At age 9, Carrie Henn was nearly eaten by a razor-toothed, acid-drooling alien in the sci-fi thriller Aliens. That proved to be good training for her current job as substitute school teacher. Last spring a first-grade boy kicked and bit her, then ran around the classroom yelling obscenities. "I almost quit teaching that day," she says.

In Aliens Henn—who played a space orphan named Newt—was saved by the intrepid Lt. Ellen Ripley, memorably portrayed by a muy macha Sigourney Weaver. After a year of student and substitute teaching in the central California county of Merced, Henn, now 25, says she has no doubts about her decision to pursue a career in front of the blackboard rather than the camera. "I would miss being in the classroom," says Henn, who as a girl would line up her dolls and pretend to be their teacher. "I love being in there with the kids."

She was just a kid herself in 1984, when Hollywood casting agents descended on her school in Laken-heath, England, near the U.S. Air Force base where her father, Kenneth, now 52 and a nurse at the county jail, was stationed. (Mom Roseleen, 52, is also a nurse, and brother Chris, 27, who had a small scene in Aliens that wound up being cut, is a probation officer.) They were looking for an unknown to costar in the sequel to Alien, the 1979 hit that launched Weaver to screen stardom. Although Henn had no acting experience, director James (Titanic) Cameron, making just his third feature film, says he was drawn to the third-grader's "great face and expressive eyes" and cast her to play the beleaguered daughter of murdered space colonists. "There was a quiet, soulful quality that I was looking for with the character," Cameron says. "Carrie had it."

During her five months on the Aliens set at Pinewood Studios outside London, Henn felt so at ease that the movie monsters held no terrors for her. "They were just my friends in an alien suit," she says. "I used to have to pretend the monster was a dog chasing after me." She became pals with cast and crew members, especially Weaver, who gave her several gifts, including a silver-framed autographed photo of the two of them that Henn still treasures. "Sigourney was so awesome," says Henn. "She treated me like everyone else on the set; she didn't treat me like a little kid."

Despite a performance that Cameron calls "fabulous," Henn decided not to pursue an acting career even after the Air Force transferred her father to a base in Northern California just as Aliens was being released. "My family is really close, and I didn't want to live [away from them] in L.A.," says Henn, who is single and lives at home.

After spending much of her childhood in England, Henn found the transition to fifth grade in California traumatic. "Not only was I a foreign student coming into an American school," she says. "I had a funny accent, and I was in a movie. I never was sure who wanted to be my friend because I was in a movie and who really wanted to be my friend." Says Roseleen: "People would call up and leave messages saying, 'You should never have gotten that part.' She put up with a lot of spiteful jealousy."

Still, her brief acting career had its benefits. For one thing, her parents invested most of her sizable Aliens income for her future, letting her spend just a small portion of it (she bought herself a TV set—and a water bed). Although she had no role in 1992's Alien 3—Newt was quickly killed off in a spaceship crash-she was invited to the premiere as Weaver's guest. "She made sure I was sitting next to her," she says.

This fall Henn, who received degrees in liberals studies and child development at California State University at Stanislaus in June 2000, will go back to school to earn her teaching certificate and continue her education in the impossibility of impressing kids, like the sixth-grade girl last year who found out about her teacher's Hollywood history. "It's cool," the girl told Henn. "But it's a shame you're not Britney Spears."

Sonja Steptoe
Melissa Schorr in Merced

  • Contributors:
  • Melissa Schorr.