I’m happy.”
Thomas certainly appears uncannily comfortable in his own skin. His TV screen persona, a spunky, good-underneath-it-all wiseass not unlike that of the young Michael J. Fox on Family Ties, is a natural extension of this easygoing manner. Can he broaden and deepen the colors of his palette? Can and will, Thomas seems to say. “I’m a balance,” he observes. “I can do dramatic material and at the same time I can make you laugh. I don’t think that’s a quality you see in many young actors. Usually, it’s one or the other. I’m also experienced for a person my age. The director doesn’t necessarily have to tell me technical stuff like where to turn or move.”
“You sound so wise you could practically counsel wild-child young actors back to the straight and narrow,” I comment.
“If that’s what I wound up doing, better to leave the business entirely,” he fires back, laughing a less charmingly Stepford laugh.
“How is it that you sound so grounded?”
“I started in this business when I was eight,” he says, shrugging. “I’ve spent a lot of time with adults. Basically, if you want to do well in this business, you have to be able to function intelligently in an adult world. You have to learn to relate to the adults on the set or you’re isolated. When I’m with my friends, I can have conversations about meaningless things. [But] I’ve always been a bit older than my friends. I think a lot. I don’t do things without thinking first. I’m a very rational human being. A lot of young actors put acting before education. We’ve not done that. We’ve tried to balance both, which is tough because acting in the series and doing movies is a full-time job for me. Throw in a social life with family and friends, and it’s a full plate.”
The “we” to whom Thomas refers includes his mother, who, since she divorced their father, has raised on her own both him and his now 19-year-old brother. One hears far nicer things about Thomas’s mother than one’s heard once about other star parents. How does Thomas think he and his mom will avoid the classic, virtually inevitable kid star/parent showdown? “My mom is my mom first and my manager second,” he asserts, sounding only a mite defensive. “Her first priority has always been and always will be raising me to be the best person I can be, not raising an actor. I feel very comfortable going and talking with her about contracts, but I can also say, ‘Mom, I really like this girl at school. What do I do?’ She’s a mom and a very bright business partner and, number one, a great friend. She’s a lot of why I’m sane. Whatever my future is, my mom will be in it.”
“Play counselor for just a second, and tell me how might you advise Macaulay Culkin, who I’ve heard is trying to return to movies now that his father isn’t ruining his career anymore.”
Thomas, who was touted as a possible box-office successor to Culkin after breathing life into Chevy Chase’s flaccid 1995 comedy Man of the House, shakes his head sympathetically. “I just wish people would leave him alone. He’s a kid, let him be. Part of the downfall of this business is that people watch and watch you. They go after you and they get you and it’s gotta be hurtful. They desperately want you to slip up. They wanted [him] to slip up. He’s not going through any phase any other teenager doesn’t go through.”
Except Jonathan Taylor Thomas, anyone would note here.
“I’ve never met him,” Thomas continues. “I don’t know much about him. But I empathize with him. If he just wants to be a regular kid, to be himself and never touch show business again, that’s cool. He’s probably got enough money, he doesn’t have to work in this business again. He’s a kid. Kids are vulnerable. I’m vulnerable. What I’d say to him is, Just do what makes you happy.”
“Can you fathom how the promising, gifted River Phoenix wound up dead just seven years after making such an impact in Stand by Me?” Thomas’s own summer movie, Wild America, which tells the story of three brothers who go off to photograph endangered species, is reminiscent of the hit film that launched a 16-year-old Phoenix.
“I can understand it, but it won’t happen to me,” Thomas declares. “My whole life has been different. I’m not into the Hollywood scene. I don’t go out and party. I’m not trying to seize and suck the life out of every moment. I’m not trying to take all this entertainment business stuff and completely absorb it. This business has a lot of great things to offer, but it can be completely immoral. All the qualities that apply in regular life don’t necessarily apply in the entertainment business. I think it’s just that I have a plan. I have goals. I have too many things I want to do in life to burn out.”
Has he never been tempted to help himself to the chemical hors d’oeuvres offered to young, cute-as-a-button entertainment idols? “It’s so funny,” Thomas responds. “I’ve been in the business since I was eight and I have never been offered drugs, never seen them on the set. And it’s not like I’ve been kept in my trailer. If I were to be offered, I’m not interested. I feel no pressure to be like everyone else.” How about predatory girls? “Are you kidding me? My mom would shoo them off. Besides, I’m a very good judge of character. I can see whether they’re interested in me or they’re just trying to be in that ‘world.’ Most of these people are pretty transparent. I watch out for them.”
Thomas toys with his salad–he’s a non-strict vegetarian– then tells me, in a cool, deliberate tone, “I feel I’m still at the bottom of this huge mountain I want to take. And I feel like, slowly, I am ascending. But I’m going to enjoy every minute of it, do it at my own pace, because I don’t want to burn out. I want to make it to the top.”
So far, Thomas appears to have avoided any public “dates” or liaisons with supermodels, MTV veejays, other kid stars. Is this the guiding influence of his mother again? “I’m only 15 and a half,” he reminds me, as if kids his age didn’t regularly call Loveline asking what to do about their druggie boyfriends and pregnant girlfriends. “I’ve gone out on a couple of dates. I look forward to dating, having a relationship, but I’m not necessarily going to go out there and look for it. And the girls I have dated are never in the business.”
“Which was more memorable,” I ask, “your first screen kiss or your first real-life kiss?”
Thomas laughs. “I just had a screen kiss last Friday, filming our last Home Improvement episode of the season. It went well, but it’s difficult being in front of 250 people who simultaneously break out in, ‘Oooh’ and in front of 150 crew members, all my friends, who are laughing at me. I really don’t count it as a kiss. My first real kiss was awkward, but great, exhilarating and special.”
Since we’re batting around the subject of romance and sex, I mention how impressed I was with his aplomb at last spring’s ShoWest convention when Ellen DeGeneres rocked the packed house by jibing that Thomas had hit on her and obviously “didn’t know.” Did he actually get the joke?
Thomas cracks up, widens his eyes, and regards me as if now I were the alien life-form. “Actually, I must have been doing a really good job, because when she said that, all of a sudden the blood in my body drained. Oh, I got it completely. Completely. I’m not that young. She and I had been joking before about what an awkward situation it is to be sitting there eating while your image is projected on gigantic screens to a thousand people. I was wanting to move a fern in front of me so I could take, like, a couple of bites without worrying whether I had spaghetti hanging down my face. I thought what she said was hilarious.”
Given that Thomas reaped the major credit for making a hit out of Man of the House, and given that his sophomore and junior follow-ups, Tom and Huck and The Adventures of Pinocchio were not hits, does the young industry veteran care to speculate on the fortunes of Wild America, a film that also stars competing young hunks Devon Sawa and Scott Bairstow? “I have no clue,” he says. “I don’t even want to think about it, because I don’t want to be happy or sad either way about it. If people go see the movie, great. If they don’t, there’s nothing I can do to change that. The movies I’ve made have gone out and competed with that scary new breed of movies like Twister–monsters that basically eat up all the other films around them. You don’t want to be in that wake.”
Why Wild America?
“I have my own automatic screening process for scripts so I don’t waste time,” Thomas tells me. “Like, if I get a script and there’s a breakdown on the front that says, ‘a child ax-murderer…’ I don’t bother reading it. This one was moving, funny, and I felt like I hadn’t seen it before. I was the first one cast in the movie.”
At this point I tell Thomas I want to spring some pop-quiz questions on him. He’s a schoolkid, after all. He cracks up at the prospect.
“OK, multiple choice: You know that maximum b.s. is required when you’re meeting: a) a director; b) a network executive; or c) an interviewer.” Laughing, he answers, “A network executive. If there’s any situation you would need it, it’s there. But I don’t sit there saying stuff like, ‘I thought your last piece of work was fantastic.'”
On to another. “You’re playing tennis with the head of the studio or network. Do you play to win or let them win?” Thomas widens his eyes. “Are you kidding? Play to win, absolutely. I’d never just let him win.”
“Next. This is multiple choice/finish the sentence: I want to grow up to be a) Kurt Russell; b) Ron Howard; c) Jackie Coogan; d) Rick Schroder; or e) Mickey Rooney.”
Thomas breaks up at the mention of Rooney, whom too many forget was one of the biggest moneymaking, most versatile and gifted guys to ever sort-of survive child stardom. He more seriously ponders the names of the other kid-star sensations before answering, emphatically, “Ron Howard. I don’t want to spend my whole life acting. My plan is to go to college, study performing arts, theater, philosophy and literature, then shift behind the camera to directing and producing.
“Directing keeps you very much creatively involved,” he continues, “but at the same time, you’re not in the limelight. You don’t have to deal with the constant hounding we’ve been talking about. I mean, I’m sure people in New York and L.A. recognize Joel Schumacher all the time, but I’m not positive that when he goes somewhere outside of here, he gets recognized as much, whereas Arnold Schwarzenegger probably couldn’t go anywhere on the planet without being recognized. I’m not a recluse, but I’ve spent a good deal of my life in the public eye and I’d like to step back from that a little bit.”
“OK. Next question. The directing thing hasn’t worked out and the movies you’ve acted in aren’t making money. Your bank balance is hurting and you’ve got to go back to TV. What do you do when Roseanne asks you to star with her in her latest show?”
He laughs. “I’d say, ‘You’re a very funny woman, but I’m just going to take a career break for a while.'”
“Essay question: if you could be an adult for a day, who would you be and what would you do?”
“I’d love to be President Clinton, or myself grown up and president, just to see how this nation is governed and what it’s like to be the leader of the most powerful nation in the world. I’d put a lot more into education and providing hope and alternatives to kids who see themselves predestined to live a life in a ghetto. I’d like them to know they don’t have to go down this spiral path. You can change it. Do it.”
“What literary character would you like to play on-screen?”
Thomas’s face lights up and his answer is instant: “I recently read The Catcher in the Rye and I would love to play Holden Caulfield, this rich, insane character who has gone over the edge. Every teenager, no matter how sane he is, can relate a little to something in him. In fact, I’d love to direct that movie, although I’d be too jealous if I were just sitting behind the camera watching someone else play Holden.”
With this, Thomas and I form a plan to meet again in a few years to see how things have worked out for him. Will he be more like Holden? Will he be edgier? Will he have suffered a crack-up or a down spell and made a comeback? Will he be on his way to becoming the next Ron Howard? As he gathers up his backpack, Thomas predicts, “You can push what you’ve seen of me today along five years on a typical growing process and that’s where I’ll be. I don’t think you’re going to see any real aberrations. At least, I hope not. If there are any, I hope they’re for the better. Aberrations can be good, right?”
Stephen Rebello interviewed Mark Wahlberg for the June ’97 issue of Movieline.