The second audition of David Moscow’s career involved Penny Marshall, Robert De Niro, and a script about a 12-year-old Jersey boy who wishes “to be big.”
Though De Niro passed on the role made iconic by Tom Hanks, “Big” became the most recognized film on Moscow’s career resume.
“Personally and professionally, it was a complete change,” Moscow said in a recent interview marking the classic comedy’s 25th anniversary. “At that period of time I was 12, and my mom would be scolding me for being bad on the street, and then suddenly people would come up to me and be like, ‘Hey, can I have your autograph?’ … It was a wild time, it was a wild way to be introduced into the business.”
Moscow has since turned his focus from acting. He produced indie horror comedy “Hellbenders” (“‘Ghostbusters meets ‘The Hangover'”), which premiered during TIFF 2012’s Midnight Madness screening series, and hopes to shoot “Desolation,” his Roman Polanski-influenced directorial debut, in early 2014. But “Big” remains, in many ways, his defining role.
“Having that on your resume when you walk into an audition, someone just glances over and they land on that film and go, ‘Wait a minute. You were young Tom Hanks,'” he said. “And then, suddenly, it changes. I think that, compared to any of the other stuff I’ve done — I did “Newsies,” I was in “Honey” — I mean, they all had some level of success, but there’s nothing like that.”
A quarter-century later, he’s still recognized — or, more accurately, misrecognized — as protagonist Josh Baskin: Hanks’ performance as an adolescent in a man’s body is so convincing that people remember Moscow in scenes where he didn’t actually appear.
“Depending on the scene, people will ask, ‘What was it like to touch her breasts when you were that young?'” he said. “And I’ll be like, ‘I didn’t, that was Tom.’ Or, ‘What was it like to dance on the piano?’ ‘That’s not me, that was Tom.'”
If the generation brought up on “Big” sometimes bungles the details, Moscow’s memory of the production is remarkably vivid. He quickly learned how Marshall (“Awakenings,” “A League of Their Own”) gained her reputation as an actor’s director.
“Tom came by the set one day just to see how everything was going and I think he could tell that I was a little bit nervous,” Moscow said. “And he came over and he was like, ‘No, no, Penny just likes to have everything she can possibly have in the editing room, to make sure it’s all there.” And then he said that he’d done like 37 takes the day before. But that’s what Penny likes to do. She wants to give you time to play.”
Appropriately enough, for a film about the tension between childlike wonder and adult responsibility, “play” proved central to the experience. While Moscow rode the carnival rides from the film’s opening sequence and stayed up all night for the first time (“I ate so much cotton candy,” he said), Marshall made a decision that explains the naturalistic ease of Hanks’ rangy performance.
“When we were rehearsing, Penny would send an AD [assistant director] out with a camera with me and my friends and we would sort of playact some of the scenes so Tom could study the tape of how kids interacted with each other,” Moscow recalled. “So there are a couple moments in the movie where he is… mimicking things that my friends did, used to do. Watching it, you’re like, ‘My God, that’s crazy!'”
Moscow caught the film’s moving denouement on cable recently, and marveled at his teenage self.
“It seems like a completely different person, that child, back then,” he said. “I had green contacts in, my hair was dyed black, I had lost two teeth during shooting… When you’re looking at that kid you’re like, ‘Oh, he looks sort of like me, but he’s also very strange right now.'”
Despite this distance, however, Moscow, who celebrated his 39th birthday in November, understands why “Big” continues to resonate with viewers young and old.
“Everybody goes through that,” he said. “Everyone at some point in their life wishes that they had more power, that they were taller, that they were older, that they were stronger, and so everyone can kind of connect.”
“Big” is now available in a 25th Anniversary Blu-ray/DVD Combo Edition from Twentieth Century Fox.