Killer Instinct

July 19, 2002

Tom Hanks and Paul Newman talk about their trip to the dark side via the "Road to Perdition" -- an excerpt from Entertainment Weekly's July 19, 2002, cover story.

On July 12, moviegoers will be able to pass judgment on one thing two-time Oscar winner Tom Hanks, the man who can seemingly do anything, may or may not have the ability to do: play a killer. The film is "Road to Perdition," costarring Paul Newman and Jude Law, directed by Sam Mendes (following up his 1999 Oscar-winning debut feature, "American Beauty"), and produced by Richard and Dean Zanuck and Mendes. It is the summer movie season's obligatory prestige picture, the kind of august piece of Oscar bait more commonly seen in the fall. It is a stately, serious, somber film; it is not, to use Newman's words, "a popcorn flick," in which "the orgasm has to be four times as great as the last great orgasm. This picture aspires to something."

It's also a picture in which Hollywood's ranking Mr. Nice Guy shoots people for a living. Hanks plays Michael Sullivan, a foot soldier in a Depression-era Irish Mob run by John Rooney (Newman), who loves Sullivan like a son. One night, Sullivan's oldest boy, Michael Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin), witnesses his father committing murder. This leads to a tragedy that sends Michael Sullivan on a quest for vengeance, with his son in tow.

If there was ever a movie where being known for being nice could be a liability, this is it. "There is no doubt that a degree of this 'image' is going to follow you into every gig," says Hanks. "I remember telling reporters while promoting 'The Green Mile,' 'I will play a guy who kills people professionally for a living -- and you will say that I'm the nicest executioner ever in the movies.' Look: I am a nice guy," he says, laughing. Then, stabbing you with his dark eyes, he deadpans: "At least they don't call me a pussy."

Hanks isn't responsible for "Perdition"'s first killing, but Hollywood's Mr. Nice Guy authors much of the carnage that follows. He also created much of Sullivan's conflicted menace by keeping him quiet, cutting dialogue wherever possible, especially lines that betrayed any sense of self-awareness. Some sly directing helped too. "We hold the man at arm's length from the audience for the first half hour," explains director Mendes. "We put the audience in the shoes of the boy who doesn't understand his father; in a way, the film was assisting Hanks the whole time."

The sum total is a Tom Hanks rarely seen on screen. Cold. Detached. Unlikable, even. But strange as that may seem, Mendes thinks America is ready for a morally ambiguous Tom Hanks. "Audiences need him again. He's our moral weather vane. And it's very appropriate that post-Sept. 11, he should be playing this character who's not all good, who's dealing with a violent world and trying to make sense of it," says Mendes. "I really believe that."

Though Jude Law shot only one scene with 77-year-old Newman (cut by Mendes for pacing reasons), he relished the experience, nonetheless. "The opportunity to just sit and watch Paul Newman work was just joyous," says Law, adding that the actor has always been one of his role models. "His artistry, his charity -- he's the blueprint, really."

Newman seems keenly aware of the effect he has on his peers -- hence, his propensity for salty wisecracks and dirty jokes, just to remind folks he puts his pants on just like everyone else. "It's all razzle-dazzle, anyway," says Newman. "You find the humorous part, I think you can dispel it all pretty quickly."

The actor prepared for his Irish gangster role by asking Frank McCourt, the Irish American author of "Angela's Ashes," to record a tape of himself speaking. On set, Newman peppered Mendes with scores of questions, but otherwise kept his own counsel. Newman's toughest moment may have been a scene in which his John Rooney tells Sullivan, "I will mourn the son I lost"; many on the set wondered if the actor was drawing upon his memories of his son Scott, who died of a drug overdose in 1978. "I think I would have done that 20 years ago," he says quietly. "But blissfully, you don't have to go down as many side roads as you used to have to go down."

In truth, though, it was 14-year-old Tyler Hoechlin -- a relative newcomer plucked from among more than 2,000 young hopefuls -- who had the most daunting acting challenge in the film. So many of "Perdition"'s most critical moments hinged on him, such as the climactic scene, in which the narrative and thematic arcs all come down to one choice: whether or not Michael Jr. will fire a gun. "There were two or three times," says Mendes, "when I had to pull him to one side and say, 'Imagine this. In 18 months' time, you're sitting in [Hollywood's] Mann's Chinese [Theatre], you're 80 foot high, and you are not good in this scene, and you will regret it for the rest of your life. Okay? So you have to be good.' That was a conversation we had before we shot the last scene in the film. And he nailed it."

While Mendes and Newman mull their next moves ("I got a couple films in the pipeline," says the actor; one of them may be yet another reteaming with his wife of 44 years, Joanne Woodward), Hanks finds himself at a dividing line in his career, one drawn for him by the American Film Institute, which recently gave him its lifetime achievement award. He is only 46. "If I'm 90, and I haven't scored another one of these AFI things," he quips, "then I will truly view the latter part of my career as some kind of failure." So what's his plan? "There has never been any master plan," says the "Bosom Buddy" turned global superstar. "I will maintain my faith in chance and serendipity. That's it. That's my master plan."

By Jeff Jensen

Source : Entertainment Weekly