As a first-year, Pablo M. Ros ’06 knew that coming to Harvard would take him places. But he had never imagined that one of those places would be at the breast of an Oscar winning actress.
The chest was that of Pollock star Marcia Gray Harden; the occasion was a thank you on the set of her new movie. “She came over to me and said, ‘you look so cute I could put you in my bosom and keep you there,’” Ros said. So she did. “It was unbelievable,” he said of the experience.
For Ros and other members of the Harvard Din and Tonics, one of the college’s premiere all-male jazz a cappella ensembles, this was just one of many celebrity “encounters” they enjoyed at the shooting of Mona Lisa Smile over winter break. And as performing extras in the film, they were practically celebrities themselves.
It is 1954 and at Wellesley College’s annual “Spring Fling,” 13 suave Harvard men sporting slicked back hair, khakis and sweater vests emblazoned with crimson H’s harmonize for a crowd of swooning young ladies.
With fingers snapping and feet tapping to the jazzy rhythms of the Tin Pan Alley hit “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)”, these boys make looking good their job. And, well, it is. Over a three day shoot in Glen Ridge, New Jersey, the Din and Tonics masqueraded as their 1950s counterparts in a film that has already generated Oscar buzz.
Mona Lisa Smile stars Julia Roberts as a free-spirited and idealistic Berkeley graduate who comes to the conservative all-women’s college in the 1950s to teach art history. Her unconventional teaching methods both inside and outside the classroom inspire her traditional-minded students, including Joan (Julia Stiles) and Betty (Kirsten Dunst), to challenge their pre-determined futures as they come of age.
Directed by Mike Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Donnie Brasco), the Columbia Pictures film is slated to come out during the 2003 Thanksgiving season.
To prepare their image for the shoot, the Dins were given classic ’50s haircuts “with serious parts and lots of gel,” according to Daniel R. Cohen ’04, the group’s music director. “We all looked like a bunch of jerks, albeit good-looking ones,” he said.
Whatever the effect, after working with an on-site choreographer to perfect their pantomimed number, they were prepared to charm any Wellesley girl with their genuine moves.
Dins Business Manager Jorian P. Schutz ’05 applied for the role after the girlfriend of a Din alum happened to see a notice at a casting agency for an Ivy League, all-male singing group. One month later, they had the gig.
In addition to their singing appearance, several members of the group were recruited to fill other bit parts as Harvard boys.
Schutz, for one, pantomimed small-talk with Stiles and Topher Grace (That 70’s Show), her onscreen love interest, before a tap from Kirsten Dunst sent him strolling offscreen. While Schutz’s acting was restricted to nodding and Stiles’s character whispered half-sentences, Grace entertained the two with fragmented gems such as, “…so that’s how you make bundt cake.”
A handful of Dins also set the scene for a Wellesley formal when they were singled out to be in a partner-switching dance sequence. Lane D. Levine ’06 found himself “stepping on a lot of feet,” including the semi-celebrity toes of a soap opera star, while Jay R. Minga ’05 experienced considerably greater body contact in an experience he describes as “terribly memorable.”
While the cameras were running, he lunged toward the ground with his tango partner, a “cute redhead.”
“But instead of coming up she just kept on going down, and ended up on the floor,” Minga said, adding that he didn’t fare much better. Roberts then came over, slapped him playfully on the shoulder, and told him to be careful. Other Dins have advised him never to wash that shoulder again, Minga said.
Although the Dins lip-synched on the Wellesley stage, they had plenty of opportunities for bone fide singing, with the undisputed highlight of the experience singing for the leading lady herself. “The Dins bring me back to simpler times,” Julia Roberts said, according to Ros.
When they weren’t being courted by movie stars, or shooting a scene, the Dins spent many hours of downtime bonding with fellow extras, hearing tales of the almost famous and singing for them to revive their tired spirits. A few Dins were approached for autographs, and one member even entertained a request for his “celebrity water bottle.”
So how much of the Dins’ shoot will make it to the final cut? While a number of shots captured audiences responding to them, there was only one take of their actual performance, leaving some, including Schutz, worried that “the Dins will end up on the cutting room floor.” Still, Schutz has reason to predict that the film will cut to the group for at least a few moments, and a smattering of Dins will “likely be dancing in the background of a few scenes.”
Although several of the Din and Tonics have had significant experience with drama on stage and even television, their role required minimal acting ability, according to Levine. “We were supposed to be a dorky jazz a cappella group from Harvard,” he said. “It was no stretch at all.”
—Staff writer Ishani Ganguli can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.