I Was A Teenage Extra In 'You've Got Mail'

Reflections on being a small part of Nora Ephron's near-perfect rom-com, 20 years later.
The author, on the left, in the 1998 classic "You've Got Mail."
The author, on the left, in the 1998 classic "You've Got Mail."

The perfect read has been right here in front of you all along. It’s HuffPost Rom-Com week.

It was a mild fall day when my dear friend Alex and I met up on Central Park West on the Upper West Side to go be extras in a movie in production by filmmaker Nora Ephron, an old family friend. I was 15 at the time. I had braces, a unibrow and the unfortunate highlights in my hair were thankfully growing out.

I left school early that day and changed in the extras trailer into my assigned outfit. I remember the sweater being very cozy, and I also remember having a minor freakout over a hat they wanted me to wear (it looked a little too “Blossom” for my taste). We were filming a street fair scene that day, and our jobs were to paint the kids’ hands. The camera stuck to my right side, so even though I’m a righty, I had to paint with my left hand to open up the shot. I’m sure whatever I painted was terrible.

At one point Tom Hanks came over and said “hi.” I never saw Meg Ryan, but Nora was obviously there the entire time behind the camera.

The whole thing took maybe three hours.

Twenty years later, “You’ve Got Mail” is considered a rom-com classic. And the afternoon in 10th grade that I spent in that cozy sweater is now a tiny part of movie history.

That’s me with the brown hair at roughly the 00:08 mark.

I wish I could say I remember more about this day, but the truth is, I don’t. I’m not being humble, but the opportunity just didn’t seem exceptional at the time. To me, it was a fun excuse to get out of the last few periods of 10th grade.

But hindsight, as always, is 20/20, and I look back now and realize how extremely cool and abnormal being in a movie is. I went to a private all-girls’ school in Manhattan, and I’m sure the teachers heard some wild excuses for missing classes, but what did they think of mine?

And what about Nora? Well, what about Nora? Nora was family to me ― my parents met her in the New York media world decades ago ― so, for far too long, I didn’t understand who she was and what she stood for. It’s cliche as hell, but to me she was just Nora. Nora who always gave the best Christmas gifts; Nora who always served the food you really wanted to eat, but wasn’t always de rigueur.

These days it’s a real party trick, in the midst of a casual conversation about the best rom-coms of all time, to tell people you were in “You’ve Got Mail.” The revelation is usually met with a “wait, are you serious?” followed by a quick trip to YouTube. To this day, whenever it comes on TV, I stop and watch. I’m proud to be there on screen, even if only for a brief moment.

Because now I realize how culturally significant Nora’s films are, how happy they make us, how they fill a void and speak to us in that right-on Nora voice. (Hats are almost always a mistake and daisies are the friendliest flowers.) I realize now she had a gift for creating communal spaces on screen and inviting fans to sit inside them with her. (P.S. Try finding a movie of hers that doesn’t have an epic soundtrack, I dare you.) I feel lucky that she invited me in, too.

“You’ve Got Mail” couldn’t have come out at any other time: The behemoth big-box store taking over the local shop was a precursor to so much that’s happened in retail in the past 20 years. So to realize this beloved movie came out that long ago makes me feel old and nostalgic, a little bit sad, but mostly, undeniably thankful to have been even a small part of something that means so much to so many people.

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