Working as a background actor on That Thing You Do, Tom Hanks' directorial debut. We didn't exactly rack up our fifteen minutes of fame but the time we spent on the set plays a major role in the movie of our lives.
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Part One: We're Ready for Our Close-up Mr. Hanks
“What size?” the wardrobe assistant asked, rifling through a garment rack full of pointy white cotton bras and silky slips, a measuring tape hanging from her neck. I was suddenly acutely aware of the line of women behind me, waiting to pick up their own period-perfect brassieres for the filming of Tom Hank’s directorial debut, That Thing You Do. I briefly debated tying that tape tightly around the wardrobe woman’s neck.
“34?” It came out as barely a squeak. Even with the additional plumpness that comes with motherhood, my breasts would never be called knockers.
She gave me a quick glance, and without asking my cup size, handed me something white and institutional looking — they were all white and institutional looking—the kind of serviceable bra I would have worn myself when I was a teenager in the sixties.
“I don’t want to wear someone else’s bra. Can’t we just wear our own stuff?” a young brunette behind me in line asked. “It’s not like they’re gonna show, right?”
“It’s a period film” the wardrobe assistant told her as she held up a full slip, trying to assess whether it would fit me or not. “Clothes hang differently when you wear them over the proper undergarments. We need to make sure the silhouettes are true to the 1960’s.”
If I had eyes in the back of my head I was certain I would see an eye roll.
“Come on this way” another young woman directed me, a green cardigan and a patterned shirtwaist dress swinging from the hanger in her hand. “So you’re Mark’s wife, huh? He talks about you guys all the time. I’m Sarah. Let’s find something for Mr. Cutey Pie and then you guys can try stuff on.”
“What’s your name, hon?” she knelt down and held a one piece jumper up to my son’s back.
“Russell” he told her, clear as a bell.
“Russell” I corrected her. “With an R.” And I wondered irritably if my husband talked about us all the time, why she couldn’t get our son’s name right.
“Russell, hon, would you try this on for me please? I just know you’re going to look so handsome in this. Here, Mom, you guys can go in here.” She handed off the hangers, nodded toward the curtained compartment.
Mom. Right, that was me. My husband’s wife. Our son’s mom. Seeing that son dressed in a one piece jumper consisting of a white shirt with vaguely puffy short sleeves and blue shorts I couldn’t help but ask if she was sure this outfit was meant for a boy.
“Yeah, I know. Crazy, right? That’s how they dressed little boys back then. Hey, wow! That dress looks great on you. A perfect fit. So what do you think? Feel good?”
“Yeah, I guess so.” Looking in the three way mirror, I had to admit it wasn’t terrible. While I’d hoped for something younger, more glamorous, I was still fighting the weight gain from carrying Russell, if I was honest, I knew I looked just like the typical early 1960’s housewife I was meant to portray. And Russell, standing there grinning in his little one piece playsuit, looked adorable.
“Hey, hey! You’ve got your daddy’s dimple in your chin, huh? Let me just take couple of polaroids and you guys can change back into your own things.”
When we came out of the dressing room she put our things together, safety-pinning manilla labels and our polaroid pictures to the hangers, and put our ‘costumes’ back on the rack. Later someone else would pack them on the wardrobe truck along with the hundreds of other clothes destined for the backs of ‘extras’ and a teamster would drive them to location.
“See you next week in Orange,” she said, giving Russell a smiling wave goodbye.
We were ready for our closeup.
Part Two: Making Movie Magic
When you work around film and tv sets all the time, like I did when I was working as a production coordinator, the initial thrill is replaced by low humming tedium, the daily grind of hurry up and wait. But I’d left the industry when I got pregnant, now, three years later, visiting the sets of movies my husband was working on, was back to being nerve-bitingly thrilling. Actually being in the movie, albeit as an extra, even more so. The fact that it was Tom Hank’s directorial debut made it an even headier experience.
I can’t sing. All my life I’ve had people wincing when I sang along with the radio. In elementary school one teacher told me to ‘just pretend you’re singing ’ for our classroom’s holiday choral performance, and even my husband used to routinely correct me, singing the song himself so I could hear how it was supposed to sound, before he finally gave up, realizing it was hopeless. I couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket and that was that. My little boy never winced. He looked at me and asked for more, like I had the voice of an angel. Sometimes I think when I sang to him, as soft and low as I could manage, to soothe him to sleep, that maybe I did have the voice of an angel.
Getting to sleep myself wasn’t so easy. Like all the extras, the so-called ‘background actors,’ I’d been instructed to arrive on set with my hair in curlers. Curlers. I didn’t own curlers. I’d had to borrow some from my mum. I wore my thin blonde hair straight letting it hang shoulder length, lank and limpy. If I thought about my hair— which I seldom did, so happy was I at being a first time mother at close to forty—I pulled it back in a pony tail. But That Thing You Do was a period film, set in 1964, when women still went to the beauty shop every week to have their hair set. Bouffant up-do’s, flips, curls galore. I lay with my head on my pillow, the curlers, scratchy and rigid, digging into scalp, and couldn’t sleep. I wasn’t just uncomfortable, although I was plenty that, I felt like a kid trying to sleep on Christmas eve, waiting to see what Santa would bring. I’d always had a secret belief that if I could get the real Hollywood hair & makeup treatment, I could be beautiful too. I knew actresses routinely spent over an hour in the hair & makeup trailer being brushed and teased to perfection. All I needed was a wig here, a fall there, a heavy base to eliminate freckles and flaws, contouring colors to create bone structure, lip liners to make lips where I had none, false eyelashes to make my eyes pop. I couldn’t wait to see the new me.
I stared at the motel ceiling, the cottage cheese effect a cheap outdated mask for poor quality construction, and thought of Ann Margaret and Brigitte Bardot. I’d even settle for Sandra Dee. I finally fell asleep thinking just a little movie magic and I wouldn't just sing like an angel, I could look like an angel too.
Right! What was I thinking? One of the pleasures of having a husband working in the film industry is literally not having to feed him. When he’s working he’s rarely home at mealtimes. All his breakfasts, lunches, and more often than not ‘second meals’ were served on set. And that didn’t even account for the craft service table where a dizzying array of snack foods for the cast & crew were made available throughout the shooting day. The cast & crew did not mean extras, not even when you applied the more PC term ‘background actors.’
When we got to set, a closed off street in Orange, California, grips were already at work unloading trucks, carrying stacks of C-stands and metal clips, pushing carts full of rolls of duvetyne, while transpo parked period automobiles along the road and set dec made last minute touches to store-fronts which had to pass for 1960’s Erie, Pennsylvania. The movie, written and directed by Tom Hanks, is about a group of young people who record a rockn’roll son—That Thing You Do—which skyrockets up the charts and changes all their lives, not necessarily all for the better; the scenes they were shooting that day centered on members of the band hearing that song on the radio for the very first time. My son and I had gone into Hollywood the week before for a fitting; a blue and white jumper for him, a knee length housewives’ shirt dress for me, and now we’d be walking up and down the sidewalk with a slew of other extras, filling in the background as townspeople, while the excited band members ran down the street to Patterson’s Appliance store where the group’s drummer, Guy, played by Tom Everett Scott, worked for his father.
No makeup, my hair still in curlers, we stopped by the catering truck, grabbed some coffee, breakfast burritos, cereal and bananas, while I tried to avoid being introduced to my husband’s coworkers. Didja meet Mark’s wife? The plain Jane with curlers in the hair? Ya, Jesus. Wonder what he sees in her?
After getting into our period costumes, I couldn’t wait to go through hair and makeup, to get in that hair and makeup trailer for my transformation from Plain Jane to Beauty Queen. I’d hoped to have them tease my hair to bouffant bigness like Candy Clark in American Graffiti. To use heavy black liner around my eyes like Brigitte Bardot. It would have been fun to look like a real gum-chewing bad girl for a change but I knew I was playing your average motherly type, out running errands with her little boy. Still, I was sure with makeup put on properly by a professional makeup artist, I would be the prettiest mother out running errands with her little boy, ever. That was my secret belief. With just enough time and the proper materials, I too, could be beautiful. What I didn’t realize—but should have because I used to work in film & TV myself, however briefly—was that on a busy day like this day was going to be, with a lot of extras, the production would bring in day players to do hair and makeup. They’d set up in extra’s holding, a big tent full of plastic chairs and scarred folding tables; a couple of which would be reserved for hair & make-up. The real hair and makeup crew, the regulars, would remain in their trailers working on the real actors; on Tom Hanks who wasn’t just directing but was in the movie too. On Tom Everett Scott and Liv Tyler. Ethan Embry, Johnathon Schaech and Steve Zahn. Peter Scolari, Giovanni Ribisi, Chris Isaak. Charlize Theron on the days she worked. The real hair and makeup people not only wouldn’t be working on us extras; the day players barely had five minutes to spend on each of us.
I sat down at the ordinary banquet table, the kind you see at every church supper and school function, totally lacking in the professional looking mirrors outlined with lightbulbs I knew were lit up behind the hair & makeup trailer doors.
“My hair doesn’t curl very easily” I told Patty as she took out my curlers, barely hiding the frown.
“I can see that” she said, picking up a limp clump of hair and letting it drop. I distinctly recall a sigh. “Let me try an up-do.”
An up-do! Now we were talking. I imagined my hair, teased up high and pouffy after all, like the tight sweater-wearing women in all those 1950’s B-movies. I waited for Patty to bring out the long-handled rattail comb, instead she gathered my hair with one hand, swept it back and started sticking pins in my scalp. I could feel her twisting strands in a circular fashion at the back of my head and less than five minutes later, she was done. I was done. I spotted a mirror propped up against someone’s tote bag and snuck a peak. She hadn’t teased it at all. There it was, my hair, thin and lifeless, plastered to my head. There I was, me.
“Next!” she called out to the group of girls and women waiting their turn.
“Excuse me? What do I do about makeup?”
She gave me a quick glance as a pretty teenager, her rollers already removed, got settled. Auburn curls bouncing down her back she looked like a young Ann Margaret. I could see Patty couldn’t wait to get her hands on all that hair.
“Townsperson, right?” she asked me, without taking her eyes off Ann Margaret’s crowning glory.
“Yes, with my little boy.”
“You were supposed to wear your own base.” She nodded to a few bottles of beige, pink and tan foundation sitting on the table across from us. “You can use one of those. You’ll be fine.”
“Don’t I need lipstick?”
“Mindy!” she called out to a headset wearing production assistant “Get this lady some red lipstick will ya?”
Mindy found me some red lipstick which I applied myself. I made my way back to the area of the tent where I’d left my son with my husband. Another production assistant had taken his place.
“Mark got called to set, he said he’ll see you later.”
“Copy that” the PA said into his walkie. “Alright, little man. I’m outta here. High 5?”
“High 5” my boy echoed, his little hand reaching through the air.
I sat down, gave my son a squeeze and double checked my bag. Phew. I’d packed my cosmetic case so at least I didn’t have to go the entire day without mascara. I pulled out a box of crayons and a Batman coloring book.
“High 5, mommy!” He stretched his hand up in the air.
“High 5!” I told him, meeting his hand with mine.
We sat, coloring together, knowing at some point we’d be called to the set. We’d walk the sidewalk, my red lipstick invisible as we filled in the background, a mother running errands with her little boy. All we had to do was act naturally.
Tom Hanks was telling me I did a good job. I saw him nodding to the DP. “Okay?” Fujomoto nodded. “Okay, let’s shoot it.”
“Picture up.” The A.D. was booming again. “And we’re rolling ...”
Then, in a firm but not overly loud voice, Tom Hanks called out the magic word. Action. The A.D. repeated it, a loud booming echo. Outside on the street, I knew my husband would be calling out action too, making sure the crew and cars were all still.
“Cut!” The AD and his boom. “Hey Sim? Need you to just pretend to talk, ok? Don’t make any sound.”
Oh right. Background actor.
Once more Tom picked up the mixer. Once more he held it out for me to marvel at. Once more Russell shifted. This time clear around facing the storefront window.
“I think I see my friend” he pointed. I looked in time to see his dad—his friend—disappear quickly from behind the window.
Shit! We’d blown it. But Tom Hanks was smiling, resigned. “What do they say, Tak? Always shoot the rehearsal? When you’re working with kids, always shoot the rehearsal.”
“I’m so sorry!”
“Nah,” Tom Everett Scott was still smiling. “They got it. Don’t worry.”
They did get it. Our one second of fame can be seen during the opening credits of That Thing You Do. There’s Tom Everett Scott picking up that mixer and there’s Russell looking skyward and then back down. Me? I’m just the background actor, the proud mom in the scene. Between you and me? I nailed it.