MacReady is essentially The Thing's hero, although the character isn't exactly a likable one. He's dark, moody and not the kind of guy you want to have around for dinner. However, this experienced helicopter pilot may be the only chance humanity has to keep the alien threat in check. The Thing marked the actor's third teaming with director John Carpenter. Previously, they had combined to make the cult classic Escape From New York, as well as the famed TV movie Elvis, for which Russell received an Emmy nomination for his performance in the lead.
Russell had been the youth star of Disney comedies such as The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes in the 60s/early 70s, before taking on riskier roles such as Snake in Escape and as the true life gunman Charles Whitman in The Deadly Tower. The shockingly gory and downbeat Thing was somewhat of a nature step. Russell, however, was never a fan of the horror genre, of even the original 1951 chiller. "I'm not a horror or science fiction movie connoisseur," he said in an interview with Starlog at the time. "I don't know why the original Thing is considered a classic. I mean, it turned out to be James Arness as a carrot! And they fried him. It was a great movie...but a classic? I don't know if this movie will or won't be considered classic. All I know is that, in comparison to the monster movies I've seen, this one is a really good one."
"Admittingly, I'm not a big monster movie buff. It's not something that I'm attracted to. But, I always wanted to be in a monster movie. I always figured that, if I had to be in one, let me pick the movie that had the greatest monster of all times. I think our show has that monster. We're talking some serious rubber here."
Russell, although enthusiastic about making Carpenter's film, never saw it as much than a fun rollercoaster ride. "I'm the first to admit that The Thing isn't a relevant, meaningful movie. It isn't," he commented. "I wouldn't put too much value in it. It's a monster movie. A really good monster movie. And it's not easy doing a good monster movie for anyone involved. It's tough on the director. It's tough on the actors. There's no real challenge to it for an actor. You're not doing a hell of a lot except reacting to the monster, creating a backdrop for the effects. The cast's main task was to bring out acting to a level of reality. To make the script believable we had to make our characters believable."
"To a degree, I think we succeeded. We worked within some fairly interesting dramatic confines, though. You have a dozen men trapped in an Antarctic outpost. That's a strange premise right there. There's no role in this movie for a woman. In the Antarctic, women are pretty rare. It's not a place where a woman scientist usually goes. Part of the magic of this movie is that are 12 very solitary men present. When you start the movie, you already have the feeling that they've been isolated a little bit too long. Feelings are already strained when you walk into this set-up. The idea was that almost all these guys have gone up there because they're hiding from something or someone in their past. They almost all have some sort of problem. MacReady sure has problems. He's a loner."
"To me, the most interesting thing about the picture -- and there isn't all that much that is interesting to me -- is that aspect of paranoia. The idea of getting to the point where paranoia is so rampant that you don't know anything for sure anymore just fascinates me. We're not talking about stir-crazy convicts or social misfits going bonkers. We're talking about intelligent individuals pushed to the breaking point, thrust into a situation where you can't even trust yourself because the events happening are too bizarre to grasp."
Reflecting on how the film was viewed on it's original release, Russell has his opinion on why it failed. "The audience couldn't get past the monster," he explained in 1996. "They weren't in the mood. And we said someday they'll get past the monster and discover that it's a real good story. Out of the five times I've worked with John, The Thing might be the best movie we've done together. It's a well-made film."
Over the years, the concept of a sequel has been tossed about, and Russell himself thinks the idea is a promising one. "[A sequel to] The Thing would be interesting. It was never intended to have a sequel, and we got battered doing a movie that people was so obviously set up to have one. But there was never ever a concept for one. I find that character to be really out there and interesting, though. The concept of a human being in the Antarctic -- there's got to be something totally wrong with that man. That guy is obviously trying to get off the planet."