Enjoying His Juggling Act : ‘Home’s’ Thomas Finds Time for Serious Work and Play
It’s a rehearsal day on the set of “Home Improvement,” and Jonathan Taylor Thomas, who plays Randy, the middle son, has in a matter of minutes sung several versions of the Albanian national anthem, grabbed a cable and cracked it like a whip, circled the set at high speed about a dozen times--and still hit his marks and his lines perfectly.
But when it comes time for the energetic, soon-to-be 13-year-old to take a break for an interview, Thomas manages to sit still for at least 20 minutes. After all, he’s got plenty to talk about.
Fresh off his triumph as the voice of young Simba in Disney’s “The Lion King,” Thomas is back to serve up wisecracks on the fourth season of ABC’s top-rated series while still unpacking from his recent trip to Vancouver, where he filmed “Man 2 Man” with Chevy Chase and Farrah Fawcett. His first live-action movie role required him to miss the premiere of “The Lion King” and a huge chunk of his summer vacation, but don’t call the labor department yet--for, just as he does on the set, Thomas found time this summer to have some fun.
“I had a chance to go fishing,"Thomas explains. “When I got into this business, my mom was worried that I wouldn’t have enough free time to be a kid, so there’s always a balance of work and play.”
While “Man 2 Man,” in which he plays an 11-year-old trying to scare off a potential stepfather, took up the summer, it took Thomas a year and a half to record his part in “The Lion King,” shuttling back and forth from the “Home Improvement” set to the recording studio, both located on the Disney lot.
Because of his TV taping schedule, he often had to record his lines by himself, which he acknowledges was difficult, a stark contrast to his ensemble work on “Home Improvement.”
“I’m used to having all these other actors and actresses around,” Thomas says. “In this case I didn’t. I was there in a room alone and I had to not only play my character, but the person I was talking to. I had to get inside their head so I could know what Simba would be reacting to.”
While there are huge differences between putting together an animated feature and a television sitcom, Thomas saw similarities between his two characters: “Simba and Randy are both very curious kids, they’re intuitive and confident, always ready to throw that fast one in, that little comment.”
And if you look closely at young Simba, you’ll see that the lion cub shares some of Thomas’ physical features--especially that sly smile. Disney’s animators videotaped Thomas as he recorded his performance and incorporated many of his facial expressions into those of the lion cub.
Thomas hasn’t let the roaring success of “The Lion King,” nor the fact that he receives five big boxes of fan mail a week for “Home Improvement,” go to his head. He chooses his friends carefully because “you have to make sure they’re not just friends with you because of who you are.”
Thomas, who enters the seventh grade this fall, maintains straight A’s while taking courses in an accelerated program for gifted children.
“I keep my grades up because you never know how your acting career is going to go,” he says, offering his theory on what he calls “the Child Actor Syndrome.”
“You have these kid actors who grew up and a bunch of years later they’re on ‘Geraldo’ crying that they never had any time, that they were totally corrupted by this business. Probably most of them didn’t have much to fall back on,” he says. “It’s easy to get twisted around in this crazy business.”
Thomas credits his mother, Claudine, with whom he lives in Los Angeles along with his 17-year-old brother, for keeping him on the right track.
Of her son, Claudine Thomas says, “He’s definitely bright, but I think you have to be bright in this business to juggle everything, to keep things balanced.”
Thomas is articulate on a range of topics, from the importance of soccer to Brazilian culture, to the merits of Carnegie-Mellon University’s business program, to the beauty of the Seychelles, islands off the coast of Kenya.
If the young man sounds too perfect, stand in line. “I kept waiting to see the flaw,” says James Orr, who co-wrote and directed “Man 2 Man.” “I kept looking for it, and I swear to God, I couldn’t find it in 10 weeks worth of shooting.”
As to why he cast Thomas, Orr says, “He radiates this intelligence and dimension, and not only does he have this great comic timing, but he has this depth of emotion. He’s comfortable in his own skin, you know?”
Thomas isn’t sure he wants to continue to act into his adult years. “Show business is something that I’m pretty familiar with,” he says, “but I think I want to write, direct and basically do it all.”
“So you want to be a Renaissance man?” he’s asked. Thomas laughs. “Yeah,” he says, “that sounds good.”