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Jimmie Tramel: Child actor from 'Aliens' finds happiness in classroom
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Jimmie Tramel: Child actor from 'Aliens' finds happiness in classroom

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Here’s a different sort of back-to-school tale. It co-stars Xenomorphs and Newt.

The movie “Aliens” was released 30 years ago. A follow-up to the 1979 film “Alien,” the sequel was a hit with critics and moviegoers.

Suspense was supplied by space critters (Xenomorphs). And heart was supplied when Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) embraced maternal instinct to ride to the rescue of an orphaned girl, Newt.

Whatever happened to Newt? She’s in back-to-school mode.

Newt was played by Carrie Henn, who was 9 when she appeared in her first and only movie. Now she’s a fourth-grade teacher in California.

Henn chose to spend her last weekend before the start of fall semester (students arrive Tuesday) as a guest at Kansas City Comic Con, where she engaged fans in conversation and signed autographs. Then it’s back to business as usual in the classroom.

Sure, a dad who rarely attends parent-teacher conferences may come to one of Henn’s parent-teacher conference just because he wants to meet Newt.

And, when it’s Christmas gift time, students may ask Henn to sign “Aliens” DVDs.

But Henn’s Newt-ness is really not a “thing” back home because it’s a footnote. “Old news,” she called it.

Henn said she was offered a few roles after “Aliens.” She turned them down because her family had just moved from England to the United States and acting wasn’t a priority. She was more interested in being a normal kid — or as normal as a kid in a new country can be — and making friends.

“That’s what a lot of people have a hard time understanding,” Henn said. “They don’t understand that (acting) wasn’t my passion. It wasn’t my dream. Did I enjoy it? Yes. Was it an amazing experience? Absolutely. Would I do it again? Of course. But it wasn’t my passion. Teaching was.”

Henn has always wanted to be a teacher. When she was a kid, she lined up dolls and tried to teach them a thing or two.

“I remember before I even went to school pretending to be a teacher,” she said. “I had a second-grade teacher who I absolutely loved. I strived to be a teacher like her.”

Henn said she loves her job (“99.9 percent of the time it is very, very fulfulling”) and she’s excited about the upcoming school year because her daughter will be one of her students.

“My daughter is now the age I was (when I was in ‘Aliens’) and she eerily looks like me,” Henn said, adding that when she watches “Aliens” now, it’s like she’s seeing her daughter in the scenes.

Henn’s place in movie history came about because she was in the right place at the right time. She wasn’t a Hollywood kid and she wasn’t looking for a role, but the role found her.

Henn, who comes from a military family, was living on a U.S. Air Force base in England (where the movie was filmed) when the “Aliens” crew was in search of a Newt. She was in grade school and usually went home for lunch because she lived nearby. She happened to eat lunch at school the day a casting agent showed up to take pictures of students whose faces might make them good Newt candidates.

Henn was photographed and didn’t think anything of it until a few days later, when she was contacted to ask if she would be interested in trying out for a movie. Henn was too young to grasp the scope of everything, but it sounded like fun, so sure.

The role came down to Henn and a girl from the U.S. Weaver was flown to London for a “chemistry test” with Henn. If you’ve seen the movie, you know Weaver and Henn had legit chemistry — and they remain close today.

When Henn was offered the part, it was decided the kid needed to watch “Alien.” You can call “Alien” a science fiction movie if you want, but really it’s a horror flick. Filmmakers probably wondered this: When Henn sees it, will she get the willies?

“I actually thought it was funny,” Henn said.

Henn said she should have been scared by the Xenomorphs on the set in “Aliens,” but she wasn’t. She’s more scared of dogs.

“I just pretended it was a dog chasing me,” she said.

Henn’s family relocated to California in May of 1986 and the movie was released two months later. She stayed (no complaints) under the radar until eight years ago, when she learned that she was in demand as a guest at pop culture conventions.

“The only conventions I had been to were teachers conventions, which are very different than comic cons,” she said.

All of a sudden, Henn was sharing convention halls with celebrities and snapping selfies to preserve the moments. She tries to play it cool during encounters with con guests, but she was jazzed to meet actor Richard Dean Anderson (hey, MacGyver, do something cool!) and she regrets that she stumbled around a bit while chatting with “Back to the Future” actor Christopher Lloyd.

On the flip side, people are excited to meet all-grown-up Newt. Con experiences have helped her understand the impact of “Aliens.”

“It’s amazing just to talk to fans,” she said. “As a military brat, I love it because you always get someone who was in the Marines and they say ‘Aliens meant so much to us. We watched it before we deployed.’ For me, to think that I had a small part in them going off and feeling like they were part of the family, being able to relate to it, to me it’s the biggest compliment I can get.”

Henn and other actors from “Aliens” were invited to take part in a 30th anniversary panel at the 2016 San Diego Comic-Con. Henn said her two children said it was weird that so many people wanted to hear mom talk because “we get to hear you talk all the time.” But they also thought it was pretty cool.

A moderator at a Kansas City Comic Con panel asked Henn what she took away from her “Aliens” experience. She said the movie was empowering for her as a girl.

“I think, even as a child, I realized how much that movie centered around a woman hero,” she said. “I don’t know if it’s from my movie or from my parents or if it’s a little bit of both, but I never doubted that I could be or do anything I wanted to do.”

Henn wanted to be a teacher. She’s a teacher. That’s a happy ending.

Jimmie Tramel 918 581-8389

jimmie.tramel@tulsaworld.com

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Scene Writer

I cover pop culture and work as a feature writer at the Tulsa World. A former Oklahoma sports writer of the year, I have written books about former OU coach Barry Switzer and former OSU coach Pat Jones. Phone: 918-581-8389

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