The Wonders Reminisce About the Life-Changing 'That Thing You Do!' Before COVID-19 Relief Fund Reunion

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Hilary Hughes

The Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles was demolished in 2005, but Ethan Embry, Johnathon Schaech, Tom Everett Scott and Steve Zahn are still laughing about the high jinks that went down while they were filming That Thing You Do!

Under the direction of Tom Hanks, the foursome spent the fall of 1995 through the spring of 1996 dressing up in matching suits and living the rock n’ roll dream of the ‘60s as the Wonders, the film’s fictional quartet that rises to Beatles-level fame before self-imploding at the apex of their career. The band unravels during their stay at the Ambassador, but after shooting wrapped for the day, the guys found themselves exploring the underground tunnels beneath the bungalows and scoping out the quarters of real musical legends.

“We got into Sammy Davis, Jr.’s room,” remembers Embry, who plays the unnamed bassist and splits from the Wonders shortly after walking into the Ambassador. “They unlocked it and let us in there, and the walls were all stingray wallpaper. REAL STINGRAY WALLPAPER. It was unbelievable.” Steve Zahn, who plays the Wonders’ lovable doofus of a guitarist, Lenny, pocketed a souvenir. “I still have an air raid sign I stole,” he says. “It’s in my barn. I swear! I took it.”

More reminiscing will follow on Friday (April 16), as the Wonders will reunite for the first time since they filmed the movie -- and for a cause that’s close to their hearts and That Thing You Do!

Adam Schlesinger, the Fountains of Wayne bassist and beloved songwriter, wrote the song that shot the Wonders to fame, and he died following COVID-19 complications on April 1. After a quick phone call, the former fake bandmates decided to host a Q&A featuring other famous friends and watch-along of That Thing You Do!, which will kick off at 7 p.m. ET on Friday on YouTube. The livestream encourages viewers to donate to MusiCares’ COVID-19 relief fund, which supports millions of musicians and industry professionals impacted directly by the global coronavirus pandemic. 

Below, the Wonders give a bit of a sneak preview of what to expect during the official That Thing You Do! reunion: plenty of jokes, lots of memories from the film, and a ton of appreciation for the song that brought them together.

I know your fans are obviously very excited to not only see you on Friday, but to contribute to such an important cause -- especially following the tragic loss of Adam Schlesinger to COVID-19. This is the first official reunion of the Wonders since the movie, right?

Tom Everett Scott: Right! A few years ago, we did something for the Goddamn Comedy Jam. A buddy of ours was just just like, “Just for fun, I want to sing ‘That Thing You Do!,’ will you back me up?” I said, “I think I can get the rest of the band.” Unfortunately, and it kills me, Steve wasn’t able to do it because he was working. It turned into this thing that was obviously a ton of fun. Recently, Steve joined Instagram after swearing off social media. This was the shot heard round the word, and the video was so good. Steve and I were talking about doing something during this pandemic, so we all just wanted to do something. That’s how it kind of came up.

Steve Zahn: It was real quick, just last week. We had a Zoom meeting on, what, Friday? “Let’s do this we’ll put out the word on Monday.”

Johnathon Schaech: I don’t know if it’s last week or the week before but, I mean, John Prine, Adam -- I was introduced to music by everyone here, and so seeing it hit home with all those people that I’ve grown to love through these guys, we knew that this is what we had to do.

In the midst of this pandemic that’s happening, it’s wonderful that you’re able to connect with your fans this way for a cause. Ethan, you’ve shared some thoughts about the MusiCares COVID-19 relief fund, and why it’s so important to support this organization right now. 

EE: I think it goes back to what you just said: It’s okay for two hours to enjoy something, and let go of the things that are occurring around us. That’s okay. It’s gonna be there when we get back. But with MusiCares, I’ve been familiar with their organization for a long time. My brother is a musician; I have a lot of friends who are musicians. Whenever someone in Los Angeles in the music industry is facing a crisis, one of the first things is you reach out to MusiCares: they’re that well known for what they do in the industry.

I think the first time I heard about the disaster relief was Hurricane Katrina. They have a wing where they help the music industry -- musicians, roadies, tech people -- get through these difficult times. Normally those disasters are very centralized, but what we’re seeing right now is global. They could use whatever help anybody is able to give… that whole industry that makes those festivals and tours possible, they’re affected just as hard as the musicians. And it’s not the only industry that’s going through this, but this is one that seems to tie in really nice with this movie and Adam.

Tom Hanks said that without Adam, there would be no That Thing You Do! -- the song he wrote is the heartbeat of this movie. Let’s go back to the first time you heard “That Thing You Do!”: do you remember where and when you heard it?

Ethan Embry: The production offices for the film were in Santa Monica, and there was a conference room. Once all of us and Liv [Tyler, co-star] had showed up in L.A. to start rehearsals, [co-producer] Gary Goetzman came in with a boombox and a small stack of cassettes. It was about six tracks that they had narrowed down out of the hundreds of submissions that they got. Some of those tracks, we didn’t listen past the first verse -- because it was a great tune, but it wasn’t what they were looking for. When Adam’s track came on, it was... I mean, it’s so snappy and cheery, everybody was up there dancing to it. You could tell right away it was going to be the track.

TES: I think I was the last one cast, and I was coming out to L.A. to do some other show. Tom and Gary wanted me to see a drum teacher or something in North Hollywood, and they were bringing in the actual drum kit, and they brought it in and played the song. Gary said, “Oh, over 300 songs were submitted, and this is the one we picked.” It was Adam’s song. It was just so darn good. I mean, Tom and Gary had actually written a song themselves -- but this is the one.

JS: There was another song at the end of the movie -- I think it was between them -- but Adam’s song was easier to connect to.

TES: It’s got that beat, you know?

EE: Some of the other submissions would sound kind of like, heavy Who or early Zeppelin -- it just wasn’t the vibe.

SZ: At that high school, the first time we play it, you have to believe it’s our song, and then it’s gotta progress and become something that’s popular.

TES: I remember there was the original that was submitted, and then they took that, and they broke that down into the version we played at the talent show, and then it gets a little different when we play it for Uncle Bob in the church. It gets a little better on the tour, and it’s even more sophisticated on the Hollywood showcase.

EE: The bass line gets really good for the Hollywood showcase because Wolfman is there, you know. [Laughs.]

How does That Thing You Do! stand out as a unique project for you? What sets this apart from all your other films? 

SZ: It’s hugely unique. We were just talking about this: Gary Goetzman told us when we were shooting -- what’d he say, Tom? 

TES: On day one he said, “You are spoiled forever.” 

SZ: And it’s true! I remember going to other movies after this and going, “Oh, this is the way they’re made.” They’re not. They weren’t as fun; they weren’t as surrounded by brilliant people. Everyone was cool and fun. We danced every Friday at wrap, the entire crew. It was insane. I was sick one day. I had an 102 temp when we were doing all that state fair stuff. Gary said, “Are you okay to shoot?” I said, “Yeah, I’m okay.” He turned, and he and Tom walked off for about two minutes, and then he went, “Okay, that’s a wrap!” That’s how they thought.

It was such a great experience. Tak Fujimoto, the DP, we learned so much from these guys -- not only specific film things, but just how to carry yourself professionally and rise to the occasion, show up on time, be cool.

JS: And know your lines.

SZ: It was remarkable. We were so lucky.

TES: I had been just starting out in New York and I had never had a chance at a feature film. I had done like, an afterschool special and some commercials, and a recurring role on a sitcom. This was about the biggest thing that’s ever happened to me. My mom knew that Tom Hanks is like, my hero, and she was like, “How crazy is it that he’s the one to pick you out of obscurity here?!” For me, it’s the first. It also just happens to be the best.

Who knew Tom Hanks was a great lyricist, too?! I know he contributed a bunch of songs to the soundtrack, too -- this movie is such a labor of love for him. I noticed that he wore a Playtone sweatshirt when he hosted the remote episode of Saturday Night Live, and that was obviously in honor of Adam. 

TES: He’s so thoughtful. 

EE: He’d hum the melodies, the song ideas and the keyboards. He knew every single bit of every part of it.

TES: I think Tom Hanks’ brain, his creativity, his imagination -- he was putting together this idea. He was inspired by The Beatles. He was watching some documentary, I think, and thinking about how just changing out the drummer, putting Ringo in the band -- he had this idea. It is super creative. He was involved in every single song.

I remember the guy who wrote the piano part for the last bit, where Guy Patterson plays with Del Paxton in the recording studio -- Tom sang that piece into some musician’s voicemail. The guy who he sang it to then composed the piano piece. He was on set that day and telling me this story, this musician, and he said, “You better believe I’m not erasing that voicemail of Tom Hanks singing the jazz piece.” 

How did That Thing You Do! change your relationship with music? Obviously the movie is a huge part of your story now, but has it affected your relationship with your favorite songs, or how you go see shows and listen to music? 

TES: It completely changed how I listened to music. I remember, part of the research was to jump in and not only learn our music for the movie, but be inspired by our music. Steve, I think one of the first things we did -- wasn’t there a record store right across the street from Patterson’s?

JS: Yeah there was! I remember that.

TES: We would just go and buy records and listen to them. For me, I never had good taste in high school. I’m from some small town in Massachusetts; I didn’t know anything...  this movie really opened things up. There were musicians on set constantly. We were surrounded by music.

SZ: For me, I’ve never been in a band and never have been since, but I felt like I was in a band. Those guys, Gary and Tom, our rehearsal process for weeks was just as a band. We didn’t rehearse scenes. We didn’t work on character and all that stuff. We played the music; that’s all we did. That really kind of opened my eyes. There’s a difference between what I do, which is mimic people who play guitar. I can play guitar, but I’m not a musician by any means. That’s a different thing, so my respect for musicians is huge because of this experience.

What hits you differently about That Thing You Do! now than when you’ve watched it previously, or when you filmed it?

EE: Unfortunately, the things that Tom wanted to strike with choosing the movie [to be set during] that period, it was right before -- I mean, things changed a lot in the early ‘60s, probably starting with Civil Rights and the assassination of Kennedy. I know that there are people who would say -- I’m trying to figure out the best way to put this --

TES: [Tom] would say it was the last innocent year.

SZ: Before Vietnam. Our scars were heavy after that, weren’t they?

EE: And some changes were good, and you can look at what we’re gonna come out of on this, and hopefully there will be some good changes.

SZ: And good changes are hard. They’re not easy.

TES: At the time in the '90s, when this movie came out, I remember [Tom] would say during our press junket, “I just wanted a nice change of pace at the box office” -- and it was. If you think about it, not a lot of movies like this are made: Mostly, it’s horror movies and Marvel movies and big movies. This is kind of like that last little group of movies that were made for this kind of budget that were nice.

We binge-watch this kind of stuff now. You probably could make this into a series now on Hulu, or something, but this was a change of pace in the mid-'90s. But I love your question about how is it different, is there anything different about watching it now, I don’t know -- when I watch it, I just go back in time.

SZ: For me, it’s like looking at a yearbook from a grade school. A lot of films, you don’t even want to watch because they weren’t fun to make. [Laughs.] Not great! This one is totally different. I sent you [guys] that video when I was in the grocery store -- I’ve had this happen like, three times, when I’ve been in the grocery store and the song comes on. I kind of look around -- I think [my daughter] Audrey was with me and I started singing to her.

TES: Those lucky shoppers! If you happen to see it on TV, you don’t react like that, but it was awesome. 

It was on the radio! It was a hit in real life [and rose to No. 41 on the Billboard Hot 100]. Do you remember when you heard that in real life on the radio?

TES: I got in the car the other day in the morning and the local public radio station here, KCSN, put it on -- they said “Here’s Adam Schlesinger’s ‘That Thing You Do!’” And I was like, "Oh my god, what’s happening?!

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