The Evolution of Lex

Actress Ariana Richards Looks Back to 'Jurassic Park'

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Ariana Richards is known as a principal cast member in one of the most successful feature films in all of cinema history, Jurassic Park (1993). She appears in the film as Lex Murphy, a self-described "computer hacker" and granddaughter of InGen and Jurassic Park visionary John Hammond. The opportunity of a lifetime to act in such a large-scale and technically innovative production under the direction of Steven Spielberg helped shape Richards' early career as an actress, and continues to hold a special place in her life and memories.

Amblin met with Ariana during the summer release of our latest Jurassic installment, Jurassic World Fallen Kingdom, when she was in town in support of the franchise. What follows is a condensation of our in-depth conversation.

"Working with Steven, when it comes to the way he relates to children, it's really something. I feel fortunate to have been a child actor who worked with him because there's a different quality... It is incredibly unusual to have a director that is right there with you, literally moment by moment."

Ariana Richards

AMBLIN: You got into acting at the age of six. Were there any other actors in your family?

ARIANA: My family wasn't affiliated with Hollywood in any way before I got into acting. My mother was doing some classes where she was teaching movement in music for young mothers and their little children. One of the mothers came up to her one day while I was there and said, "You really should get your daughter into modeling. She would be great in this particular modeling job going on at our local mall for Mother's Day." My mom said, "Well, I'll see what she thinks about it." She asked me, and I said, "Sure. I want to do it." I loved meeting people, I loved cameras and so I did this little modeling job. I bought a puppy with the money, which I was beyond thrilled about. At that point, people had been approaching my parents and saying, "You really should let her get an agent or something if she wants one.”

My parents took me to see some plays. I remember seeing You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown and just being so blown away by these people performing on stage and I thought, "I want to play Snoopy!" At that point, they said, "Okay. If you want to try acting, we'll give you a trial period just a little while. We'll see if you like it. If you don't, we're pulling you out." I was fortunate that they weren't stage parent types at all. I loved it. I started working right away, doing commercials, TV like The Golden Girls [laughs]. It just took off from there.

AMBLIN: What was the process of auditioning and being cast in the role of Lex in Jurassic Park like for you?

ARIANA: I was 12 years old and on my way to Disneyland no less, when my agent gets a phone call from Steven Spielberg's office saying, "Steven wants to meet you today." Of course, I canceled my Disneyland plans to come to [Amblin] and see him… He was so nice, so funny, and so easygoing that I didn't feel stressed or tense at all. We started chatting about life and things I liked to do. It was amazing that by the end of the visit together, he actually said, "So, Ariana, are you busy this summer?” right then and there, and I said, "no." He said, "Well, then you got the job. You’re Lex." [laughs]

AMBLIN: Had he only seen you on videotape before that?

ARIANA: He saw me in some other work that I'd done as a younger child. He liked my work in Spaced Invaders, this funny little movie….It was my first film and he liked my work. He was aware of me and he asked for me to be put on tape screaming. I hadn't seen a script at this point. It was all pretty top secret and I just went in to see a casting person to be put on tape. She said, "Look, I want you to imagine that you're being attacked by a dinosaur and that it's trying to kill you. I want you to completely let loose and just scream your heart out.”

I heard from Steven later, this story, I always love how he tells it: He was sitting on the couch watching a few girls that they put on tape screaming and his wife Kate [Capshaw] was asleep on the couch next to him. He'd watch one of the girls and then the next, and then here I come and I started screaming and he says, “Kate leapt off the couch, freaking out running to the hallway saying, ‘Steven, are the kids okay?’" I love that story.

AMBLIN: Which of Steven’s films had you seen up to that point? Was he the Steven Spielberg already in your mind growing up and by the time you met him?

ARIANA: Having been in the film business since I was about six-years-old, of course, I'd heard so much about Steven Spielberg being this incredible director. I was aware of him in that sense and had seen some of his films, which I loved…I had seen Jaws, of course, and I’d seen Indiana Jones. E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial was always a favorite movie of mine as a little kid. It was one of those films that inspired such a sense of wonder. Knowing that Steven was associated with E.T. gave me an added excitement for meeting him that day… I was nervous, of course, to think, "I'm going to meet Steven Spielberg. This is incredible!” It was from then on that he just acted like my friend. He was so easygoing and made the whole thing so fun.

AMBLIN: Let's talk about what it is like as an actor to be directed by Steven Spielberg.

ARIANA: Working with Steven, when it comes to the way he relates to children, it's really something. I feel really fortunate to have been a child actor who worked with him because there's a different quality, working with him was really seamless in a way. I'd be on the set with Joe [Mazzello, who plays Lex’s little brother Tim in the film] and we'd be hanging out before a scene, chatting with Steven. He would often hang out with us and play games. We'd have a good time, but in the back of his mind, Steven was always thinking about the next scene coming up. He would casually interject a couple of comments during the game we were playing about what we might like to see in the scene or he’d ask us our opinion about something coming up in the scene to see what our take on it was. When we went to film, we were ready to go without any real formal preparation. It just flowed.

It's really something—there haven’t been a huge amount of child actors who have had the opportunity that I've had to work with Steven in that sense. What an exciting thing to have been there on set with him as a child. He definitely elicited the best performances out of us, me and Joe, because it wasn't just his working with us as a director and getting his ideas across and asking for our thoughts, it was also his sheer enthusiasm. He was so enthusiastic if we got a scene just right. Say we nail a scene, he’s literally leaping out of his chair and running over to us and saying, “That was incredible!”, that it was exactly what he wanted. He would scoop us up, give us a big hug and say, “Okay, thank you so much. That was it!” And that kind of thing with him, it made us want to give a 110%. It made me want to run to the set whenever it was time to start filming because I was excited to get the role going, to play my character and a scene.

AMBLIN: That's got to feel great as a kid, having the person in charge, so to speak, show you that enthusiasm. A lot of directors don't operate in that way.

ARIANA: It's really something to work with a director like Steven who gave us that kind of feedback. Such a genuine and warm thank you for nailing something in a scene. It really is incredibly unusual to have a director that is right there with you literally moment by moment.

AMBLIN: Tell us about working with Joseph Mazzello and Sam Neill [who plays Alan Grant in the film], as you guys worked closer together than any of the other cast members.

ARIANA: We got to spend a lot of time together. Joe and I being kids on the set of Jurassic Park, were always finding ways to have fun and just enjoy ourselves and explore all the incredible parts of the set. We had some great scenarios together, Joe and I, we were always trying to do all our own stunts if anybody would ever let us.

AMBLIN: What was Sam like, your first impressions of him and then working with him?

ARIANA: Sam played a great Alan Grant. He was really reserved and calm, personality-wise, he never seemed to get ruffled about anything… I have a funny story about Sam. We’re there filming the T. rex paddock scene and I'm on the top of the wall with Sam. He was supposed to hold on to me and we were going to lean back and go down a wire, down the side of the wall. I misunderstood, and I thought we were going to continue on through the whole scene and actually hold onto the wire, back up and go completely off camera down onto this mattress below. Apparently, we were supposed to cut before that, but I leaned back and pushed both of us over the edge and Sam and I landed on this big old mattress right below. Sam was so surprised. We were fine, but I think my mom got a pretty big shock when she saw me disappear off-camera when she was watching the monitor. She looked over at Steven, noticed he was laughing. She was trying to figure out what in the world was happening to her daughter, just went over the edge, but Steven knew it was fine. I wasn't afraid at all during the segment of going down the wire with Sam in the T. rex paddock. We always blocked everything really carefully when it came to us working with the stunt people. I felt confident and everything was fine. I guess I felt too confident because I proceeded to continue on to the next part of the scene. [laughs]

AMBLIN: Memories of Laura Dern [Ellie Sattler].

ARIANA: My first memory of Laura was actually meeting her in Steven's office and she was really sweet and excited to say hello to me. She said that I reminded her of when she was [12 years old]. That was shortly before we actually started filming.

AMBLIN: Richard Attenborough [John Hammond].

ARIANA: Wow, the late Richard Attenborough. Richard was so sweet and very grandfatherly in reality to Joe and me. He would sit with us for the longest time in between filming takes and share stories with us about his life experiences, especially when it came to his acting, his directing. He was really warm and a darling, talented person.

AMBLIN: Jeff Goldblum [Ian Malcolm].

ARIANA: Jeff was such a blast, so funny to work with and so much fun. I have so many memories of laughing around Jeff because any time we'd be in a scene together, he'd be doing some sort of antics, making jokes, saying something or just speed reading his lines right next to me. I just thought it was so hysterical because I'd never heard an actor do that before. He was really, really funny.

AMBLIN: As a child, working on location and on stage with these bigger-than-life settings and, of course, Stan Winston Studios' amazing dinosaurs, it must've been very exciting. What memories do you hold of it all?

ARIANA: I’d be around on the set with all the incredible level of detail in the jungle, and when you're a child actor, you possess this innocence and this wonder. Stepping onto the set of Jurassic Park every day when we were working on the film, it was like a magical wonderland for a kid. Working with the most incredible dinosaur models that Stan Winston and John Rosengrant and his whole team put together. Some days I wouldn't even know what dinosaur was going to show up.

AMBLIN: What was it like for you, working with the late Stan Winston and his crew?

ARIANA: I love talking about Stan…I remember spending time with Stan between filming scenes because I always seemed to gravitate toward him and his crew, to try to learn more about what they were doing with these models. I was always asking him questions about how they worked and he would very patiently share everything with me and show me how the different guys on his crew worked in concert to manipulate each part of the dinosaur.

There were times during filming where there would just be a long stick with an X on the end and we needed to use that as our eye-line for one of the dinosaurs. That was okay because as an actor it was pretty much expected that we'd have to do that sometimes and play to nothing, but there was so much time with the rich experience of Stan’s dinosaurs there themselves, I just superimposed that experience on the piece of tape.

AMBLIN: Like with your human co-stars, let's go through your memories of your work with the film's prehistoric performers, starting with the sick triceratops, the first dinosaur Lex encounters.

ARIANA: The triceratops was the first dinosaur that I saw when it came to filming Jurassic Park. We had just flown to the island of Kauai (Hawaii) and I hadn't seen any pictures or anything of what these dinosaurs were going to be like exactly, and there was the triceratops, just completely in the flesh with all this gorgeous detail. I could see it breathing, and walked up to its face and looked at the detail in its eyes, and touched its skin. It was a shock to have it there, looking so incredibly lifelike.

AMBLIN: Perhaps the key setpiece of the film is the terrifying roadside encounter with the mighty T. rex, a sequence that's been scaring audiences for nearly 30 years now. How was she to work with?

ARIANA: The whole T. rex paddock scene was really something. I remember the days filming that with the giant wind machines and the rain machines and that incredible dinosaur model. As I've gotten older and I look back on the beauty of the dinosaur models that Stan Winston's team made, it just blows me away. To realize that I got to work with this dinosaur right up close as my co-star in the scene, where I got to react, playing off of it.

It was one of the scenes with the T. rex where Steven came over to me during the filming and he says, "Ariana, you hit such a level of panic and fear. What I see in your face in this scene, I was just wondering what are you drawing on? Were you really scared of a clown when you were three?—Wait! I don't want to know." Then he walked away.

AMBLIN: Can you recall what were you drawing on?

ARIANA: I was imagining myself in the situation at that moment, what if I really were in a park with these prehistoric creatures that wanted to kill me? How would I feel?

AMBLIN: Having that physically massive T. rex towering above and right next to you, I'm sure that definitely is easy to play off…

ARIANA: Yes. Having the dinosaurs there in the flesh, so to speak, it just made it so much easier to imagine the reality of what it would be if this actually was occurring.

AMBLIN: That brings us to another hugely memorable sequence with you, the gentle brachiosaurs and the big sneeze. [chuckles]

ARIANA: I can't even count how many people have asked me, "What was that stuff that was sneezed out on you from the dinosaur?" What really stays with me about that scene is all of this dinosaur's snot was supposed to land on me and we filmed a couple of takes where they shot an enormous amount of it on my face and it wasn't quite right. By the third take, we're filming it again, after the makeup people are trying to wipe as much of it off as they can and start over. The final take is when this was just dripping off of my lower lip and then Steven was so happy. He was really getting a lot of enjoyment out of this moment…Yes, Steven had a lot of fun with that scene, somewhat at my expense. [laughter]

AMBLIN: And of course the other key, terrifying setpiece of the film with Lex and Timmy in peril, is the memorable "Raptors in the Kitchen" sequence.

ARIANA: When I think about working with Steven on Jurassic, one of my favorite memories is the raptor scene in the kitchen because it was one of those chilling moments. Steven gave us some interesting direction, when the raptors were going to attack my brother Timmy, and I have to find a way to save him from them. We filmed a couple takes. Steven came over to me and said, "Okay now Ariana, I want you to completely let loose, become hysterical. I want you to scare us.”

After that I really did let loose in that next take, the run at that door shouting to save my brother. Steven said, "That was it!” That was what he was hoping for. It was one of those moments that was particularly rewarding as an actress to have your director bring out this whole other side of you you didn't even know you had.

AMBLIN: Have you ever come across another person who can make dinosaur sounds better than Steven? [laughs]

ARIANA: Nobody could ever make dinosaur sounds better than Steven! [laughs] It was so funny hearing him do these dinosaur impressions before we actually had the real sounds. We had to fight cracking up sometimes.

AMBLIN: Were they helpful to you, his audio cues?

ARIANA: It was a lot of fun to have Steven doing sound effects. It added a whole new dimension to the performance.

AMBLIN: Kathleen Kennedy, one of the three founding partners of Amblin Entertainment, was producer on Jurassic Park. Any standout memories of working with Kathy?

ARIANA: I remember a really pivotal conversation I had with Kathy during the filming. She came over to me and she let me know how happy she was that I was the actress to play the role of Lex. She had been talking to me about the fact that my character had been switched with the little boy when it came to the book, the way Crichton intended it. She knew that being a girl playing a character that knew so much about computing and technology that I would be affecting the future generation in a very big way when it came to inspiring young girls to reach for the stars and in fields of technology.

That was a special moment to have that conversation with Kathy and to know that she had foresight such a long time ago that my character would do this. I was so excited that I had the chance to play a role that had such an important moment that I was actually able to help save everyone's lives… The moment where I got to play the scene where I'm working with the UNIX system was unforgettable because as usual, I was trying to do as much as I was allowed to in the scene. They have all the expert computing geniuses behind the scenes manipulating the UNIX system. I was asking them if it would be okay if I manipulated it myself using the mouse instead of just pretending because I thought it would come across really well. Finally, the guys relented and said, "Okay, you can try it. Here, this is what you do." I started operating it and I was so excited because in that moment, I blew everybody's socks off that I was able to actually do it.

AMBLIN: I love that you still remember it was a UNIX system. That's embedded in your mind because yes—

ARIANA: It’s my line that fans remind me of all the time, that they love when I said, “It's a UNIX system. I know this.”

AMBLIN: Let's talk about life for you today, after appearing in one of the most successful and celebrated films in motion picture history.

ARIANA: After we finished filming Jurassic Park, Steven and Stan came up with this special surprise for us and sent all of the cast this gorgeous velociraptor model. It's really big and it's in a glass case and Steven and Stan both signed it to me. I love it so much. It's there with me wherever I am. My little daughter especially loves it and she calls it “Raptor” and likes to see it all the time. [laughs]

AMBLIN: How many children do you have?

ARIANA: My husband and I have one daughter so far, Isabella, and we're really excited to one day share with her about my acting work and my role of Lex in Jurassic Park. We figure she's a little young right now to see the movie. We're just going to wait until she gets a little older and then we'll break the news that her mommy played this character and here's the movie.

AMBLIN: Has Isabella seen any still pictures of you in the film with any of the dinosaurs?

ARIANA: She hasn't seen any pictures of me as Lex. However, she saw a painting that I did. A portrait of myself from the Jello scene. Even though it was all those years ago, every time she sees the painting, she points it out and says, "Mommy, that's mommy.” The painting is titled Raptor Vision. I painted it shortly after the filming of Jurassic Park.

AMBLIN: You've been a professional artist for many years. When did you start painting originally?

ARIANA: I started painting really young. It was part of something I always did as a little kid and then I started serious mentoring with my grandmother who was a professional painter, when I was about 10 years old, learning color theory and some very important skills. I continued training through school and working with some of the best instructors that Disney animators work with, from about age 12 through high school. Learning anatomy for artists, how to draw like the classical masters, then building from there and going to college, studying art.

The biggest experience for me was after graduating from college. I got accepted into a mentoring program through the California Art Club based out of Pasadena, California, and they invited me into the studios of all these professional artists working as painters. I learned things I never could have learned in school, just being friends with these painters and going to events or going outside and painting with them. It was invaluable what I got to learn in that realm. I did that mentoring program for about four years and then went off to do my own thing with the painting.

One of the things that ties my painting work along with the acting was I always got a kick out of filming with Steven and noticing how he would hold his hands up and frame up a scene and sometimes he’d come over to me and Joe and hold his hands up in front of our faces and frame up what he's thinking about. When I started to work seriously as a professional painter, I found myself holding my hands up the same way and framing up, "How do I want to get this image across to people on the canvas?”

AMBLIN: That's wonderful how working at such a young age in a visual medium like film taught you where you then brought it forward into your painting. And your grandmother, the fact that she was teaching you color theory at 10, what gift that is.

ARIANA: It was really something to grow up in a family where the arts were so valued. In fact when it comes to painting, I came by it genetically in some ways perhaps, because my ancestor back on my mom's side, from the Italian side, was Carlo Crivelli, who was a contemporary of Botticelli. You can see Crivelli's work in museums. It comes through the blood and there was always a passion for it and a vision for it. Then I just continued on with formal training over the years to grow my craft. I’m always learning and growing.

AMBLIN: Has acting tugged at your heart and imagination now in recent years?

ARIANA: I love acting and I will always want to play great roles. Even though I've been focusing on art for a long time, since I was in college and made that such a focus and priority, I absolutely adore acting. If the right role came along, the right opportunity, I would totally jump at the chance.

AMBLIN: That would be great to see you back on screen. Do you actively look for parts or if it comes, you'll jump at it?

ARIANA: Yes, I'd be really excited to be acting and performing, doing voice-over work. Anything like that that comes my way and seems like the right fit, I'd be so excited.

You can view Ariana’s work or commission a painting through her official website. She can also be found on social media on Facebook and Twitter as GalleryAriana, or on Instagram as @arianarichards. Our great thanks to Ariana for the delightful conversation.

Paintings featured in article copyright © Ariana Richards. All rights reserved.


Steven Awalt is editor and digital content producer for Amblin.com. He's written extensively on the career of Steven Spielberg for nearly two decades, including in his book, Steven Spielberg and Duel: The Making of a Film Career (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014), about the making of Spielberg's breakout 1971 thriller.