Steven Spielberg tells stories with faces. He focuses on eyes wide open to wonder, basking in the light of profound discoveries. The filmmaker's fascination with that most immediate expression of our humanity even has a name: the "Spielberg face." Actors of all ages have had their turn with the Spielberg face, but children often reflect a film's sense of awe in the most essential manner.
Nearly all of Spielberg's films are, in some way, family movies. Some are explicitly made as entertainment for all ages; others are preoccupied with aspiring or broken family units, surrogate parent/child relationships, and the transition from youth to adulthood. Fittingly, as an artist who wrestles with the pain of absent fathers, Spielberg frequently focuses his stories through children, casting new talents for whom he becomes, in turn, a mentor.
The director's latest discovery is 11-year-old moppet Ruby Barnhill, whose wise expressiveness belies her age. Barnhill makes her big-screen debut as Sophie, an orphan who is spirited away from 1980s London by a kind, lonely giant in Spielberg's adaptation of Roald Dahl's novel "The BFG."
As this comic fantasy sets the opening stage for what could be a long entertainment career for Barnhill, our thoughts turned to Steven Spielberg's other youthful collaborators.
Jay Mello - Sean Brody ("Jaws," 1976)
The youngest son of Roy Scheider's character helps humanize the tense cop in a scene that puts young actor Jay Mello and his endearingly rubbery face through an audience-pleasing routine of expressions. Mello, a youngster during the "Jaws" shoot, did not act again after this appearance. Consequently, he was not involved in any of the sequels to "Jaws," despite the fact that Sean Brody appears in all three sequels. In those, he's played by Marc Gilpin, John Putch and Mitchell Anderson. The character is killed in the opening of "Jaws: The Revenge."
Cary Guffey - Barry Guiler ("Close Encounters of the Third Kind," 1977)
At 4 years old, Georgia-born Cary Guffey played Barry Guiler, the toddler kidnapped by visiting aliens in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." Guffey's look of untarnished wonder is one of the emotional signposts in Spielberg's alien-encounter story and a defining example of the "Spielberg face." Guffey's career continued into the mid-'80s with parts in features ("Stoker Ace," "Cross Creek") and television ("Poison Ivy") and a lead role in the little-seen Italian production "The Sheriff and the Satellite Kid," a "Close Encounters" knockoff shot in Georgia, in which the young actor plays a visiting alien. Guffey left acting in 1985; his final role is in the Civil War miniseries "North and South."
Henry Thomas - Elliott ("E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial," 1982)
Hailing from San Antonio, Henry Thomas, the human star of "E.T.," made his debut opposite Sissy Spacek in the 1981 drama "Raggedy Man" and followed his star turn in Spielberg's gentle alien encounter with 1984's "Cloak and Dagger," part of the first wave of video-game movies. Thomas has cultivated a long career as a character actor in films such as "Gangs of New York" and "Legends of the Fall," and television projects like "Betrayal" and "Sons of Liberty," in addition to being a musician who plays in bands based out of Texas and Los Angeles.
Drew Barrymore - Gertie ("E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial," 1982)
As Elliott's 7-year old sister, Los Angeles native Drew Barrymore, possessed of an unusual calm, is "E.T.'s" scene-stealing secret weapon. Born into a family of stage and screen royalty, Barrymore's pursuit of a screen career was plagued by addiction and instability, as chronicled in her 1991 memoir "Little Girl Lost." After recovery, Barrymore refocused on work, bundling an extensive feature film résumé ("Boys on the Side," "The Wedding Singer," "Charlie's Angels") and a successful producing career ("Donnie Darko" and her own directorial debut, 2009's "Whip It").
Jonathan Ke Quan - Short Round ("Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom," 1984)
Short Round, Indiana Jones' sidekick in the first sequel to "Raiders of the Lost Ark," is a bundle of Asian stereotypes made palatable by Jonathan Ke Quan's eager, energetic performance. Quan followed his debut with a major role in the Spielberg-produced "The Goonies" and had regular roles in the single season of the TV series "Nothing Is Easy" alongside Dee Wallace and Elliott Gould and the final season of "Head of the Class" on ABC. A USC grad with credits as a stunt coordinator, Quan has been out of the public eye since the early 2000s.
Christian Bale - Jamie Graham ("Empire of the Sun," 1987)
Spielberg's adaptation of J.G. Ballard's autobiographical novel, based on the author's years in a Japanese internment camp in China during World War II, does not have the distinction of being Christian Bale's debut film. The movie, however, did introduce the 13-year-old talent to the world. A dedicated actor, Bale is among the most recognizable of Spielberg's many "children," thanks in part to working relationships with directors such as Werner Herzog, Mary Harron and Terrence Malick. And, you know, playing Batman.
Dante Basco - Rufio ("Hook," 1991)
As the aggressive and brightly plumed leader of the Lost Boys, breakdancer Dante Basco lived a performer's dream after he was tapped to go head-to-head with Robin Williams. As Rufio became a millennial favorite, Basco's career flowered with extensive television and film work. An accomplished voice actor, Basco has worked on "Avatar: The Last Airbender," "American Dragon: Jake Long" and "Zevo 3." He also produced the features "Paradise Broken" and "Hang Loose."
Amber Scott - Maggie Banning ("Hook," 1991)
Not many Spielberg films feature opportunities for the cast to sing, but in "Hook," originally conceived as a musical, the daughter of the film's grown Peter Pan, herself stolen away to Neverland by Captain Hook, croons the song "When You're Alone." Long out of the public eye, Amber Scott has little acting experience aside from "Hook." She did, however, make a very notable appearance related to the film as she took the stage in a performance of the film's lullaby at the 64th Academy Awards. (The tune lost the original song Oscar to "Beauty and the Beast.")
Joseph Mazzello - Tim Murphy ("Jurassic Park," 1993)
Seven-year old Joseph Mazzello turned out to be too young for "Hook," but when tests for that movie didn't land him a job, he recalls Spielberg saying, "Don't worry about it, Joey. I'm going to get you in a movie this summer." The director made good with a career-making gig in "Jurassic Park." Nearly 20 years later Mazzello played Cpl. Eugene Sledge in the Spielberg-produced HBO miniseries "The Pacific." Mazzello continues to work in film ("The Social Network," "G.I. Joe Retaliation") and TV ("Person of Interest"). He wrote, directed and starred in the baseball film "Undrafted," scheduled for a July 16 release.
Ariana Richards - Lex Murphy ("Jurassic Park," 1993)
Cast as the computer-literate teen vegetarian in "Jurassic Park" on the strength of her scream, Ariana Richards had been a working actor for years prior to catching Spielberg's attention, with credits in "Tremors" and "Timescape." Despite the director's affinity for finding young actors, few ever return for Spielberg's rare sequels. Richards' cameo in "Jurassic Park: The Lost World," with Mazzello, marks the one time Spielberg has worked with child actors in a sequel. Richards is also a singer and songwriter; today she works as a portrait artist in Salem, Ore.
Haley Joel Osment - David ("A.I. Artificial Intelligence," 2001)
The most visible child star of the late 1990s thanks to "Forrest Gump" and "The Sixth Sense," Haley Joel Osment was already well established when Spielberg chose him to play David, the prototype humanoid at the center of a project originally developed by Stanley Kubrick. After "A.I." Osment chose to spend his adolescence off-screen, returning to voice characters in video games and anime. He reemerged as an adult in films like "Entourage" and Kevin Smith's "Tusk" and on TV shows like Amazon's "Alpha House."
Dakota Fanning - Rachel Ferrier ("War of the Worlds," 2005)
With a face like a youthful incarnation of "Close Encounters" costar Melinda Dillon, Dakota Fanning is the purest vision of the "Spielberg face" since the early '80s. Not a Spielberg discovery, Fanning had appeared in "I Am Sam," "Sweet Home Alabama" and "Man on Fire" before taking on "War of the Worlds." Her work has become steadily more diverse and adventurous since, as evidenced by Deborah Kampmeier's "Hounddog," Kelly Reichardt's "Night Moves," Naomi Foner's "Very Good Girls" and Amy Berg's "Every Secret Thing." Later this year she'll be seen in Ewan McGregor's directorial debut, "American Pastoral," as a violent antiwar protester.