Who’d have thought in the Eighties that Tom Hanks, the fresh-faced, amiable sidekick to mermaids (“Splash”) and hounds (“Turner & Hooch”), would become Tom Hanks the admired dramatic actor and two-time Oscar winner, who’s in the running for a third for “Captain Phillips”? Not many, perhaps, least of all the self-effacing Hanks.
Those back-to-back Oscars, for “Philadelphia” (1994) and “Forrest Gump” (1995), revealed his true mettle and an Everyman versatility that would lead him to play an astronaut (“Apollo 13”), a WWII army captain (“Saving Private Ryan”), a prison warden (“The Green Mile”), a mob enforcer (“Road to Perdition”) and a U.S. Senator (“Charlie Wilson’s War”) without anyone raising an eyebrow. What those characters all have in common is a certain dignity, integrity and humor that brings assurance to audiences.
During his 33-year career Hanks has branched into writing, directing and producing, both in film and television. But it was as an actor that he was in London this month, performing a rare double as his films “Captain Phillips” and “Saving Mr. Banks” opened and closed the London Film Festival, respectively. While in London Hanks discussed his craft and career at BAFTA’s latest “Life in Pictures” event, a series of onstage interviews whose subjects have included Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep.
“The first job I ever got was because I was louder and funnier than the others – or maybe just louder,” he told his interviewer, Francine Stock. In attempting to understand the subsequent development of his career, he admitted that “In the end I’m as confused as anyone by this inexplicable thing that’s happened.”
Sugar-coating Walt Disney, in “Saving Mr Banks”
Walt Disney died of lung cancer. He smoked three packs a day. But can we show someone smoking in a major motion picture these days? No way in hell. We literally had a negotiation about whether or not I could smoke a lit cigarette in a scene. Disney never did want anyone to see him smoking and pick up his bad habit. If you go back and see all those photos of him, he’s always pointing with two fingers. That’s because he had a cigarette in his hand, and they airbrushed it out.
On finding realism in “Captain Phillips”
We did not meet the Somali actors before the shoot. Then the day came when we shot the hijacking and they came on board the bridge – roaring, pumped up, their veins sticking out, the skinniest, scariest human beings you’ve ever seen. There was bona fide hair-standing-up-on-the-back-of-your-neck fear, for the better part of 40 minutes. Then the scene’s over and we go up to each other and say, ‘How you doing?’ And Barkhad [Abdi] says, ‘I can’t believe I’m in a movie with Forrest Gump.’
On making a splash
‘Splash’ was my very first film job. I had been doing a comedy series on television that went off the air and I was desperate to be funny again. At the very first read-through of the screenplay I was trying to take the lines and get laughs at the table. And it was terrible. Ron Howard took me aside and said “Look, I know what you’re doing, you’re trying to be funny, you’re trying to score. That’s not your job in this movie. Your job is to love that girl.”
“Turner & Hooch”
It’s so long since anyone has shown a clip from ‘Turner & Hooch’ – the most important movie of this or any career. I’m delighted. I learnt a lot from that dog.
Why he made so many comedies early in his career
I was in my twenties and they were asking me and that’s where I had the chops. There were a lot comedies being made then – imitation Bill Murray films, different versions of ‘Animal House.’ And that was right up my alley, man.
Finding his inner child in “Big”
I had three or four months before we started shooting, and set out to get back in touch with that child’s sense of play. I had toy soldiers set up on the floor of my house, I’d do goofy stuff with my kids, just come up with any sort of game and sense of make believe.
The punchline of… “Punchline”
It was a treatise on the self-loathing lifestyle of stand-up comedians. I have never met a fully-rounded human being who was a stand-up at the same time. They’re all oddly scarred and over-burdened and kind of morose.
On getting laid in “Sleepless in Seattle”
I was probably very cranky with Nora [Ephron] at the beginning. She wrote a scene where Sam didn’t go on a romantic weekend because his son didn’t like this woman. I told her, ‘That is such horseshit. I’ve got news for you, that kid’s going to the sitter and I’m going off to get laid.’ The drama has to be shaped by an irrefutable logic, which is recognized as true, human behavior. Otherwise you’re making an Abbott & Costello movie.
Why “Philadelphia” entered the zeitgeist
Perhaps what was radical was that this wasn’t a small niche movie that was playing at Greenwich Village theatres to the choir, meaning the population that was dealing with this pandemic in the most tragic, frontline terms. It was going to be a mainstream motion picture competing in the marketplace with Arnold Schwarzenegger action films. Which means that we had to get an audience that believed that they didn’t know anybody who was gay and that AIDS hadn’t touched their lives.
So this movie comes out and ‘Turner & Hooch’ here ends up being the guy who’s gay and has AIDS – and that made anybody who bought a ticket think again. That was a bit of the genius of Ron Nyswaner’s courtroom drama, and Jonathan Demme’s casting of it.
Finding Forrest Gump
Michael Humphreys [young Forrest] came from this part of Tennessee that is more Arkansas or Mississippi. He had this way of speaking, this weird cadence, so I would engage him in conversations with a tape recorder. We were riding in the car one day and he said, ‘Cahn ah tell you what my favorite movie of yours is?’ I said ‘sure, what is it?’ He said ‘Well, ah like all of your films, but my favorite is ‘Drag-a-net.’ Everything of Forrest was based on him.
I think ‘Gump’ is just a very special movie. Bob [Zemeckis] cracked some kind of amazing code that allows a generation to see on screen all that it had survived – and we realized we had been through a lot. Movies like that are bottled lightning. It will be with me forever.
Playing American heroes
I am not a larger than life persona. I think I’m as charming as hell, but I don’t strike fear, there’s not a lot of mystery, you’re not worried about me being a criminal mastermind. The core of it, I guess, is the decisions to say yes to these roles. I always think that if I was a little more accomplished, I could be that guy. Jim Lovell, the commander of ‘Apollo 13,’ is a very good example. I’m a space geek and wanted to do it, but my worry was whether anyone would buy me as an astronaut. Then I met Jim Lovell and I thought, ‘I’m exactly like him.’ He’s funny, he’s a family man, he’s very proud, very competitive. The only difference is that he’s really good at flying jets.
On directing “That Thing You Do”
Sean Penn told me that everyone should direct just to find out how hard that job is. I did some directing in television, just to get a sense of whether I had any instinctive ability for it. And I had this fever-pitched idea that I wrote when I was on the global push for ‘Forrest Gump,’ because I needed something to do other than talking about myself. One of my kids was born during the shoot, I had a bunch of old friends from the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival in it, there are probably three or four sections that are even better than I could have imagined. The rest is OK. I have great affection for it.
On “Saving Private Ryan”
We were in the landing craft on the first day of shooting. The front goes down and there’s a collection of dummies in front of us that are blown to smithereens, and there’s pink mist in the air, pieces of fake blood and brain and skin and sinew have landed on us and you can’t hear because of the cacophony. I turn to look at this poor guy with me, a week out of drama school, and he’s literally in shock. It’s time to shoot the scene where we go over the side, and I say ‘Hey man, time to get wet” And he says, ‘Ah, I’m not too good in the water.’ That film was an acting exercise that was void of theory, it was all practice. With Steven [Spielberg] you’ve got to be up to snuff, otherwise you’re doomed.
Swatting for “The Da Vinci Code”
Those [Dan Brown] films are a substantial challenge to make as an actor, because they happen in real time, and you have to do research to understand what the heck you’re talking about. When I read the screenplays I’d do it with Google right next to me. It’s like taking a summer course in art history.
On “Charlie Wilson’s War”
The crux of the movie is this amazing thing that happened between these two guys – Charlie Wilson, this wild, drunken, sex-crazed congressman, and Gust Avrakotos, this truly dark, CIA operative, a spook who loved killing communists in back alleys in Greece – who got together and said, ‘How do we kill the most Russians?’ The odd plus that came out of it is that Afghanistan brought about the end of the Soviet Empire. One guy in a place like Congress can either do something great, or fuck up the world.
Check out a collection of Hanks videos below.