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‘That Thing You Do!’ Cast Members Talk About Adam Schlesinger, Touring Japan, and Getting Spoiled by Tom Hanks (Watch)

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It’s a fine line between faux one-hit wonders and real one-hit Oneders when it comes to “That Thing You Do!,” which might be one of the most fondly remembered movies of the mid-’90s, but one that feels like an underdog, even now, 25 years later, with an entire generation’s worth of home video favoritism behind it. That it still inspires such affection and is remembered as more of a box-office success than it was is due to so many factors: Tom Hanks’ sweet script and direction; the chemistry of actor-bandmates Ethan Embry, Johnathon Schaech, Tom Everett Scott and Steve Zahn; and that thing that the late Adam Schlesinger did… a crucial title song that the whole movie was going to rise or sink on, as something you could believe was an actual mid-’60s earworm.

The coronavirus-related death of songwriter Schlesinger — who’s known about equally for being part of Fountains of Wayne, his 130-plus songs for TV’s “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” and, yes, one song from “That Thing You Do!” — created so much renewed interest in the movie that Embry, Schaech, Scott and Zahn decided to “get the band back together” for a live viewing of the movie with commentary. That reunion happens Friday at 4 p.m. PT/7 ET on a newly created YouTube Page for the Oneders. (They’ll be raising funds for MusiCare’s COVID-19 fund amid the high jinx.)

But we united the foursome this week, too, for a pre-reunion on Zoom. You can watch the video of that, below, on Vimeo, or read select highlights of our conversation here.

VARIETY: Is it safe to say Adam Schlesinger’s death was, sadly, the trigger for this happy occasion? 

SCHAECH: Yeah, it had a lot to do with it, Tom and Rita (Wilson) both getting sick, and then Adam — it just felt like we needed to do something. and each one of us kind of had the same thought, and that’s why we’re doing this on Friday.

Is this the first time that you guys have participated in a reunion event, or have there been screenings and get-togethers or the years?

ZAHN: There have been, but we haven’t all been there. Me being one of them. It’s the first time all of us together since then.

SCHAECH: Since we toured Japan. We did a tour! We did a bunch of cities in Japan.

SCOTT: I just remember some scary, tearful goodbye to you guys at the Anchorage airport.

ZAHN: Oh my God. You forgot your passport!

There’s a long history of bands that kind of have their last legs being big in Japan, so the Oneders are part of a proud tradition with that.

SCOTT: Perfect! We’re back, baby.

Have you kept up with each other over the years?

SCOTT: You know, one of the coolest things about the Playtone family is that they have this ability to kind of keep tabs on us. I know that Tom and producer Gary Goetzman, who run Playtone, don’t really want the Oneders’ feet to touch the ground, ever. Really, I feel like a family with them. We do baseball games and all kinds of events and stuff. We still really stay in touch, which is lovely.

ZAHN: Yeah, I haven’t had any experience even close to this. I mean, I’ve had camaraderie with casts and stuff, but not to the point where there was a consistency of us talking, or Gary and Tom being involved in something or offering you a gig. I feel like I could walk into Playtone and just pour a cup of coffee and sit down and no one would bat an eye.

Adam Schlesinger, in an interview, said much the same thing — that occasionally he would drop into the Playtone office just to say hello.

EMBRY: Who mentioned the quote that Tom Hanks had said about Adam, that without him, there’d be no Oneders…

SCOTT: There’d be no Playtone. Yeah. It’s true. I mean, that guy threaded the needle on that song, right?

ZAHN: Yeah. I mean, he’s responsible for the entire thing. It’s the heart, the marrow of the whole movie. It’s everything. That had to be it, man! That had to be good enough, but not good enough (to make the band truly stars). It had to walk a really kind of fine line, that song. And not drive you nuts after a while!

There was kind of like an unofficial competition among songwriters to come up with the right song. Were any of you on the project early enough to be aware of waiting to find that?

EMBRY: When we started talking about this, it reminded me of a day that we were all sitting in the production office. It was very early once we all got together in Los Angeles, at a conference table, and it was all of us and Liv (Tyler), and I think Gary brought in a small stack of their favorites (from the songs submitted). And we sat there and listened to ‘em, and some varied from like the Who to a Led Zeppelin-y kind of vibe. But the one Adam wrote was just…. [He smacks his hands together.]

I go shopping at Ralphs late at night sometimes — or I did, when we still used to go grocery shopping, when that was still a thing — and I’d almost invariably hear “That Thing You Do” come over the PA. It’s still top 10 in supermarkets.

ZAHN: We were just talking about that yesterday! I was in the grocery store once when it came on, and I filmed it and I sent it to Tom Scott. You do hear it.

SCOTT: I remember being in a little clothing store in New York and it came on, and I was like, “That’s a weird coincidence.” And I looked over and the people behind the cash register were like, “Sorry! We just wanted to put it on ‘cause you’re here.” So when I moved to L.A. years later, and I went to Ralphs —as you do — and heard it, I kind of looked around, like, “Ohhhh. Ohhh, who put it on?” And then I realized, no, it’s just part of the Ralphs playlist.

How popular do you think of the movie as having been? Because we look back and see that it made $25-26 million, which in ‘90s dollars was maybe some decent coin. So it found an audience, but from the way people fondly remember it, it feels more like a $100 million movie. How big do you think it was then, and how big do you think it is now?

SCOTT: I think that it was probably a miss at the box office, to be honest. I think we got blown out by the wives… What was it called?

SCHAECH: Three Wives Club?

SCOTT: First Wives Club. And something else did better than us. So we were third or fourth in the box office.

ZAHN: Yeah, it was a real disappointment, I remember.

SCOTT: But it got great reviews. I mean, across the board, it tested great.

EMBRY: It didn’t matter. It’s got really long legs.

ZAHN: Exactly. It’s kind of like saying the stock market reflects our economy. It doesn’t. So many of my movies that people come up to me and say, “Hey, I loved you in…,” I’m always amazed that most of them were kind of flops, actually, but they just have legs for some reason. And I don’t know what that is. This one, I think it’s because it’s so nostalgic and it’s so simple and it’s so joyful.

There are so many movies about bands and so few that work. David Chase did one five or more years ago and it was a quality effort but you didn’t quite buy the reality of the band, as you usually don’t — it’s hard for people to suspend disbelief with fictional rock groups in movies. This was one of the rare movies about a fake rock band, that’s not as fake as Spinal Tap, that works for people. Do you have a sense of why people sort of bought into the reality of this?

SCHAECH: Over the years, different bands would come up to me and go, “You know, I was the Jimmy in our band.” Or, “We had a Jimmy in our band.”

ZAHN: And also, I think that the rehearsal process was pretty amazing. I mean, we were entrenched in music rehearsal. They were adamant about us being spot on with our instruments, because … they said, “It’s going to be hard enough to shoot this with cranes and all these big events. We don’t want to have to worry if you guys are on. So you have to be on all the time. So you’re going to rehearse as a band — not as a cast.” So we got really tight. And you know, I’d never been in a band. And all we did was play music together, and then we’d go off to our private lessons. But I think it’s that kind of focus that Gary and Tom put on (it) that was essential for this movie being as believable as it is. And you go do movies now and you don’t even rehearse. You don’t even rehearse a scene sometimes on the day. And that’s insane to me. I don’t understand that process at all. It’s stupid. Come on, people! It’ll take 10 minutes…

EMBRY: The ‘90s were this golden period where all of the movies, you’d rehearse for a month before you started shooting.

ZAHN: Actually, I was on a gig and I got so tired of them saying, “Well, we need you for blocking.” And I was, “I know it’s just a title. It’s semantics, but don’t call it a blocking. If you call it a blocking, I’m not coming, if you’re just blocking it. If you want to rehearse, call it a rehearsal! You can still do the blocking. Just call it rehearsal for me, okay? And then I’ll come out.”

SCOTT: [Laughing.] Oh my God.

ZAHN: I swear. I did that in Vancouver. I got so tired of it. “Where’s my tape?” This was totally the opposite, man, it was totally opposite that.

SCOTT: We were spoiled from the get-go. We were spoiled by having Tom, Gary and all the experienced people that had done this before. You know, Victor Kempster, Colleen Atwood — you’re talking about the A-team of designers and first ADs and producers. And then two months of rehearsal? Forget it. Of course we’re going to walk in there feeling good. Thank God, because I didn’t know how to play the drums before this started. … I was scared to death.

EMBRY: He did that with every single character in the movie. I think when he created the way he wanted the movie to look, I would imagine how he used his own process as an actor with deep character dives. Because he knew the answer to everything. Every little character had a story — you knew where they were coming from, you knew where they were going.

SCHAECH: He used to say you could do no wrong.

SCOTT: Oh, man. I wish other directors would say that every time.

ZAHN: Half the stuff I did was stuff we just thought up on the day. You remember? It was like, “Hey, just go sit with those old guys and play cards.” “What do you mean?” “Just sit there and play…” And then we’d shoot it at the end of the day, and I was like, well, this isn’t going to make it in the movie. It almost made it.

SCOTT: That was the Steve Zahn improv hour! That was the golden moment.

ZAHN: But it encouraged you to show up and have an opinion, and go, “Wow, what can we do with this? Bwah-ha-ha-ha!”

Speaking of things that didn’t make the movie, I did not realize until looking it up that there was like an extended director’s cut that came out in 2007 on DVD and 2013 on Blu-Ray with 40 extra minutes. Basically it’s about as long as “Lawrence of Arabia.”

SCOTT: From when it came out on 70 mil, so you could see all the sand.

That’s probably not the cut you’re going to have on in the background for your YouTube live-stream.

SCOTT: No, we’re not going to do that cut. But there has been a lot of demand for it. There’s a lot of diehard fans that have probably seen the theatrical release a hundred times, and so the director’s cut is even more of the good stuff. But, yeah, we’re going to stick to the shorter version, but sure, there’s some great stuff that didn’t end up in the movie.

Has there every been any talk about doing a sequel about where the Oneders are in 1990 or ‘91 or wherever you would be?

SCOTT: We’ve got some good ideas. Hey, you know what? They submitted 300 versions of the song “That Thing You Do” — let’s submit some versions of “That Thing You 2,” you know?

EMBRY: And what do we sound like? What’s the sound?

SCOTT: Don’t we have to like do like a reunion in the ‘90s? At Lollapalooza.

EMBRY: After Vietnam it’s gonna be dark (for his character), because you know that’s where he ended up…

SCOTT: You can do it, Ethan.

For this event you’re doing on YouTube, you’re not going to do any four-part harmony or anything? Just talking?

SCOTT: I think we’ll be laughing along, quoting along, singing along, whatever we feel like. … I don’t even think we can handle two-part harmony.