How Steven Spielberg Found His Next Drew Barrymore for 'The BFG'

Ruby Barnhill also reveals what it was like to work alongside Rylance and Spielberg

Photo: Getty

Steven Spielberg famously cast a then seven-year-old Drew Barrymore in E.T. marking the start to her prolific career – and now he’s launching yet another young actress into stardom in The BFG.

The director said he “hit the jackpot” when he cast Ruby Barnhill to play Sophie in the upcoming film.

Spielberg, along with BFG stars Barnhill and Mark Rylance, sat down with PEOPLE at the Cannes Film Festival, where the director revealed the moment he knew the young star was right for the part.

“The real good reason why I’ll cast somebody “in a” movie is something that – there’s no language to describe the reason, it’s a feeling never a reason,” explained Spielberg. “It’s just a feeling that this person that will connect with the role in a way that even I can’t predict.”

Spielberg, 69, said this was the feeling he got when Barnhill, 11, came in for her first audition.

WATCH: ‘The BFG’ Star Rebecca Hall Gives Inside Scoop on Working With Steven Spielberg

“Ruby was so spontaneous and she was authentic as Ruby Barnhill and I kept thinking, ‘Wow if we can get that authenticity to translate into the character of Sophie,’ ” he explained. “Because what I’m not looking for is the performance, I’m looking for the truth about who Sophie really is. I just wanted Sophie to be as close to Ruby as humanly possible and Ruby made that happen for all of us.”

Spielberg said that one of the reasons he felt Barnhill was right for the role was because she came into the part with questions and ideas and was able to help further develop the character. “I felt so lucky, I hit the jackpot,” he added. “She had ideas about the character that went into her performance.

And much like in E.T., The BFG tells the story of a whimsical friendship between two unlikely people.

Based on famed author Roald Dahl’s 1982 children’s book, The BFG follows the Big Friendly Giant (Rylance) who befriends an orphan girl (Barnhill), and together they set out to take on people-eating giants planning to take over the world.

So what was it like for Barnhill to work alongside an iconic director and an Oscar-winning actor? Nothing short of spectacular, she said.

“To work with two such wonderful, gentle and kind people – they’re both so supportive,” she said. “Sometimes I found it quite hard to imagine, well at first, I found it quite hard to imagine, and so Mark would come to help me with it so that was really nice.”

And Rylance, 59, said working on the motion capture film was a learning experience for everyone involved.

“We were all discovering it together and making mistakes and making discoveries together and that was very, very enjoyable,” said Rylance.

The BFG hits theaters July 1.

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