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Tom Hanks Was Steven Spielberg’s Secret Weapon in Making ‘The Post’

When you work with Spielberg, you stay on your toes. Hanks made sure his fellow actors were on board.

“The Post”

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After five films together, Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg are close friends. However, Hanks also serves in another essential, unpaid role on Spielberg’s sets: acting coach.

Spielberg is infamous for not rehearsing his cast, expecting them to turn up on set fully prepared to step in front of his camera. This was especially true on “The Post,” which was on a fast track, even for the efficient filmmaker: Production began May 1, less than eight months before its December 22 release date. Hanks decided to take the newsroom gang aside for some much-needed prep.

“I knew how Steve worked,” Hanks said. “I had to figure out in different circumstances how this guy made movies. So just a little forwarding could go a long way. ‘Look, let’s get together off the books over pie and coffee and read through the stuff we have. I will try to explain to you the mantle of responsibility he gives actors.”

The production hired “Better Call Saul” star Bob Odenkirk to play Post reporter Ben Bagdikian via phone call, without meeting Spielberg. “Tom got us all together, the Washington Post team,” he said, “to read through our scenes together at his place, a week before, to get acclimated.”

Anyone who expected a blocking rehearsal with tape on the floor would be caught short. “He’s not going to do any of those things,” said Hanks. “We are all going to come in and know what goes on in the scene, so we have some idea of where we are going to be. He can see shots we can’t imagine.”

“Steven will run the scene once or twice,” said Odenkirk. “He tries different blocking, he works with inspiration. He doesn’t have storyboards. He tries to figure out right there on the day. Tom’s advice was to be on your toes and be ready.”

Spielberg felt time was of the essence to tell this story. “I was really depressed about the way things were happening in the world and in the country,” he said during a post-screening Q&A at the Fox studio. “And Liz Hannah, 31 years old, writes a spec script, gets it to Amy Pascal, who sends it to me, and suddenly my entire outlook on the future brightens. Our intended audience [is] the people who have spent basically the last 13, 14 months thirsting and starving for the truth.”

When Spielberg came on board March 3, he brought in “Spotlight” Oscar-winner Josh Singer for a rewrite, partly to beef up Hanks’ role of Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee. However, Hanks said Singer’s role was “beefing up the entire story. Hannah delivered the script to Amy Pascal and the studio in October before the election. It was a treatise on the growth of women and equality, when a woman was about to be the first president. When I read it in February, Bradlee was all over it as proportionally as now. Steve wanted to know details of what was in the [Pentagon] Papers. The movie ended up with more building-block specifics on Daniel Ellsberg, and more journalistic and legal aspects of the story, bolstered by Josh Singer and Liz Hannah on the set as well.”

NOR_D10_061217_0738_0732_R2_COMP – L-R: Howard Simons (David Cross), Frederick “Fritz” Beebe (Tracy Letts), Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), Kay Graham (Meryl Streep), Arthur Parsons (Bradley Whitford), Chalmers Roberts (Philip Casnoff), Paul Ignatius (Brent Langdon), Meg Greenfield (Carrie Coon, seated) and other members of The Washington Post in Twentieth Century Fox’s THE POST. Photo Credit: Niko Tavernise.

Spielberg’s directing style is swift and decisive, which Odenkirk found exhilarating to watch. “Steven didn’t seem hurried or rushed. He seemed inspired,” he said. “I think he liked the challenges, the speed of it. He had a cast of experienced character actors. You get to set, shoot most scenes in two or three setups, and a few takes. Steven is composing in his head as he watches it. He is making strong committed choices, so you don’t have to shoot a bunch of backups. He loved the speed and the pressure, he was smiling all the time. When he wasn’t fidgeting, looking down and being nervous, he was running around like a kid with his first camera inventing shots. You show up and he will invent an amazing shot, look at a single, and turn it into a master as he dollies over to a corner to land on an important document.”

When he saw the final film, Hanks realized that Spielberg’s direction resulted in scenes he never knew were there. When a reporter comes into his office sheepishly bearing a box with the Pentagon Papers, “on paper, it was a scene with us getting interrupted in my office,” Hanks said. “Steve did all our work. The guy with the shoebox walks into a room with all of us in it. Steve brought a different dynamic. He was seeing what the scene was truly about: a smoking-white Argos Trainers box filled with 200 pages of the Pentagon Report. It was not about us being interrupted. That’s what the man does. We know the text as it exists and have an understanding of what the scene is about. His agenda relies on that in order to spark his imagination.”

“The Post”

Courtesy of 20th Century Fox

Hanks and Streep found out they would work together for the first time via a March email. (“Eek, oh my god, this is going to be fun!” Hanks recalled.) Living on opposite coasts, they only knew each other across crowded rooms. “I don’t hang with Meryl,” Hanks said. “We met as were getting closer to shooting. I got one voicemail from her as Katharine Graham, and I sent her one as Ben Bradlee.”

One of the movie’s many pleasures is seeing two master actors dig into their first scene. Hanks was nervous before shooting Bradlee and Graham’s weekly one-on-one Friday breakfast debriefing. “I was super-charged and prepared,” he said, “nervous, sleepless with anxiety waiting to go work in the morning.”

Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep in “The Post”

Courtesy of 20th Century Fox

Spielberg filmed the scene in a single master take. “It was an incredibly long scene of seven to nine pages,” Hanks said. “It had to be an intelligent exchange between equals, on a philosophical personal bent, but dynamic. He had to be the employee and she was the boss. We had to scale a couple of peaks and valleys in the course of the scene to communicate that. Steve says the scene makes the movie about two people, instead of him dictating in closeup what we need to pay attention to. It’s a meeting of equals on a checkered battlefield.”

And it’s a pivotal moment in the history of the second-string Capitol newspaper. “These two characters did not know that in the next week two things would happen to their lives,” said Hanks. “She was going to go from Kay to Katharine Graham, head of a Fortune 500 company, not the wife and daughter of the men who ran it. And the Washington Post would become the major newspaper we know now.”

Steven Spielberg

Steven Spielberg

Erik Pendzich/REX/Shutterstock

Hanks met Bradlee in the ’90s, through Mike Nichols and Nora Ephron (who was once married to “All the President’s Men” reporter Carl Bernstein). “In the give and take of it, Ben had some bare-knuckle aspects,” Hanks said. “His voice spoke at a dinner table or lunch. He was cynical [in that] he learned long ago that anybody in power will do what they need to do to stay in power, including lie. He was not cynical about his job as a journalist.”

“Bradlee had a large ego,” said Odenkirk. “And Tom does not have a large ego. He enjoyed playing a guy who had some sharp elbows, watching him, he relaxed into this powerful character really well, with some glee. Tom’s a nice guy; he’d never be pushy like Ben Bradlee. It’s fun to play a person who is sure of themselves and has power.”

Graham Bradlee Washington Post Executive Director Ben Bradlee and Post Publisher Katharine Graham leave U.S. District Court in Washington. Bradlee died, according to the Washington PostObit Bradlee, Washington, USA

Katharine Graham and Ben Bradlee

Uncredited/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Hanks met Graham at the annual Allen & Company Sun Valley Conference on July 17, 2001 — the same day she died. “It was a total fluke,” he said. “Rita [Wilson] and I were invited by luck to sit next to her; we talked about the movies and the future of watching movies at home on TV where you can pick and choose. ‘But oh, don’t you think we will always want to go to the movies?’ she asked. We chatted, she drove off in her golf cart to her cabin, and passed away within the next 12 hours.”

What was she like? “I picked up her anxiety and uncertainty,” he said. “She was not a woman who held court, who dominated the table. Everybody deferred to her for what she had accomplished, but she was not sure she was always saying the right thing or asking the right questions. She was almost Southern in her sense of decorum. She would not be one to be bold or make statements. Graham seemed to be wondering whether or not she deserved to be there. She did, of course. That was reflected in the screenplay: the pressure and anxiety and uncertainty the week she became Katharine.”

Early reviews are strong and it’s playing well with the Academy’s overwhelmingly liberal members; it should also flourish at the holiday box office. So far, “The Post” has won Best Film of the Year as well as Best Actress and Actor from The National Board of Review, earned eight nominations from the Critics Choice Awards, six more from the Golden Globes, and landed on the AFI’s 10 movies of the year list. Multiple Oscar nods are in its future, and Hanks, who is a two-time Oscar-winner (“Forrest Gump,” “Philadelphia”) often taken for granted by his peers, could return to the ranks of Best Actor nominees for the first time since “Cast Away” in 2001.

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