I Was the Hand for ‘Thing’ in ‘The Addams Family’
The Addams Family burst onto American TV screens for the first time back in 1964, and 58 years later, our favorite fam of macabre-loving weirdos is back with yet another rendition that sees Wednesday (finally) getting her own spin-off series on Netflix.
Of all the versions of the family and their comically dark quirks — from multiple animated series to a Broadway musical — the 1990s revival helmed by Barry Sonnenfeld remains the cream of the crop, with both 1991's The Addams Family and 1993's Addams Family Values nailing the casting that gave these characters new life. And no actor had to go as unconventional with their performance as Christopher Hart, who took Thing and turned it into one of the greatest hand characters in cinematic history. (It’s also worth pointing out that Hart played the other great hand character in 1999's comedy-horror Idle Hands, making him the official Hand Guy of ‘90s movies.)
We reached out to Hart, a professional magician who still adores his iconic character Thing and the lasting fingerprints it left behind, to talk about hand emoting, that skating scene and the time Joan Cusack sucked on his finger.
How did you land the part of Thing?
The producers were looking at hand models, musicians and mimes. They also put a call out for magicians with sleight-of-hand skills, which is how I got the call. First, I showed them some of my dexterity with cards and coins, but then they wanted to see how my hand would show different emotions — happy, sad, nervous. They interviewed me as well and wanted to know if I would be comfortable stuck under tables and behind walls for hours at a time. I told them that, as a magician, I was used to practicing precise movements over and over in front of a mirror, so it wasn't an issue.
The very first scene following the opening credits of The Addams Family sees you interacting with Gomez Addams (Raul Julia). You seem to very much be the family pet. Is that how you approached the character?
I realized pretty quickly that my main challenge of being just a ‘hand’ is that he has no eyes. The eyes are the ‘windows to the soul,’ so it would be more difficult to convey emotions. Even animated Disney movies like Cars or the candlestick in Beauty and the Beast have eyes that come into view to convey a human quality to them. The script would have simple actions like, “Thing scampers to the door,” or “Thing dashes across the street.” I decided to try and make each scene I was in as interesting as possible.
My approach was to think of silent film star Charlie Chaplin doing a funny slide across the floor or the physical comedy of Buster Keaton bouncing off a wall. I also thought of an excited puppy jumping up and down, or shaking back and forth after a bath, or a spider moving creepily.
Many of your scenes involved you under a table with your hand sticking out through a hole. How did you pull off Thing scampering behind Gomez up the stairs, though?
The filming of Thing involved some very complicated details to pull off the FX. I had two hours of makeup every day to apply a prosthetic stump to my wrist. It also involved me being pushed on a cart to track a moving camera down a hallway while making sure my head did not cast a shadow on my hand. The scenes under a table would take 30 minutes to prepare, and then the blood would drain from my hand, leaving it rather numb. I would look at a TV monitor holding a tiny script page, clipped, so I could respond to the actor’s lines at the appropriate time. It felt like I was playing a video game at times.
Thing’s movements were not only impressively sharp, but you also managed to convey a myriad of emotions through your handwork. How exactly does one emote a hand?
Since the hand has no eyes, I am left to convey emotion within the context of the scene with the actor. I decided on a sort of precise staccato movement for Thing when he runs or “looks” around. Other emotions are done with slower movements — shaking when nervous or afraid. When I am asked to show people Thing, I can still duplicate the movement, which they always recognize as the real hand from the film.
The golf ball bit in The Addams Family is a classic — did you really hold that ball steady for it to actually get hit, or was there some camera trickery involved?
I did hold the golf ball while an “extra” swung a golf club close to my hand, stopping at the very last second. It was a bit terrifying, but fortunately it all worked out.
Did you find you had to do any extra hand exercises to pull off Thing?
Well, my hands are pretty strong from doing magic for years, and frankly, I don’t think I could have done the role if I didn’t have years of training. I will say that the film did challenge me and push my limits. The hand is not designed to run on the floor for hours at a time, for six days straight. Some nights, I would come home and put my hand on ice.
Tell me about the bit where Joan Cusack sucks on one of your fingers.
The Joan Cusack scene was a bit awkward at first, as I met her for the first time mere moments before we shot that scene. I did my best to let her feel comfortable with me and felt relieved when I was able to make her laugh.
How did you film the scene where Thing has to dodge all those cars and ends up holding on to the back of one?
This was another complicated visual effects shot. During filming, Thing had to run across the street, stopping at specific spots where the cars would narrowly miss him. The director called out certain times that I would have to arrive at precisely the right spot to match the previously shot car footage. Afterward, they erased my body frame by frame. It was extremely difficult filming in the cold at 3 a.m., with bursts of pain shooting through my hand each time my fingers landed on the hard asphalt.
(See below at the 3:26 mark)
One of my personal favorite sequences is when Thing gets a job (and totally slays). It starts off with Thing leashed to a cart that’s topped with a bunch of FedEx boxes, and it speeds through the office all “Coming through, coming through, people!” How did you accomplish that sequence?
This was done in an actual office space, and Thing was just frantically grabbing and tossing packages. They did numerous takes at different frame rates to have options to speed up or slow the footage down.
The end scene in Addams Family Values where a hand pops out from Debbie’s grave to scare Wednesday’s beau, Joel — I assume that was your hand? How did they “bury” you?
Yes, that was me. The scene was shot on a Paramount soundstage so they could create a large hole for me to stand in, with the graveyard set above me.
What was the most difficult scene you had to shoot?
The roller skating scene was probably the most difficult. They wanted Thing to ride up and down the sides of two walls, back and forth, like you see kids do at a skatepark. The only way to accomplish this was to super glue the skate to my fingers. After a few takes, it would tear off my fingers, and we would have to glue it again. It was a rather uncomfortable shooting day!
Yikes! Looked pretty gnarly, though. So, if Thing could talk, if it could say one thing (pun unavoidable), what would it be? And how do you think it would sound?
I think I am okay with the idea that Thing doesn’t speak, much like Harpo Marx. I think it is part of Thing’s character and what makes him mysterious and interesting.
Postscript: After the interview, Hart emailed me to share that fellow magician Victor Dorobantu, who plays Thing in Wednesday, contacted him to learn from Hart’s process and the work he’s done with Thing. He certainly learned from the best.