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He was a junior rodeo champion in California – back about the time he played Tyler in ET The Extra Terrestrial – but C. Thomas Howell has since played in several television shows and over 50 movies – including the new Australian afterlife comedy, WillFull, which introduced him to Australian filmmakers, who impressed him greatly, he tells Andrew L. Urban.

So what’s a nice cowboy like C. Thomas Howell (CT to his friends) doing in an Australian ghost movie? He laughs down the line across the Pacific from his home in Santa Clarita, with its views across undulating hills north of Los Angeles. He is speaking from his office at home, sound proofed against his three young children (9, 5 and 18 months; his wife of 10 years, Sylvie, a jewellery designer, is amusing them) and is surprisingly calm for a man who has just produced Hope Ranch, a film for the Animal Planet channel, is about to co-star with Viggo Mortensen in, Hidalgo a new Disney movie, and is doing publicity for WillFull, having just finished shooting a sequel to The Hitcher (Hope Ranch premieres on Animal Planet on September 2, 2002; The Hitcher II is set for March release.)

“I guess that’s the typical life of an actor,” he says, “travelling around the world and meeting people and having new experiences.” But WillFull came up on his doorstep, so to speak, when Los Angeles based Australian filmmaker Steph Elliott contacted Howell to discuss the WillFull screenplay – and his potential role in it. He even shot some video of Howell to send to Penfold Russell.

"I love Steph’s work, he’s wonderful"

Elliott’s connection to WillFull is by association: his career was launched with WillFull director Rebel Penfold Russell’s company, Latent Image, back with his debut feature, Frauds, on which Penfold Russell was executive director. Now Elliott was lending a hand with Rebel’s own directing debut.

“I love Steph’s work, he’s wonderful. Can’t wait for his next project – he’s working on the Rocky Horror Picture Show for network television…but I didn’t think anything would come of it [WillFull], to be honest,” says Howell, “but lo and behold a few weeks later Rebel called and wanted me to come and work.” And he had such a good time he’s looking for a chance to come back and do some more. Howell, having directed a couple of movies himself prior to Hope Ranch, has nothing but praise for Penfold Russell herself.

“Directing is like running a ship and you pretty well have to have the best people in the best position to make the whole thing go properly. You’re the captain of the ship and barking at people to do things as you want them done…and you know, she’s really a natural leader, with an interesting background, and things she’s done…an entrepreneur, a business woman and very smart. It takes a certain type of person to take a blank page and fill it with words and take that page and turn it into a film…and then turn it into a box and sell it. It’s not easy. I think she basically did everything – write, produce and direct; it’s hard to do any one of those well, and she did them all well. I was very impressed. She’s a natural.”

WillFull is the story of a Catherine (Anna Lise Phillips), who returns to Australia after years overseas - escaping her flamboyant, party girl of a mother, Katya (Anne Looby) – when her mother promptly dies. But the glamorous extrovert stays around haunting her daughter, wanting to be of use – but it might be a bit late. And what’s more, there are some secrets that might return to haunt her, too. The film also stars Bud Tingwell, for whom Howell also has high praise, along with Anne Looby: “She’s wonderful and Bud is a gem.”

"a wonderful surprise to me"

But the final film of WillFull turned out a bit differently to what Howell expected. “It’s really funny, you know, the film went through a sort of metamorphosis…the script was actually funnier than the movie turned out. But that’s not the real point, the thing is the relationship between the mother and daughter – the poignancy of that – was somewhat overlooked [on reading the script]. It’s turned out to be more poignant and meaningful than just funny. That was a wonderful surprise to me when I saw it. I really love the quality of the picture. There’s a wonderful scene in this beautiful apartment where she sort of dreams about these roses taking over…but that reads very differently on the page to how it turned out. It read quickly...she opens her eyes, a rose appears and starts to grow and she starts to see a jungle of roses. So you sort of read it but it doesn’t quite register how effective that is on screen. When you see it it’s really magical. I really love the chances Rebel took, and she surprised a lot of people. She had a strong vision and she’s a really good director.”

Published August 29, 2002

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CT Howell


... in Willfull

...in ET

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