There are some actors who earn their successes in Hollywood by bare-knuckling it through auditions, and then there are those few who are lucky enough to be handed opportunities. As the son of two-time Oscar winner Tom Hanks, one would assume that Colin Hanks has been blessed with nepotism. However, truth be told, the actor has roughed it like so many men reading sides in front of casting directors day in and day out. During his youth, rather then throw himself in the lion’s den of Hollywood child actors, Hanks practiced and mastered his craft by doing grade school and college plays, a path quite similar to his father’s. In 2002, Hanks arrived on the marquee scene as the lead in Jake Kasdan’s coming-of-age comedy Orange County opposite Jack Black, playing an over-achieving high school student, who after getting oddly rejected by Stanford University — his one ticket out of the land of ranch homes and surf bums — embarks on a search to reconcile his dilemma. The film showcased Hanks’ affable qualities and his knack for fish-out-of-the-water comedy, much like his father’s big screen debut with 1984’s Splash. While Hanks continued to act in such films as The Great Buck Howard and Peter Jackson’s King Kong, he made a sharp turn into TV, realizing that some of the great complex character roles reside in that medium for him, read Peggy Olson’s priest, Father John Gill, on Mad Men and murderous cult member Travis Marshall on Dexter. With FX’s miniseries adaptation of the Ethan and Joel Coen 1996 film Fargo, Hanks finds himself with his first Emmy nod in the best supporting category for his portrayal of earnest Minnesota cop Gus Grimly, who doesn’t let his do-good nature get the best of him in his quest to collar brilliant baddie Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thorton).
Original Photography above by J.R. Mankoff
DEADLINE: How did the televised version of Fargo come your way? Did the producers have you on their radar?
COLIN HANKS: Oh, God, no. It comes in the normal show business ways. I got a phone call from my agents, who said that they were going to send me this script for the TV version of Fargo that FX and MGM were doing. They warned me that before I got any ideas or made any assumptions, that they really liked this project and thought it was good and the producers are desperately going to be doing something different. They said it would be its own stand-alone piece in relation to the film, not a redo. I read it and I’m blown away by it. I mean Noah (Hawley) wrote the best script I’ve ever read. And so at that stage I was — it was also kind of funny because (my character) Gus was only in one scene in the pilot and that was the only thing that they sent me to read. So they sent me an additional scene for the audition that was in a subsequent episode. It was this scene where Gus tells his Lieutenant what’s going on while he is in the men’s room. I just took the audition with Noah because the sides were so good and the script was so good — I had no idea if I was right for the part. I don’t even think about those things anymore. My philosophy: Is the audition going to be fun? Because it’s going to be an afternoon for me. I’m going to be preparing it for a few days; I’m going to have to drive across town probably in rush hour. I said “Yeah, I’ve got to do it”.
DEADLINE: In terms of preparing for the role, did it simply come down to practicing your Minnesota accent?
HANKS: It was a combination of a bunch of stuff. The dialogue was so well written, that it had its own pattern and rhythm and you knew when you were getting it, and you knew when you weren’t. I don’t want to say it was easy to drop into it, but once you did, it was easy to stay in that (vocal) realm. We didn’t want to hit the accent hard. We sort of pumped the brakes a bit in terms of what people remember the accent being from the film. We had a great dialect coach, Tony Alcantar, who would basically give us specific words that we were suppose to hit to get the tone. When I went in for the audition, I told the casting director my accent was somewhere between Chicago and Canada, and if I got the part, I could whittle it down to Minnesota. But that rhythm is evident in the Canadian accent as well and since we’re shooting in Canada — once I got to the set I just kept up with that rhythm of how they talked and it worked its way out for Gus. But stammers, starting sentences over again; all of that was written.
DEADLINE: Most TV series like Mad Men and Breaking Bad have an intense eight-day shooting schedule. Since Fargo was shooting only 10 episodes, was there more luxury with time to rehearse during the production?
HANKS: Well, there was still a grind. You have X amount of scenes you have to shoot and you gotta make the day. That doesn’t change. We would rehearse scenes, particularly on the day. We wouldn’t do table reads. A lot of times it would be the director sort of saying “All right, so I think this is where I’m going to put the cameras. This is what we’re going to do.” But things were still sort of open depending on what space we were filming in. But, overall it was really just sort of more about tone and maybe intention. Those were the things that we would sort of rehearse a little bit. You try to come as prepared as you could. The difference for us: We didn’t shoot like a TV show. With normal TV shows you go “Okay we’re going to bang this out as quick as we can because again the clock is ticking and we’ve got to make our day.” We wouldn’t necessarily shoot things that way. Because of the aesthetic that the Coen brothers had, there were rules that we had to follow.
DEADLINE: What were those rules?
HANKS: Well, you can’t rack focus. You know, you can’t zoom in. Every angle needs to be its own thing. So there were be certain things that you’re accustomed to in filmmaking that we wouldn’t do. And normally you’d just go like oh, well, just pan over and zoom in that way. They don’t do that. It wasn’t like that in Fargo. It wasn’t like that in any of their other movies. So they would do things a little bit different. Now in some ways that made things difficult because that just meant more setups than you’re accustomed to. But that ended up being really liberating as an actor because then you — I felt like at no point were any of the performances going to be sacrificed for editing or pace or anything like that. It really allowed for the actors to sit in frame and be comfortable so that the audience could observe them. Whether its observational acting or natural acting, that’s the kind of work that I’ve been wanting to do for a long time. That’s what I’ve always gravitated toward as a viewer. I don’t need a lot of crazy camera angles going back and forth telling me a bunch of stuff. Let me just watch these people, so then I can get a sense of what they’re really like. And I think that’s how viewers connected with the show: They were given that opportunity to just observe the character and not be sort of like force-fed a bunch of things for pace or style or things like that.
DEADLINE: What would you say are Gus’ take-away moments in the series?
HANKS: That first scene in the pilot, I mean that’s a beast of a scene [Editor’s note: Gus pulls Lorne Malvo over, who fiercely warns the police officer to let him go]. I remember telling Max Kisbye, one of the executives at MGM, “If you’re only going to be in one scene in the pilot, that’s the scene you want to be in.” I mean actors kill for a scene like that. The scene was a little hard for me because we shot it over two days. They were not consecutive. They were a week apart. So, we shot Billy (Bob Thorton)’s side on one Friday and we shot my side on another Friday. Because I know that scene, it doesn’t quite have the same punch that viewers have with it. I mean that said, I still think it’s a great scene and I think it plays fabulous. Another favorite scene is where Gus is asleep and Molly comes into the bed, and she sort of takes stock of where they’re at in their life because at this point they’re married . It’s a long scene and it’s a slice of life one and there was something in the simplicity of it that it just felt like we were just observing these people.
DEADLINE: Do you find that Fargo is too heavy handed when stereotyping people in the midwest? Many only know this part of the world through the Coen Brothers’ film and the TV series.
HANKS: Obviously they’re not really like this. There are elements to it that I do believe are true. You know, the thing that the Coen Brothers have always done and they did it with Fargo, and I think we did it as well, is they sort of heighten certain things. And so that sort of heightened sense of “reality” which isn’t really reality but it borrows from it and it highlights certain qualities. I think those things are all true. But if anyone asked me do you think that this is a real representation of people in Minnesota or North Dakota? For that matter absolutely not; far from it. Is everyone from New York [breaks into New York accent] “Joe the Super from Upstairs”? Not every person in New York is from Queens. There are those people from Queens and there are those from Staten Island. Look, it’s not our fault there’s not a lot of movie set in Minnesota or TV shows for that matter.
DEADLINE: As executive producers, were the Coens actually on set giving notes?
HANKS: No. They were hands off. I know that they read the first script, I believe, and they told Noah ‘All right, great. Yeah, it’s good.’ And Billy Bob (Thorton) mentioned that was high praise coming from them.
DEADLINE: What’s the status of the documentary you are directing, All Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records? HANKS: We are in the beginning of the final stages. We finally have our last little bit of funding. It’s been a long process. I’ve been working on this since 2007. We came in sort of right when Kickstarter started but before Kickstarter was funding million dollar films. And so we were very shoe-stringed for a long time and we’ve been working really hard in getting finishing funds. But we started that process and hopefully we should be hitting up the film festivals this coming year.
DEADLINE: Does it just focus on the store and the history of the store or is it the whole chain?
HANKS: It’s the whole chain. It’s the rise and fall and sort of the key players that were involved in the company and its growth. It’s not just that one Sunset store; it’s Tower Records on the whole.
DEADLINE: Similar to your father with Splash, you also arrived on the feature scene starring in a comedy, 2002’s Orange County. But soon after King Kong, you’ve been making your mark in TV. Why the switch?
HANKS: Well, it’s two-fold. First, remember this was technically a long time ago. I mean in Hollywood terms it most definitely is. So when Orange County came along there was this sort of idea (by the industry) “Congratulations, you don’t have to do TV anymore.” Which in some ways I subscribe to that thought, but in some ways I felt well that’s kind of stupid, because a job’s, a job. Who am I to be that picky? I’m not that well known of an actor to be able to say “I’m never going to do that again.” But as time went on, you know, Orange County came out, I was growing up and my mother had passed away so the idea of a bunch of silly teen comedies wasn’t the most appealing thing for me. I did a lot of independent movies. But at the same time I was just trying to look for fun stuff that would be fun to make and something hopefully that I thought people would enjoy or that I would enjoy. And there’s not a lot of that quite simply. And so I figured, if I’m fortunate enough to do this a long time, I’m not necessarily in a rush. I was always wanting to do good work and find good work and trying to find that thing that maybe would get me to another stage or whatever. But I always really was just more about if I just buckle down and do the work, and do the lunch pail and the thermos-kind-of-work. It eventually got to the point where TV, story wise, was much more interesting than a majority of movies out there and hey, they just don’t make as many movies as they used to. The stories that they’re telling are not necessarily ones that are clamoring for me to be in them. I’m not Captain America. I’m not some of these big tentpole things so I’ve got to find something different.
Some agents (after Orange County) would say “We really think you should just be focusing on comedies.” And I didn’t necessarily disagree with them. I thought that was fine but again, you’ve got to like a project and the project needs to like you and if one of those things doesn’t happen then it’s not going to happen. And there were a lot of scenarios in which things like that worked out or I would read for a project that I loved and they loved me back but if they want to make that movie at that budget and they want me in it, that’s not going to happen. So I lose out on that gig.. Tons of those scenarios sort of took place but at the same time.
There were a lot of things that I learned on Orange County from Jake Kasdan: The thought that this is the best attempt at that kind of movie I’ll be able to make. It’s not about a girl, it’s not about going to a party, it’s not about these trivial things — it was about a kid who wanted to leave his hometown and that was a concrete storyline I understood. All of the other movies (I was offered) were not those things. They were about the trivial things and I wasn’t at a place in my life where I really wanted to make those kinds of movies. And so as a result, guess what? I didn’t work for a long time. That’s fine. I mean that was the decision that I made. I don’t regret it all. There were a couple of ones that were like, uhmm, all right, well, maybe I should have done that, but I did plays in London and New York and I was able to be under the radar the majority of the time. But, I learned something on every single one of those jobs. And I didn’t want to repeat myself. That was the other thing. I didn’t want to be one of these guys that just sort of does the same thing over and over again.
DEADLINE: What’s next for you?
HANKS: I don’t know yet. I mean Fargo really sort of took me out of the loop because we were up in Calgary shooting. I’m going all in on my doc. At this stage now, documentaries are so different so it’s a way for me to be creative in a totally different outlet. I mean I would like to maybe get in to other kinds of directing, but I’m smart enough to know that I don’t know that much.
DEADLINE: Have you talked with your father about collaborating on future projects? I know, you were in his HBO miniseries production, Band of Brothers. And there was The Great Buck Howard.
HANKS: No, we don’t really talk about that. I thought it was going to be a big deal for Buck Howard, but it ended up not. One just takes things as they come. No, there’s nothing on his docket or my docket that really sort of dictates that, but if something comes up I’m sure we would entertain it.
DEADLINE: Was there any specific advice he imparted to you about show business or your craft in general?
HANKS: None of it is about craft or the business. There are little things here and there, but more than anything it’s just really about how to just stay sane during the process. That’s really it. And those are really not even conversations like “Let me tell you how to stay sane, son!” It’s really more of a conversation between two actors like, “Dude, I’m on location and I’m going to go crazy. You got any book suggestions?” Just talking about those kinds of things and just how to stay sane, how to balance your home life and work. It’s more conversations. There’s no gems of wisdom in that regard.
DEADLINE: How old were you when you first appeared in your father’s feature directorial That Thing You Do?
HANKS: I was an extra in that, I was 18.
DEADLINE: You look at certain major actor’s trajectories – Reese Witherspoon and Josh Brolin — and they started when they were young so that they can make it over the hump into adulthood. Being a child star nowadays isn’t about ultimate career death, it’s a necessity if you want to have a serious career in the business or the craft.
HANKS: I disagree with that completely. Look, when I started out, I did the school plays. I did the middle school plays. I did the high school plays. I did the plays in college. I didn’t graduate. I didn’t feel like I needed a piece of paper to tell me I’m certified to act. But that’s how I learned. That’s how I got into it. That’s how I started to discover it. When I started getting work I assumed that everyone else was of that same sort of thing and they weren’t. There were people that had been acting since they were kids. There were people that hated acting, but it was pretty much what they had sort of done, so that’s work. There were people that were literally brand new that had never done it before, but they were picked out of obscurity at some place. There’s any number of excuses for how people get in to acting. I don’t think there’s any one way to do it. And I get people all the time saying to me, “My kid wants to be an actor. What should I do? Get them an agent?” I always tell them, make sure they do the grade school play, the high school play. Tell him to do every single play they possibly can at school. Let them be kids, let them do that. And if they really like that then they can get in to doing it as a profession and hopefully they will have a passion that is strong enough even when they are in their darkest days, and there will be dark ones where they feel like the window is closed and they’ve made the wrong decision; they will have to ask themselves can I see myself doing anything else? If the answer is “no”, then they’re right where they should be. I’m not saying that’s the way to do it, but that’s how I did it. It hasn’t been easy.
DEADLINE: And you were saying at one point you were being encouraged to do more comedies. Is it different now? Do you only look at certain genres?
HANKS: It’s not necessarily that I’m being swayed to certain genres. I’ll do — it just depends on what the subject is and I need to be able to grasp on to something, whatever that is. And sometimes there are these super, crazy, wacky comedies and those are great, but there was a period where I didn’t want to just be in a string of movies in which I’m embarrassed. Or the character is embarrassed to the point where it’s like, I don’t feel I can’t walk down the street because people are going to be yelling shit at me. There are some guys that can do that and they’re great at it and they have that ability to just disconnect and I envy that. I wish I could just do that, but for whatever reason I can’t and so, you know, it’s really just project to project. I still love to do comedy because I honestly feel like that’s how I started. And when I say that’s how I started that’s not necessarily how I started professionally or that’s how that works.
DEADLINE: I wanted to see more of you on Mad Men but how I understand it is, after speaking to actor Joel Murray (Freddy) from the show, a recurring character returns simply when Matthew Weiner makes a phone call to you.
HANKS: Yes, that’s right. They’ve finished shooting so I guess I can finally say this: I jokingly said (in the past) for years, “I can neither confirm or deny any further involvement in the Mad Men television program”. At one point Matt Weiner and I had a simple discussion where he said “You know I would love for you to come back; you’ve been so great, but I just sort of feel like this storyline has ended,” and I just went “Yeah, all right. I thank you, I appreciate that, I feel the exact same way.” But look, I got three episodes on what of the best television series ever. Dexter was a similar thing and a completely unique experience that I learned a great deal from. I spent a majority on that show not knowing the main twist which was great. All I needed to know is what the scene was. That’s it. You play this scene. Don’t worry about anything else. So, I’ve been really fortunate. Now, in the choice between movies or TV, I think, well, there are two different kinds of movies. Either you’re talking big budget movies or small ones. I ask myself, “What’s the most engaging story? What the most interesting option that I have?” and it’s been television. Those have been the Mad Mens, the Dexters and the Fargos. But I’ve learned as much from those shows as I have from doing an NCIS or Numbers. For me, I don’t mind that journeyman mentality; I’ve learned a lot from it and I feel like I’ve cut my teeth. Nowadays, I’m ready to go to the next project, I’m not afraid anymore and I just feel so much more open as an actor to just try whatever and have as much fun as I can. Look, I wear makeup and I pretend to be other people. (Before I decide to go on an audition), I ask myself, “Is it going to be a fun afternoon? Is the material good enough? Is is worth taking the drive out there to audition? Is it going to be worth the five, six months of your life? You hope so. You try. You never know for sure. Work begets work, auditions beget auditions. Now that said, I’m not just going to go in for anything. I’m still looking for that thing to gravitate to, that spark whatever it may be that makes it worthwhile. I’m still at the stage where I have to audition. I don’t have the luxury to cherry pick and tell people, “Hold my calls.”