Sam Gillingham has always had a fascination with the ocean -- regarding it with tremendous fear and respect.
"I realize the strength it's got," he said. "I'm always a little cautious about it."
The Newburyport man read Sebastian Junger's "The Perfect Storm" with interest, intrigued by the power of the sea that destroyed the Gloucester fishing boat the Andrea Gail and took its crew in 1991.
At the time, the two paragraphs toward the book's end describing the memorial service following the Andrea Gail's disappearance didn't especially stand out in Gillingham's mind.
He was drawn more to the pages detailing the 30-foot swells and illustrating the ocean's fury.
But a month ago, the ecumenical memorial service for the Gloucester fishermen began playing a bigger role.
He was recruited to help recreate the service for the Hollywood motion picture "The Perfect Storm" now being filmed in Gloucester.
The tenor, who has been singing since he was 9 years old, was one of 47 vocalists chosen to portray the church choir who sang for mourners at St. Ann's Church several days after the Andrea Gail was lost at sea.
Gillingham was contacted by a friend, the choir director at St. Mary's Church in Rowley, after directors for the movie put out a call for tenors to complete the choir.
A 52-year-old hair stylist by day with his own salon in downtown Newburyport, Gillingham was intrigued by the idea of being involved in a major motion picture, and signed on.
His role -- join the choir in singing "Eternal Father, Strong to Save," the same hymn that was sung at the actual memorial service for the commercial fishing crew.
The Navy hymn, with its references to the ocean and perils of the sea, is one Gillingham had seen in hymnals, but not one that he's regularly sung.
After just two rehearsals with the choir, in which Gillingham was asked to help his fellow vocalists with diction and breathing, the scene was set for shooting last Monday. Gillingham rose at 4:30 a.m., arrived at Gloucester Harbor at 7, and was shuttled over to St. Ann's Church by bus at 7:30.
He was sent to makeup and wardrobe -- where he was issued a blue choir robe to accompany the white collared shirt and black shoes he was instructed to wear.
Gillingham took his place in the choir box in the back of St. Ann's, as the church filled with a congregation of about 1,000 actors.
The crowd included some big-name faces, the film's leads George Clooney as Captain Billy Tyne, Mark Wahlberg as crew member Bobby Shatford, and Mark Elizabeth Mastrantonio as Linda Greenlaw. But Gillingham wasn't star-struck.
"I don't get that impressed that easily," he said. "I went to really watch the whole process."
After a dozen practice run-throughs, the choir recorded "Eternal Father." Gillingham said director Wolfgang Peterson, who directed "Das Boot," was so taken by the final product he intends to include the choir's rendition of the hymn on the movie soundtrack.
Then, filming began, with cameras recording the Hollywood service. Gillingham said directors seemed to take great pains in duplicating the church program as it was in 1991.
Gillingham said it was fascinating watching the crews roll cameras up and down the church aisles. But he also got a clear picture of what he already knew -- the movie business isn't entirely glamorous. One scene featuring Mastrantonio had to be shot 15 times while the choir sat and waited.
"It's very monotonous," he said. "They do scenes over and over again. It drags on and on."
Gillingham was told the choir will ultimately be featured for about 30 seconds in the final screen version of "The Perfect Storm." Producers are expected to use the entire hymn, with the choir singing as the eulogy is presented.
"I don't know if anyone will even be able to pick me out, but they panned the entire choir, so I think we'll all be seen," he said, adding he's anticipating the final product to be "incredible" to watch.
Gillingham's musical talent comes from his family. His mother sings, and his two sisters studied voice.
For him, singing is more of a hobby. He went to school for art and then hairdressing. But he continues to take voice lessons once a week from one of his first teachers, a retired New England Conservatory instructor who lives in Beverly.
"It's an instrument," he said of his voice, "and you have to always keep it tuned."
He has done a considerable amount of solo performing over the years, appearing at churches throughout the Boston area. Today, he sings both solo and in the choir at Byfield Parish Church.
Gillingham doubts he would have been so quick to take to the set for his movie debut if he had been approached to participate in another film. But having grown up in New England and enjoyed recreational sailing, he felt connected in some ways to "The Perfect Storm."
"After I read the book, it became very personalized for me," he said. "I don't know if I'd do another movie again. I really did this for the love of it, for the fun of it."