There is an old adage in Hollywood, first coined by comedian W.C. Fields, that directors should never work with children or animals. Younger kids, like animals, can often have a difficult time following cues, and can have a hard time memorizing their lines. They can also be very unpredictable, and thus by their very natures, they are uncontrollable. At the same time, by going with actual children, as was the case of the Peanuts specials, the Harry Potter films, or the first Narnia movie, going with children can also lend a sense of authenticity that might be missing with more polished and seasoned actors.
Steven Spielberg was certainly aware of both the trials and joys of working with children. According to the set diary Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the little grey aliens that came to take away Richard Dreyfuss were so hyper and bouncing off the walls that Spielberg had to yell “Girls, stop disco dancing.” On the other hand, one only need look at the memorable and infectious performances Spielberg got from the likes of Dakota Fanning in War of the Worlds, Haley Joel Osment in A.I., Ariana Richards and Joseph Mozello in Jurassic Park, Christian Bale in Empire of the Sun, Charlie Korsmo and Amber Scott in Hook, and Jonathan Li Quan in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom to see that he excelled at getting the best from young actors.
However, where this skill really stood out was the performances of the three young actors
in E.T. Each member of this little trio brought something special to the table, and this was all the more evident in the baby of the family, Elliot’s sister Gertie, played by Drew Berrymore. Oddly enough, the youngest member of the family in E.T. would be the first one selected for a part. As Sean Hutchinson noted in “20 Things You Might Not Know About E.T.” for Mental Floss,
“Getting the right young actors to play the three main young siblings was a paramount problem for Spielberg. The first kid he cast was Drew Barrymore as Gertie, the youngest of the trio. During her audition, the six-year-old Barrymore allegedly told Spielberg that she wasn’t really an actress at all but rather the drummer of a loud and menacing punk rock band called the Purple People Eaters, who painted their faces with makeup for every show and who had played to an arena packed with thousands of people the night before. Spielberg recognized the value of her vivid imagination and she got the part.”