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That Thing You Do! 20th anniversary: The Wonders look back

The rock band formerly known as the Oneders remembers that thing they did

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20th Century Fox/Everett Collection

Released in 1996, That Thing You Do! chronicled the meteoric rise and fall of the Wonders, a fictional rock band in the early ‘60s who are catapulted to fame on the success of their one hit song, which shares the film’s title.

One-hit Wonders — it’s a very common tale. The movie about them, however, is something truly special.

The film, which celebrates its 20th anniversary Tuesday, was Tom Hanks’ debut as both a big-screen writer and director, and starred Tom Everett Scott as our hero, the sunglasses-wearing drummer Guy; Johnathon Schaech as Jimmy, the arrogant lead singer and rhythm guitarist; Steve Zahn as Lenny, the resident goofball and lead guitarist; and Ethan Embry as the enigmatic bass player, whose name is never revealed (until now!). Liv Tyler joined the boys on the road as Faye, Jimmy’s devoted girlfriend and the band’s costume mistress, and Hanks himself had a supporting role as the group’s cynical manager once they hit it big.

In honor of 20 years of That Thing You Do!, we caught up with the Wonders themselves — and Faye — and asked them about working with Hanks, playing as a band, hearing their song on the radio, and whether they can still stand to listen to “That Thing You Do,” two decades later.

20th Century Fox/Everett Collection

The Nicest Director in Hollywood

Tom Hanks had won the Academy Award for Best Actor two years in a row — in 1994 for Philadelphia and 1995 for Forrest Gump — before he made That Thing You Do!, and he “couldn’t have been a hotter actor at the moment,” recalls Scott. Making his directorial debut, the Oscar winner’s transition to the other side of the camera was perfectly smooth: “I mean, technically it was his first time directing, but when you’ve done it that long, you kind of get it on so many different levels,” Zahn says. “I’ve worked with a lot of first-time directors. A lot. And Tom was a veteran.”

Hanks may have been a Hollywood vet, but his cast was not: His four Wonders (and their costume mistress) were all in their teens or 20s and just starting out in their own careers. “He created this really incredible world that kind of only an actor could create,” says Tyler. “He just took great care of us, because he really understands how the actor works,” Schaech adds. “We really got to be actors at a very young age. We got to make some strong choices that were supported.”

“There’s stuff that he told me then that I have taken with me through my entire career,” says Scott, who made his film debut when he starred as Guy. “It was an acting class. It was a clinic, and I got to be his pupil. The value of that education is priceless.”

As the most famous man in Hollywood at the time, Hanks was able to assemble an almost inconceivably talented team to realize his vision, including cinematographer Tak Fujimoto, costume designer Colleen Atwood, and producer Gary Goetzman, the latter of whom almost all the actors mention as having been instrumental to the film’s success. “He just had the best people doing the best work for him, and working so hard to make the movie great, because they believed in him,” says Tyler. “Anything he dreamed up, they could expertly create,” Embry corroborates. “Films do it, where it’s a collection of the absolute best in the business and they go out and make a film — but it’s very rare to be invited to the table.”

RELATED: Flashback to the 1996 That Thing You Do! Premiere

Getting the Band Together

“When I read it for the first time, I thought, ‘Wow, I identify with this guy. I get it,’” says Scott, who also grew up in a small town and had creative aspirations that he didn’t know how best to pursue. “Me and Guy were at the same place.” As for Guy’s hip (if rather gimmicky) sunglasses, “it was such a fun, cool idea of [Hanks’],” he says. “He added so many great details to the movie. The movie is Tom’s imagination.”

Tyler, daughter of Aerosmith singer Steven Tyler, also saw herself in her character. “I grew up around the band too, so to speak,” she says. “It’s very much like my understanding of my father, or [other] people that I’ve grown up around — you see the [person] that they give to the whole world, the superstar, and then you know the real [individual] behind closed doors. I related to her in that way, because she was a very real, very sweet, sincere person, watching all of these things happen to the people around her, but she always stayed very grounded.”

Scott had played trumpet in high school, but “the closest I ever got to playing the drums before that was sitting down at someone else’s drum kit, because it looked cool, and having that person yell at me,” he admits. “But I did know how to spin a drumstick, because that was something I think that most of the boys my age saw Alex Van Halen doing and we were like, ‘Oh, how do you do that?’”

Schaech had even more to overcome before taking the stage: “I was told that I should never, ever try to sing in public,” he says — but it was a bit of impromptu singing that he believes got him the part. When Jimmy quits the band, after Hanks’ Mr. White demands “something snappy” in the recording studio, he steps up to the microphone and sings, “I quit, I quit, I quit” — a detail that Schaech made up when he auditioned for the movie.

“I fought very hard for Jimmy to be that guy,” he explains. “I had to play that part, you know, of the artist. And [so many people have told me], ‘I was that guy. I was that guy with my band; they had to put up with me.’” Much as he fought for the chance, it can hurt to play the jerk, however: “I had a little kid come up to me and kick me one time for hurting Liv Tyler, for hurting her feelings,” Schaech says.

Zahn already played guitar, “but I played folky, kind of, acoustic — I didn’t even own an electric,” he says. “Immediately when I got the gig, I was on this Les Paul [guitar] playing my ass off.”

And then there’s Embry’s bass player. “He’s so happy!” Embry says of the character. “Being that enthusiastic sort of seeps into you and everything is good. Which is kind of sad, that he goes and joins the Marines, because you know he goes to Vietnam. It’s kind of messed up. Poor dude.” A postscript at the end of the movie tells us that the bass player was awarded the Purple Heart in Vietnam, but it does not shed any light on the character’s name, as he is only identified as “T.B. Player.”

“I just said my name was Tobias, because he’s such a Tobias. You just take the vowels out [and it’s T.B.],” Embry says. “His nickname was Toby, but his mom calls him Tobias. And his last name actually was Player, because he was a player, dude! That carousel ride with the Chantrellines? Total player.”

Embry could also play his instrument when he signed on to the movie, but didn’t quite have that ‘60s pop-rock style: “I was more of a punk musician,” he explains. “Just loud and obscene was sort of my bag of tricks.”

To get them in one-hit-wonder shape, all four actors were given lessons individually for a few weeks before they had daily band practice as a group. “My fingers were bleeding,” Schaech says. They learned all four of the Wonders’ songs and played and sang every note, every time, but only for visual verisimilitude; the music in the film and on the soundtrack was recorded by professional musicians. “Thank God,” says Scott. “Because if you really listened to us play, we’d probably sound horrible. We’d definitely sound horrible.”

The added benefit of weeks of band practice was the genuine chemistry the actors developed with each other. “We got really tight with each other — and we still are, which is amazing,” says Zahn, who was later the best man in Scott’s wedding. “It was my first movie, and I met one of my best friends on it, and I thought, ‘Oh my god, this is great. If I do more movies, I’ll just have all these best friends from all these movies that I make,’” Scott says. “And then I just found out that that’s super rare.”

20th Century Fox/Everett Collection

That Song They Sang

“I hate that song,” Embry says of the film’s title track, “That Thing You Do,” which was written by Fountains of Wayne’s Adam Schlesinger. “I remember it reached that point of, like, ‘I can’t play this song one more time.’” To count the number of times they played it, in total, would be “like guessing the number of gumballs in the big jar,” Zahn says, and Scott admits that “it got to the point where it was totally appropriate to punch another person from the cast or crew if they were humming it off set” — though his “That Thing You Do” fatigue has mostly worn off now. “I’m not going to, like, put it on my phone and jog to it, but I love it.”

The actors heard a few of the final submissions for the song (the runner-up of which plays during the closing credits), but Zahn remembers, “This one was right on so many levels — and right in that it wasn’t, also, the greatest song you’ve ever heard. It had to be right. It had to be something you would believe that these young guys would write, and at the same time, something that was good enough that you would believe that people would be totally into it.”

For the first read-through, for which the whole cast and a handful of Fox executives were in attendance, the band got up and played (backed by the recording) every time they performed in the script. “We all bought little skinny ties and matching vests, and it was really fun,” Scott says.

Embry remembers it slightly differently: “They did it on Halloween! So I wore a dress. But all the other guys wore their super-nice ‘60s suits,” he recalls. “Poor Gary [Goetzman], having to deal with an absolute lunatic 17-year-old while running a very big motion picture.”

Fake as their performances might have been, the thrill of being rock stars was real. “I loved being with those guys. We were a band at that moment,” Schaech says. Shooting the talent show scene, the extras didn’t know that the polished recording they were hearing wasn’t what the actors were actually playing. “We were kind of getting off on the fact that people thought we were the real deal,” says Zahn. “And we kind of were, you know? We could play, we totally could.”

“It was one of the biggest thrills of my life,” Schaech says. “I can understand why rock stars have such a good time.”

On the Radio

You can catch snippets of “That Thing You Do” constantly throughout the movie, but the song only plays in its entirety three times, in three slightly different variations, at three crucial moments in the story.

The studio version of the song plays once, in one of the most thrilling, joyous scenes in the movie — when it comes on the radio for the first time. Faye, listening to a portable radio as she puts some letters in a mailbox, runs screaming down the streets of Erie, Pennsylvania all the way to Guy’s father’s store, where everyone convenes to dance around the appliances before Guy yells, victorious, “I am Spartacus!”

“I had no idea how significant that [scene] would be when we were filming it,” Scott admits. “I knew it would be cool for the characters, but I had no idea how that would affect people and how that would feel to watch. Because it is maybe one of the coolest moments in the movie.”

“It’s a great scene,” Zahn agrees. “Liv is so great in it!”

“I didn’t really know what was going to happen; I didn’t really plan anything,” Tyler recalls. “I remember kind of being a little bit nervous about what I was going to do, and how it was going to happen, and what it would be like — and then just doing it, and it was just a funny explosion.”

“Liv just went for it, man!” says Schaech. “She just totally went for it in that moment. She captured it so much.”

Once they were all inside the appliance store, Zahn was not immediately sold on Hanks’ direction to grab hands and skip in a circle. “It felt kind of dumb doing it, but when you see the movie, you’re like, ‘Oh my god, that totally works,’” he says. “They’re like kids. You can’t get more euphoric than skipping and holding hands, right?”

“It was so sweet! I mean, that is what it really feels like; it’s like when you get the greatest news ever,” Tyler says. “It was the best, just to share in that joy and to be that excited.”

“You know, over the last 20 years, I can’t tell you the amount of people who have called me, or I’ve called them, when their song got on the air,” Schaech says. “When Jared Leto’s song went big time, I remember calling him up, saying, ‘I can’t freakin’ believe this, you’re on my radio right now.’ I know a lot of people who have, over social media, have hit me up and said, ‘You’re not going to believe this, I just had a That Thing You Do! moment.’”

That Dream You Dream

Looking back on his time as the Wonders’ moody frontman, Schaech repeatedly invokes the film’s tagline: “In every life there comes a time when that dream you dream becomes that thing you do.”

“I think everyone has their dream, to take their talents that they have and propel them to the place where they’re successful with it,” he says. “Twenty years later, the film’s still relevant.” And for him and his fellow Wonders, relative unknowns who were cast in a film made by the biggest movie star in the world, the idea rang especially true then, too.

“This band was on the rise, and they were doing stuff for the first time, and Tom Hanks would say, ‘Okay, at this point, the band is looking around going, ‘Wow, how did we get here? Holy crap, look at this place, this is amazing.’ And I looked at him and I said, ‘Yeah, I get it,’” Scott remembers. “So that was also kind of a beautiful thing, that parallel. It was happening as it was happening.”

The production, expertly coordinated by Hanks’ team, only made it feel more real. “It was as if we were really living it ourselves. It was incredible, the production design and the costumes and just the whole vibe that they created — it felt very real,” Tyler says. “As the daughter of a musician and a lover of music, I’ve always kind of wished that I was born in a different era, musically, so I could have seen some great bands and things that I kind of missed, and in a way, that was kind of pretending that we were really in that time.”

Parts of the film were shot at Los Angeles’ iconic Ambassador Hotel, which is gone now and was already abandoned then, when the young actors snuck around the empty bungalows and into the kitchen where Bobby Kennedy was assassinated. “It was an eerie, awesome, haunting place,” according to Zahn. “Sammy Davis Jr. had his own penthouse, and the wallpaper was stingray skin,” Embry says, while Tyler remembers, “There were all these secret tunnels that they said that [John F.] Kennedy used to go back and forth to the bungalow to see Marilyn Monroe.” 

“We were immediately immersed in that period, and then [Hanks’] enthusiasm sort of helped set the tone for that — the way the world felt in the early ‘60s, where it still had this innocence to it,” Embry says. “That’s kind of the way it felt on set.” Now, 20 years after the movie came out (and 50 after it takes place), it’s doubly nostalgic. “It was the first time that anyone was using digital, and we were like cavemen discovering fire when [the still photographer] showed us,” Zahn remembers. “He was printing out these pictures and we were like, ‘Oh my god, dude. That’s the future.’”

Embry also looks back on the band’s long rehearsal process as a relic of the past. “That used to be the norm: you go, you spend time together, you really immerse yourself, and then you start shooting. Now, you get the movie, and two days later, you’re on location,” he says. “I think that probably has a lot to do with why a lot of those films in that period sort of have a familiarity to them.”

“It’s always in hindsight that we talk about a movie as being great. When you’re shooting it, you don’t know. It’s a gig,” Zahn says. “I knew this was a big deal when I got it. I knew that it was special. And when you know that, you take extra care, and you document it in a different way.” He still has the pictures from the still photographer’s digital camera of the future. “I mean, how can you not like that movie? It’s really impossible, right?”

Tyler, too, still has Polaroids from the tunnels under the Ambassador, still loves hearing “That Thing You Do,” and says it’s the only movie she can watch herself in without cringing. “We just were always laughing and smiling, and everyone was wonderful,” she says. “I don’t think I’ve ever smiled so much in my whole life.”

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