That Thing We Did



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.” 

“That’s it?”

“That’s it.” 

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

It was less than 50 miles from our place in Mar Vista to the filming location for That Thing You Do in Orange but with morning traffic, fifty miles could take all day. Our call was at some absurd hour like 6:30 am, my husband’s crew call was even earlier, so we decided to go down the night before, stay in a budget motel, be there bright and early without fighting the Los Angeles freeways. 

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.
After a gourmet dining experience befitting our Hollywood lifestyles—we ate at Denny’s—we tried to settle into some semblance of our nightly routine. Mark made some calls while I gave Russell a bath and read him the usual dozen or so stories, and then sang him to sleep with my limited lullaby medley. My repertoire ran from Moon River to Walking in a Winter Wonderland—no matter the season—to Hush, Little Baby, my take on the mockingbird song. 

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. 
Part Three:  High Five: Get ready, Get Set, Get Ready to Roll
Our call time for That Thing You Do was dark-of-the-morning early and like all the extras, we’d been instructed to ‘come having had.’ While that sounded vaguely sexual—make sure you have a morning quickie with your quick oats—it simply meant, ‘come having had your breakfast.’ Meaning the production wouldn’t be feeding us and we’d be sitting around, or more likely standing around, for hours, six hours to be exact, starving, before we’d get a chance to eat. I didn’t see how I’d have time to shower and get myself ready, let alone get our almost three year old son dressed, never mind finding time to get some breakfast for us all before we got to set. My husband told me not to worry, that was only for the real extras. He reminded me that we weren’t real extras because he was working on the show, we were family. As nepotistic hires that didn’t quite have to live by the ordinary rules, we didn’t have to come ‘having had.’ Wecould wait until we got to set and then eat breakfast, catching something from the caterer’s truck. 

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.” 

“Oh, okay.”

“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.
Part Four: Extras Holding
Okay. Okay. So I wasn’t going to get my makeup done by a professional makeup artist and morph magically into a movie star. No surprise really, I’d always be more MaryAnne than Ginger. Reality checked, I settled down to enjoy the day and the experience of being an extra—pardon me, a background actor—on the set of That Thing You Do, the movie my husband was working on at the time. 
It was a beautiful crisp autumn morning in the Southern California town of Orange, and while it was 1995 in the real world, I could easily see the small old-fashioned looking town passing for early summer in Erie, Pennsylvania, circa 1964, in the reel world. It was perfect weather for walking up and down the street, holding onto my son’s hand, as if we were out running errands and doing some shopping. My little boy, with his penchant for wearing capes, loved every moment, changing into his wardrobe was like he was playing dress-up. Pretending to be shopping was just another game of make-believe. Being on a movie set was right in his wheel-house, he was conceived on location and practically born with a camera in his face and a walkie talkie in his hand. 
Because my husband had the job of setting the background,   which meant putting the extras in logical little clusters, telling them where to walk and giving them a mini backstory and a little bit of business to help keep it real, we saw him much of the morning out there on the sidewalk.
‘You three are shopping for prom dresses,’  I heard him say to a group of giggling teenage girls, clearly as in awe of him as if he were Tom Hanks himself, ‘when you hear Action, walk over to this store and look in the window until Ethan passes by, then count to three and start walking again.’  Then he zoomed over and to where Russell and I were waiting for our cue and gave us both a quick hug. 
‘You there! What’s your name?’ he whisked Russell up into his arms. ‘You’re doing an amazing job. You deserve a raise. Somebody’ he pretended to say into his walkie-talkie ‘give this handsome young man and his beautiful mother a raise.’ 
‘Silly daddy!’ I said laughing, when he left, embarrassed at the curious looks from the other extras. As if our not-quite-three-year-old even knew what a raise was. as if I were beautiful. It was an embarrassment I felt even more acutely at lunchtime when my husband pulled us out of the extra’s line and brought us to eat with the rest of the cast and crew. It was that same little thrill you feel at being pulled out of line and shepherded into a nightclub while the other girls waited restlessly, a little resentfully. Giddy. Proud. But awful too. That’s not fair, the other girls in line grumbled. Like you grumbled when you were the one left behind in line. That’s not fair, I could see the looks on the faces of the other extras. The real extras. Eating with the cast and crew meant having grilled swordfish, saffron rice, broiled chicken, veggie pasta, caesar salad, cherry pie, three flavors of ice cream and four different kinds of cake. We didn’t have to choose; chicken or beef, rice or potatoes. It was like a deluxe buffet and if we’d wanted, we could have it all. The extras were eating pasta with marinara sauce, salad, rolls and dessert. It was a perfectly fine meal. As required, they were being fed. But it wasn’t what you’d call equal treatment. It wasn’t fair.
After lunch we slunk back in to extra’s holding feeling like impostors. The guilt of the entitled class. Being an extra can be a good gig if don’t mind being invisible. If you’re not using it to jump to stardom. If you don’t mind the hurry up and wait mentality of movie making. Being an extra usually means you’re filling out the empty spaces in the background of the shot, giving a scene depth and life while the main action takes place with the actors in the foreground. Like the crowd sitting next to Sandra Bullock at the football game in The Blind Side or the club-goers that Rollergirl skates around in that famous opening shot of Boogie Nights. You have to have people there, football fans and nightclub patrons, but nobody’s looking at them. They’re background. Living, breathing set decorations.
Then there’s what we used to call ‘featured extras’. A step above your basic crowd scene fillers, a featured extra would be seen by the camera. Not for long and you didn’t have lines but you stood out a bit from the crowd. You really were in the movie. Your friends would see you.
After lunch, Russell and I became featured extras. It had nothing to do with talent; it had everything to do with being there and knowing the right people. We’d just come back from the bathroom—thank God he was well and truly toilet-trained—and I’d freshened my makeup (the makeup I’d applied myself) and found the woman with the red lipstick, when I saw my husband rushing into the holding area, heading our way. As usual he was accosted by extras with a slew of questions and complaints—they’d been sitting there all day, when were they going to be called? could they get a better pair of shoes, these were killing their feet? when was wrap? who had the vouchers? were they being called back tomorrow? 
Fending them off with his good-humored answers (soon—I’ll check with wardrobe—what? you got someplace to go?—talk to Jerry —not sure yet) he started gathering up my things. 
“Can you get your stuff together? You can leave it all in the production trailer. Come on, you’ve got to hurry.” 
“Why? What’s going on?” 
“Copy that. Heading your way” he said into his walkie, for real this time. He turned back to me with a smile. “They’re waiting for you on set.” 
“Waiting for us on set?” 
“Yep. Tom Hanks wants you in the scene with Tom Everett Scott. You’re going to be in the store.” 
I’d almost stopped hyperventilating by the time we reached the set. There was Tom Hanks, standing by the camera. My husband turned us over to the first A.D. and disappeared. Breathe, I had to remind myself one more time. We were ready for our close-up, Mr. Hanks. For real, this time.
The set was the interior of an appliance store plucked right out of the 1960’s. As usual on a movie set there was a dull whirr of background noise, crew hammering, people yammering. There were a lot of people milling around, associate producers and set assistants who didn’t need to be there. Hair and makeup artists, the prop master, the gaffer, the script supervisor, who did. Oh yeah. And the director, the director of photographer, and the lead actor. 
I was so nervous, they were all a blur to me. I tried not to stare at Tom Hanks conferring quietly with his DP, Tak Fujimoto. I knew Fujimoto was a fairly big deal, he’d worked with Tom on Philadelphia, shot Jodie Foster in Silence of the Lambs, Molly Ringwald in Pretty in Pink and Matthew Broderick in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. And now, he’d be shooting me and Russell, for our one second of fame, in That Thing You Do.
“Russell Carter, flying in.” 
It wasn’t just movie lingo for coming to set asap, the first A.D. had whisked Russell into his own arms and air-planed him over to where Tom Everett Scott, tall, darkly clad, was waiting, a friendly looking grin on his face. I’d followed sheepishly in their airstream, trying not to beam as my son lit up the room. The A.D. deposited my almost three year old back into my arms.
“That’s good” Tom Hanks said, suddenly just three feet away. “Hold him just like that. Now, Guy here, is going to demonstrate this mixer. You just need to smile and watch it like it’s the kitchen aid you’ve been waiting your whole life for.” 
“Rehearsal up!” The AD’s voice boomed throughout the shop, suddenly all the whirring and background hammering stopped. Tom Hanks was back behind camera.
Tom Everett Scott picked up the mixer from the bowl while I looked interested and tried to make sure my son was engaged.
“Oh, look at that. Isn’t that cool?” 
I didn’t think Russell cared about the mixer but all those lights were mesmerizing.
“Perfect. Good job, guys. Just like that.”

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.
On cue, Tom Everett Scott picked up the mixer again, holding it out to me to marvel at, right about the same time I felt Russell shifting in my arms. “Look Russell,” I glanced over in time to see him looking right up into the overhead lights, “look what the nice man is showing us.”

“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.

“Going again.” 

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.


Later on in the shoot, my mother and my sister-in-law Eva came out to work as extras in the fairground scenes, the song Mr. Downtown, played so often that day, it embedded itself in all our heads. More than a memory, I can pop our copy of  That Thing You Do in the blu-ray player anytime and there, standing out from the crowd—to my eyes anyway—my mother, before Alzheimer's reared its ugly head, walking with my sister in law Eva, their hair and clothes straight out of the early 1960's, dressed as fairgoers. I'm in the scene too, my back to the camera in case anyone recognizes it from the earlier scene set in a completely different part of the country. Andy Warhol famously said we'll all get our 15 minutes of fame. That Thing You Do was ours. 
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