Thomas Montgomery gave off the sort of creepy vibe that should have warned people away. But on the Internet, the paunchy, unstable middle-aged man could become a dashing young Marine whose presence made people feel safe.
In "Tall Hot Blonde," a Lifetime movie debuting Saturday, June 23, he is both -- at least in his imagination. Courteney Cox ( "Cougar Town," "Friends") makes her movie directing debut in this drama, based on a true story.
"I am organized and detail-oriented," Cox tells Zap2it. "Visually, it is hard for me to not notice everything. This is a great outlet for me to put my acute awareness onto a set, whether it's the furniture or everything about the actor; I can't help but notice everything, so I might as well apply it to something entertaining."
Garret Dillahunt ( "Raising Hope," "No Country for Old Men") and Laura San Giacomo ( "Just Shoot Me"), playing Thomas and wife Carol, independently rave about Cox as a director. Besides being "the best-dressed director I ever had," says Dillahunt, "she was also the hottest."
More importantly, both actors say, Cox knew precisely what she was doing, which was critical because the movie shot in 16 days.
"Courteney has been in front of the camera for so long, and she is really good about knowing what does work and what doesn't work, so she is real trustworthy," Dillahunt says. "And I am not fragile. And no one gets bent out of shape about it. What works best for me is a director who has a vision, not a rigid framework but room inside the vision to make that contribution. It was a really easy, fun time. It should have been a nightmare."
That was because of the tight deadline they were on. Cox says she did not create 18-hour workdays but stuck to her vision on schedule. This included Dillahunt transforming himself into a man who thought his glory days were long behind him.
Dillahunt nails the part of Montgomery and looks pretty different here, with thinning red hair, a '70s porn star mustache and an air of resignation tinged with fury.
"He was going along fine until the chat thing popped up," Dillahunt says. "He made a horrific mistake and had to pay for that. There are consequences for your actions. I felt sorry for Thomas, for everyone."
There are no happy endings, but that is not a spoiler. First, this is a true story. The movie begins with a murder that happened 5 1/2 years ago and works backward.
Married for 16 years to Carol and the father of two daughters, Thomas slogs through life. He works at a factory, comes home, walks his dog, coaches his girls' swim team and plays poker once a month with his buddies from work. He is bored with his life. Then his buddies introduce him to the world of online poker and chat rooms.
That's where his immediate problems begin, though they have been brewing for a while. Thomas meets someone promoting herself as a "tall, hot blonde." They exchange photos, and neither is telling the truth. She says she is a high-school senior, meaning young enough to be his daughter. Thomas becomes obsessed with her and creates a new persona for himself.
Though he had served in the Marines, he presents himself as one on active duty, 30 years younger, fit and single, named Tommy. In his mind, Tommy is as real as Thomas is to everyone else.
And so an online romance is born. Thomas even writes a letter detailing his plan, including how he will use his millions, which he does not have, and how they will live together blissfully.
"He really thinks he can go back in time," Dillahunt says. "That letter he hung in his locker doesn't make any sense. He goes off the deep end. He just wants a do-over, and there just aren't any."
Instead, he destroys lives, starting with his own. He and Carol work at jobs they do not love, and it is a grind to try to keep their modest household afloat. Carol has a wise friend (Cox) at the doctor's office where she works, who urges Carol to check what her husband does online all night.
"She is the sort of mom on the edge," San Giacomo says of her character. "She is in that real juggling place -- I have to keep my family afloat, I really want to be a mom. I feel overworked and underappreciated. I am always worried. I am never sleeping. I try to have a few moments a day where I just space out on the computer and look at emails and maybe look up recipes -- things moms do when they are feeling totally overwhelmed and always tired. And they feel that they are not meeting the standards of everyone around them."
Though Thomas is not the only one lying -- and if lying online were a crime, consider how many more prisons would be needed -- he is the only one who murders.
"It feels like there is so much unhappiness just simmering under the surface on the Internet," Dillahunt says. "It feels like a cautionary tale about lies and truth."
Photo/Video credit: Lifetime