Tom Hanks was in London on Saturday to spend an evening with BAFTA. The British Academy’s Life In Pictures series is a walk through an actor or director’s career – Hanks’ this evening lasted two hours, which, considering his resumé, wasn’t nearly enough time to touch on every film. Hanks joked throughout the evening that he was getting whiplash from the fast-paced interview that started out with his early work as mostly a comedic actor, through to more serious turns in Punchline, Philadelphia, Forrest Gump, Saving Private Ryan, and up to his current films Captain Phillips and Saving Mr Banks.
Hanks is also in London ahead of the world premiere of Saving Mr Banks, in which he plays Walt Disney. The film tells the story of how Disney persuaded Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers to sell rights to her tale of the magical nanny. Portraying the legend came with a particular challenge, Hanks said, due to “the current atmosphere of pressure in films.” Disney, he noted, “died of lung cancer. He smoked three packs of cigarettes a day. So, can we show him smoking? No way in hell.” Hanks said there was an actual “negotiation” about whether or not he could be filmed holding a lit cigarette in a scene. He could not. That film is the closing night gala for the London Film Festival which wraps tomorrow.
Over the course of tonight’s retrospective in front of about 150 BAFTA members, Hanks shared anecdotes from his long career, starting off, improbably, with 1989’s Turner & Hooch. “It has been so long since someone has shown a clip” from the film, he said, “I’m delighted, I learned a lot from that dog.” The dog in the film was male, but Hanks called comedy in general, “such a bitch… It’s sink or swim. It can’t be faked on film. The chops you develop in comedy are chops you will not be slave to, but will serve you.”
A recurring theme in tonight’s discussion was the necessity of an actor to be able to be unshackled from self-consciousness. On 1984’s Splash, Hanks’ first leading film role, and the beginning of a long relationship with director Ron Howard, the actor referenced the fact that he’d come from doing Bosom Buddies on TV a few years earlier and missed the rush. “I was desperate to be funny again.” At the first read-through for Splash, “I was operating from the task that had been mine on TV, which was to score, to kill at the table. It was terrible, I didn’t get any laughs.” So, Howard took Hanks aside and, having had his own experience with TV, said, “I know what you’re doing. That’s not your job on this movie. Your job is to love that girl.” If Howard hadn’t counseled Hanks that day, the actor said things would have turned out differently.
Of Big, Hanks reminisced that the project had been around for a while with different leads attached, but “fell apart because of showbiz reasons.” When it came back around, “it came my way. De Niro was involved for a while,” he noted. “That’s kinda nice. Sorry, Bob.”
Punchline, the movie in which Sally Field played his love interest six years before playing his mother in Forrest Gump, saw the actor take a turn performing in comedy clubs to build a routine that would work on screen. “And it was horrible for weeks and weeks. Bone-crushingly bad. But then you get a two-minute routine that carries the day and those are the routines that are in the film.”
Hanks also revisited romantic comedy classic Sleepless In Seattle. “I was probably very cranky in the beginning” of the film, he said. Coming to the material as a father, it was difficult to jive with director Nora Ephron’s take on the family dynamic between Hanks’ character Sam and his son Jonah (Ross Malinger). The script at one point called for widower Sam to take off for a weekend with a woman, but ultimately he does not based on the protest of his son. “I told Nora, ‘This is horseshit. A man who has not gotten laid in four years and he’s got a shot and he’s not gonna go because his son doesn’t like the girl? I got news for you, that kid’s going to the sitter and I’m going off to get laid.” Ultimately, the plot device for Sam not going on the dirty weekend was changed. But Hanks said it was indicative of how “the logic of drama has to be shaped as true human behavior. It has to be logically irrefutable.”
Philadelphia, the film that won Hanks his first Oscar for playing a lawyer suffering from AIDS who sues his firm for wrongful termination, was “radical” because “it was going to be a mainstream motion picture. We were going to make a movie that was going to have to compete with Schwarzenegger movies in the marketplace.” When the film was released in 1993, it “had all the attention that any marketing team could muster.” But it was only in the 3rd week of release, he said, that it gained serious attention. That was after Larry Kramer wrote “the most devastatingly negative article that said ‘Why I hate Philadelphia’… His opinion was so strong that overnight we became controversial, so enough people had to go and see what it was.”
The next year, Hanks won his second Best Actor Oscar for Forrest Gump. “Every time I walk into somebody’s living room for the first time, they still say, ‘Son of a gun, it’s Forest Gump’,” he hammed to the delight of the crowd. He recounted how it was young Michael Humphreys who played Forrest as a boy who helped him form the accent and stance he’d eventually adopt for the character. Director Robert Zemeckis made “a very special movie. Bob cracked some kind of code… Movies like that, that’s bottle and lightning.” Despite his evident admiration for Zemeckis, he did not love doing performance capture for the director’s Polar Express. “I hated it because you were robbed of the greatest ally an actor has which is a costume… I don’t think mo-cap ever got around to the photorealism it was meant for… It’s a fabulous tool for making movies, but not the be all and end all.”
Asked what his roles have in common, Hanks exclaimed, “It’s me!” to great laughter. Turning serious, he said, “I am not by and large a bigger than life persona. I think I’m charming as hell,” he deadpanned, “but I don’t have a huge amount of mystery. The core of it is all the decisions to say yes.” Hanks said he sometimes felt about certain characters: “If I was a little more accomplished, I could be that guy.” Speaking of Apollo 13, Hanks said astronaut Jim Lovell was a good example. When he met Lovell, he thought, “I am just like him; he’s funny, he’s a family man and he’s very competitive.” The only difference was that Lovell was an astronaut. “It opened up a lot. I stopped being self-conscious that I could bear the physicality of being somebody who could fly to the moon. I view myself as a guy that if I had been a good student, I could have been a historian. If I had been good at science, I could have been a doctor. I’m not good at either of those things, so I’m an actor.”
Hanks has of course also directed. He wrote the screenplay for his directorial debut That Thing You Do! during the global press tour for Forrest Gump, “I had talked about myself for a year straight so I started writing to maintain some sort of creative sanity.” One person who pitched in with some advice was Sean Penn, who was married to Gump co-star Robin Wright at the time. The couple was in Washington DC with Hanks and his family and, by chance, Arnold Schwarzenegger and his family, one Halloween after Penn had directed The Indian Runner. The trio of couples took their kids trick-or-treating in Georgetown and Hanks asked Penn what his directing experience had been like. “He said every actor should direct just to find out just how hard a job it is and every director should have to act.” Hanks said he looks at 1996’s That Thing You Do! now and, “I love it.”
Jumping ahead to 1998’s Saving Private Ryan, Hanks said when he first discussed the film with director Steven Spielberg, he said, “With your abilities and the science of making movies now, you could really blow the lid off every concept of the World War II movie.” He added to the BAFTA audience that working with Spielberg “was an experience, man… The acting exercise is void of theory, it’s all practice and you’ve got to be up to snuff.”
Finally, Hanks addressed Paul Greengrass’ Captain Phillips, the Somali pirate thriller that opened the London Film Festival on October 9th and was released in the UK on Friday. Hanks again touched on his theory about self-consciousness. He’d not met the Somali actors who play the pirates storming the Maersk ship ahead of shooting on the first day. “They came roaring on, loaded for bear. They were the skinniest, scariest guys we’ve ever seen. It was bona-fide hair standing up on the back of your neck.” Greengrass sometimes does 18-minute takes, Hanks said, but there is a “flow from beginning to end. It is extraordinary as an actor that all you have to do is behave… When you have no self-consciousness that you’re recreating this thing over and over again, unless you can get past that self-consciousness, you’ll never be able to do it.” Hanks gave props to the Somali actors who were utterly relaxed. They weren’t, however, above being a little star-struck. Bartok Abdi, who plays the lead pirate, said on meeting Hanks, “I can’t believe I’m making a film with Forrest Gump.”