If the fan mail for JTT piles high at Home Improvement studios, it's nearly equaled by the tons of movie scripts and offers that arrive daily at his agent's office. Because Jonathan is such a talented and highprofile young star, he's on the "most wanted" list for movies with young protagonists. Happily, JTT loves making movies, and his success now allows him to pick and choose the best ones to be in. In the summer of 1995, the best one offered was a true American classic - Tom and Huck.
The movie Tom and Huck was the vision of filmmakers Laurence Mark and John Baldecchi, who several years ago had produced The Adventures of Huck Finn, which starred Elijah Wood. Ever since then, they'd seen the possibilities of another movie based on the classic Mark Twain book The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. By the end of 1994 screenwriters Stephen Sommers, David Loughery, and Ron Koslow had finished a script, and the producers had a go-ahead to make the movie. All they needed was a rough 'n' tumble teen to play the lead character. And there was no question in their minds - they wanted Jonathan Taylor Thomas.
While negotiations were going on between the producers and Jonathan's agents, the young star wanted to tell everyone he was up for this terrific role, but he knew better. Often in showbiz, even when things seem set and ready to go, something unexpected happens and projects fall apart. So Jonathan kept quiet when asked if he had any movie plans for the 1995 summer hiatus from Home Improvement. But by the start of the year, the ink was dry on the contracts, and Jonathan's participation was signed, sealed, and delivered. On January 13, 1995, the Hollywood trade papers carried the announcement. The headlines read: "THOMAS SET FOR SAWYER" - and so he was!
Though Jonathan wouldn't arrive on the Huntsville, Alabama, set until the end of April, the filmmakers were working nonstop in preparation. British director Peter Hewitt signed on. Costume and set designers were given the go-ahead to recreate the clothes and atmosphere of the south along the Mississippi River in 1845. And, during this time, the film, which was an independent production, was picked up by Disney to distribute. Even though Jonathan was still busy at work on his TV series, he was called in to help audition young actors and actresses for the important costarring roles of Huck Finn and Becky Thatcher. For Jonathan, all this "prep" time was thrilling, and he told anyone who would listen, "I'm very excited about this!" He expanded his thoughts to 16 magazine, saying: "I love the idea! I love great books, I love history and the idea of dressing up in costumes from the 1800s. To me, that's really cool?"
Actually, Tom and Huck was the first time that Jonathan was the real, true, headlining star of the film from the very beginning. But that wasn't the only reason he wanted to do Tom and Huck. "I think it's cool doing a period piece - that's part of the appeal of it you know, the costumes and where we're filming it," he told a reporter. "I think it'll give me a good background of what it was like to live back then, because the director was telling me he wants to make it very authentic - real, like these kids would have acted back then.... Also I just thought this was a classic piece - it hasn't been done in a number of years, so why not?"
Although Jonathan had not read the original Mark Twain book at the time, he was totally intrigued by the story when he got hold of the script. He told Teen Beat that was one of the deciding factors for him to do the film, "Tom Sawyer is a classic role. It's a role that most Americans are familiar with, and the character, Tom Sawyer, is about as real a boy as you can get. He's precocious, he's always thinking. So I like the character, and I like the actual piece, so I figured why not do it?"
But there was even more to it than that. "Another reason I wanted to do the film," JTT continued telling the magazine when they asked if he was similar to the character of Tom Sawyer is that, "we're not exactly alike. I do have to challenge myself as far as acting. The film takes place in 1845, and during that time Tom Sawyer was atypical. He was rambunctious, and back then, people were very reserved and reformed, and he kind of stuck out like a sore thumb."
But there were some similarities, too, and Jonathan admitted, "Of all the characters I've played, I'm probably the most like Tom Sawyer - adventurous. I don't know if I'm so precocious as Tom Sawyer is; he's pretty conniving. But we're both active and have a sneaky side to us."
Besides the chance to do a role like Tom, Jonathan was intrigued with traveling to a part of the United States he'd never been before. "I'm looking forward to being down in Alabama," he said shortly before he left for location shooting. "I like traveling and I've never been to Alabama. Huntsville is in the north, near Tennessee. It's a beautiful state and we'll have a good time."
The Huntsville, Alabama, location was picked to represent the fictional town of St. Petersburg, the setting of the yarn, of life along the Mississippi River in the mid-1800s. Based on some real-life childhood adventures of the author Mark Twain, Tom and Huck captures the lazy summer days of a southern town along a waterway dotted by riverboats, gamblers, and cutthroats. Tom and his friends Huck and Becky are caught between the rules of the genteel folk of St. Petersburg and their natural rebellious nature. And when they accidentally witness a murder in a graveyard, they promise to keep silent and stay out of trouble. But Tom had a horrible time of living with the guilt, and when an innocent man went on trial for the murder, he finally fingered the culprit, Injun Joe.
But the story doesn't end there. That's only the beginning of the adventure, in which Tom and Huck test their wits and luck as they try to escape the wrath of the ruthless Injun Joe! Along the way Tom and Becky get lost in a cave; Tom and Huck discover a secret treasure and find themselves traveling down the mighty Mississippi on a log raft that eventually crashes into rocks. In the end, they find the real treasure - an understanding of friendship and loyalty they never knew before.
Jonathan's preparation for his role began long before he and his mom, Claudine, headed down to Huntsville. First of all there were the wardrobe fittings for the costumes he would wear. After all, Tom and Huck takes place in the mid-1800s in St. Petersburg, Missouri, and Tom didn't exactly dress like Home Improvement's Randy Taylor, or JTT at all. No Reebok high-tops and khakis! Instead, Tom wears buckskins, moccasins, and wide-brimmed hats, all of which had to be custom-made for Jonathan and the other young actors in the movie. Jonathan eventually had to cut his long hair for the role. Since there were no designer stylists in the 1800s, Tom wore what was called a "bowl cut." It looked as if someone had put a bowl on his head and cut around the rim. Jonathan had to even darken his blondish hair to brown, so he definitely had a different look!
The actual casting of Huck Finn and Becky Thatcher was something else JTT was involved in before filming began. Though Jonathan didn't have to audition for his role, he did read with a number of the most promising kids up for the roles of his friends. When the audition process ended, the coveted roles went to Brad Renfro as Huck and Rachel Leigh Cook as Becky, choices Jonathan wholeheartedly approved of. Though he didn't know either of them before Tom, and Huck and hadn't seen Brad in his debut movie, The Client, Jonathan was impressed by Brad's tryout.
Of Brad, JTT recalled, "When we read together, I thought be was very talented. He's a really good actor. And hopefully together we can make a real good movie."
Although JTT didn't know it, Brad Renfro has an interesting story. Brad, who turned thirteen after Tom and Huck wrapped, was just ten years old when he first performed in front of the cameras. He was anything but a Hollywood kid. When The Client's director, Joel Schumacher, described his requirements for the actor who would play streetwise eleven-year-old Mark Sway in that 1993 movie, a nationwide search began. "I wanted an intelligent kid who's a tough and savvy survivor, a kid with an authentic southern accent, a kid from a trailer park, like the character in the movie," Schumacher told The New York Times. "I wanted a kid who understood in the marrow of his psyche what it was like to grow up too soon. Easier said than done."
Until they found Brad Renfro of Knoxville, Tennessee, that is. In something of an unorthodox approach, casting director Mali Finn (who also discovered Edward Furlong (Terminator 2) at a California youth center) contacted alternative schools, boys clubs, YMCAs, churches, and even police departments and asked if they knew any tough kids who showed acting ability. "Not that we were looking for a delinquent," explained Finn, "but a tough boy.
A policeman in Knoxville, Tennessee, contacted Finn and told her about a ten-year-old boy who had just played a drug dealer in a school production sponsored by DARE. It was Brad Renfro. Finn, who had met about 5,000 boys and interviewed nearly 1,500 of those, recalls when she met Brad, "He was mesmerizing. From the second he walked in, I had the feeling this was it. I usually taped each applicant for ten or fifteen minutes. I let the tape run an hour with him."
Not only was the casting director impressed with Brad, so was the director. For Brad fit all the requirements, all the way around. Brad was an only child, who's lived with his grandmother since the age of three. His father works in a factory in Knoxville, and his mom had remarried and moved away to Michigan. Brad, young though he was, had definitely known some of life's hard knocks. All that - and more - translated onto the screen.
After earning outstanding reviews for The Client, Brad was cast in another big movie, The Cure. The director was Peter Horton of TV's thirtysomething fame, and the movie would costar Joseph Mazzelo of Jurassic Park. The story was about the relationship between two boys, one of whom (Joseph) had been diagnosed with AIDS, the other (Brad) who searched for a cure. Again Brad won rave reviews. But director Horton also remembers something else about working with Brad - the emergence of a young heartthrob. Brad had turned twelve during the filming of The Cure, and Horton told the New York Post, "He was becoming a movie star with this gaggle of girls, mostly thirteen- to twenty-four-year-olds, who would follow him from location to location."
And then there was Rachael Leigh Cook. This native of Minneapolis, Minnesota, was fifteen when she was cast in the role of Tom Sawyer's young love, Becky Thatcher. That, needless to say, was the most coveted role of all to JTT fans across America. Unlike Brad Renfro, Rachael had always dreamed of a career as an actress. She had started out as a print model for local Minneapolis advertisers, and in 1993 she was cast in a short 'film called 26 Summer Street. Her next role was Mary Anne in the summer 1995 feature film, The Babysitters Club, but when she found out she was up for Becky in Tom and Huck, she admits she was surprised. Rachael just didn't believe she was right for the part. "First of all, I'm fifteen and Becky's like twelve," Rachael, who'd read the book, explained. She has long blond hair, the whole bit." But she went to the audition, with a professional attitude. "I'm just going to do my darnedest anyway - just do what I can do." Obviously, "what she could" was just what the casting directors were looking for.
Besides being talented and pretty, Rachael had something else going for her that many of the other actresses who competed for the role of Becky didn't.
Rachael is short for her age - just under five feet two inches tall - and Becky had to appear to be smaller than Tom. Most of the actresses who were the right age and look for Becky were taller than Jonathan, who is still growing but during the filming was just hitting the five-foot mark!
Rachael didn't know either Jonathan or Brad before Tom and Huck. Of course, she knew who JTT was, though she says she doesn't really watch Home improvement often. But when she read with him for the role, Rachael was very impressed with his maturity and professionalism. "He was fun to talk to," she recalled. "Very neat, very intelligent, a good conversationalist. We talked about fishing because he loves it and I've been. I'm from Minnesota, and he wanted to know what life was like there."
Of course, Minnesota was a far cry from the Tom and Huck Alabama location sites. The cast and crew stayed in the small city of Huntsville, nestled in the rolling foothills of north central Alabama. Besides its southern charm and historical significance, Huntsville is also home to the high-tech industry of the U.S. space program. The NASA center that built rockets to carry the first Americans into space and is presently developing new rockets for the Space Shuttle program is located in Huntsville. Needless to say, all this history and high-tech stuff was right up Jonathan's alley, and he looked forward to really learning more about it.
In the end, though, there was really very little time to go space-exploring during the nine-week movie shoot. Instead, Jonathan spent most of his time in the small, secluded hamlet outside of Huntsville called Mooresville. When Jonathan first heard about their shooting site, he said, "They found this town, Mooresville - it has like fifty people and it's beautiful. It has a lot of caves, where we're filming, with stalactites and stalagmites."
Even before the cast and crew arrived in Moorseville, preparations were being made there for Tom and Huck. As early as March, a crew was building sets, including a jail, a blacksmith shop, and a barrel maker's shop. They even constructed the house where Tom lived with his Aunt Polly - all with the authentic feel of the 1800s. Luckily, there already were some local buildings with architecture that fit right in. Additionally, the Tennessee River substituted for the Mississippi River. "Mooresville is perfect for the setting of the 1845 story," explained the assistant art director, Keith Cunningham.
Jonathan and the other principal cast members arrived in Alabama in mid-April and immediately got to work. A typical day went something like this: All the actors and extras first reported to the wardrobe department between 6:00 A.M. and 8:00 A.M. The women wore period costumes from boots to bonnet. The men dressed in rugged frontier garb and carried muskets. Once they were dressed and had their makeup done, they waited until their scenes were called by assistant director Howard Ellis. After several rehearsals, he would determine if they were ready to shoot the scene for real-and then he would shout, "This is for the picture! Rolling! Action!"
One reporter who was on the scene was Deborah Storey of the Huntsville Times. Not only was she on the set writing articles for her newspaper, but she was also an extra and even had a scene with Jonathan! She was very impressed with his professionalism and wrote in one of her articles, "With extras, camera, and everything in place, Jonathan steps into position after pausing a moment to pat a horse that keeps sticking its nose into my back.... Jonathan is a real pro. He'll joke around until just the moment before he is to act, and then he is right on his mark."
Hitting his marks were old hat to Jonathan, but there was one part of the Tom and Huck shoot that was awkward for him: The Kiss! The on-screen smooch Tom Sawyer would share with Becky was a first for Jonathan. Before he even arrived on set, Jonathan was already answering questions about the possibility of a lip lock. He told Teen Beat, "How do I feel about it? It's not something I'd jump at the chance to do, but I guess if the script called for it, I guess I'd have to do it."
Of course, he knew that the script did indeed call for it, but Jonathan did not feel confident about it. But in the end, the kiss proved to be the least of Jonathan's worries. The set was plagued with bad weather, including hurricanes and tornadoes. That left everything wet, sticky, muddy, and full of mosquitoes. More than just an inconvenience, the weather put the shoot behind schedule by several weeks. That was one pressure. Another for Jonathan was finishing his schoolwork since the shoot overlapped his regular school year. Between scenes the kids were constantly being pulled into the schoolroom trailer so they could complete their required hours. Such close proximity, especially for Jonathan and Brad, could either build a bond or end the kids getting on each other's nerves.
JTT and Brad had very little in common. They came from vastly different backgrounds, family situations, and showbiz experience. Jonathan was his naturally talkative and friendly self, while Brad would go off by himself and play his guitar. Slowly, though, the boys began to talk - JTT was very interested in Brad's guitar playing and song writing. He was impressed by the poetry Brad wrote. Soon Jonathan's natural friendliness and good nature engulfed Brad. They warmed up to each other and a few weeks into filming could often be found joking around together. Their relationship was soon evident on-screen, and to the camera they weren't Jonathan and Brad but Tom and Huck!
On the other hand, Jonathan and Rachael's relationship didn't end up being as close, mainly because she didn't have as many scenes and was really only on the set at the beginning and the end of the shoot.
She performed her scenes and then went hone to return only as needed. However, when they did work together, Jonathan and Rachael clicked and helped each other through that awkward kissing scene, too.
Along with the bad weather, the very physical shoot, and school, the young stars had to squeeze in some set visits from the press, too. Though the producers tried to keep it to a minimum in order not to distract the actors, TV crews from CNN and Entertainment Tonight came down and taped segments. Reporters from major magazines and newspapers arrived with recorders and pencils in hand. Everyone wanted to get a look at and interview the "new" JTT. And though he was always polite and cooperative, what Jonathan really wanted to do when he wasn't working was to explore the neighboring towns and fish the streams. "There's a lot of bass fishing and there's some trout," he excitedly told Teen Beat before he left for Tom and Huck. "Alabama has a small coastline so you can go fishing at the coast. There's actually a lot of good fishing there."
Luckily, Jonathan was able to slip in a few fish days during the shoot, but by the end of June he was off and running to other things. Pretty soon the making of Tom and Huck was just a memory, though he was looking forward to attending the possible Huntsville premiere sometime in the winter of 1995. Until then, JTT wasn't going to slow down one bit!
Part of The Jonathan Taylor Thomas Archive - JTTArchive.Net
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