Tom Hanks - Lone Star

June 12, 2004


If Tom Hanks had listened to his dad, he would have a steady job by now. Like many fathers, Amos Hanks often lectured his son, trying to help him to navigate the tricky adult waters that lay ahead. There was one time, for instance, when Hanks Sr urged his son to get on down to the local Jack-In-The-Box, a fast-food restaurant, pretty damn quick because they were recruiting counter staff.

"In high school I had absolutely no drive or talent for anything that my dad was good at," Hanks recalls now. "My dad was good with tools, I wasn't. My dad worked in the restaurant business and I didn't really want to do that. I remember I was in the shower once getting ready for school and I didn't hear the bathroom door open and the next thing he rips the shower curtain open and says, 'They're hiring down at Jack-In-The-Box!' And I'm taking a shower, so I'm naked, and I'm like, 'Uh, dad, why would I want to take a job in Jack-In-The-Box?' And he says, 'Aw hell, any idiot can make assistant manager in six months!'"

Hanks tells this story with a smile, mimicking his father shouting, waving his arms around and pointing. We are sitting in the best hotel in Cannes, where he is arguably the biggest star at the film festival - his latest film, The Ladykillers, is in competition here - and the bizarre image of a young Tom Hanks serving up cheeseburgers and asking, "Do you want large fries with that?" is hard to overcome.

Fortunately, Hanks's own ambitions for himself were always far greater than those his father held for him. Thanks to the encouragement of teachers - he famously thanked one, Rawley T. Farnsworth, in his speech when he won his first Oscar for his role as an Aids-stricken lawyer in Philadelphia - he ended up doing what he always wanted to do: act. And much to the amazement of his father, he's done rather well at it. "Neither of my parents did anything like this," he says. "But they would come and see me in a play or something and say, 'I don't know how you do that, but great job.' And that was enough for me."

Even if he didn't admit it to Amos way back when, he felt the thrill of performing in front of his family, and instinctively knew it could lead him somewhere, at the very least out of Oakland, California, where he went to school.

"I was never an introverted kid. There was a time, I was nine or ten, and I got up and I made someone laugh and it was like, 'OK, that's it. There's nothing better than this.'"

He had an unsettled childhood. His parents divorced and he stayed with Amos, who remarried twice, and there were numerous homes in different small towns in California, and lots of stepbrothers and stepsisters. It must have had a profound effect, although these days he is able to look back and, mostly, laugh about it.

"I probably take what anybody else takes from their childhood," he says. "A certain amount of what not to do as well as what to do. You know, I'm closer with my mom now than ever before. And I guess that's because time has passed. I've got four kids of my own and I can see myself reflected in them. But at the same time I can see them not having to deal with any of the stuff that I had to deal with."

That "stuff" would have been the upheaval of moving, trying to make new friends, the devastation he felt over his parents' separation and, often, a crushing loneliness. Hanks has always been good at portraying isolation, because it's part of him.

As far back as Big in 1988, a comedy with some deceptively deep themes, he was breaking hearts as a 12-year-old boy trapped inside an adult's body. In Forrest Gump - which won him his second Oscar - he played a simpleton with a knack of succeeding the All-American way (war hero, millionaire businessman, table-tennis champion). But his mother (played by Sally Field) knows, and so do we, that Forrest is going to need someone to look after him because really he's a vulnerable little boy. Ron Howard's excellent Apollo 13 is almost unbearable when it seems as though the astronauts - Hanks plays Jim "Houston we have a problem" Lovell - will be stranded in space. The loneliness is crushing. And Cast Away, of course - which was Hanks's idea in the first place - is entirely about loneliness, with Hanks playing the only survivor of a plane crash washed up on a desert island."When I was young and trying to figure out what to do, I worked with Vincent Dowling [the Irish director] at a Shakespeare festival and I remember he said, 'Look, all the great plays are about loneliness, all the great stories are about loneliness. Richard III is a lonely man, so is Hamlet.' And it's universal. It's in everyone.

No matter what culture, no matter where in the world you live, it's the great thing we combat in life. You are either lonely or you are not lonely."His critics often point out that Hanks has mostly played nice guys, and urge him to take on more villains. "Nice guys, bad guys - I try to play somebody who believes in what they are saying more than anything else. I don't sit at home and think, 'Next time I have to change direction.' It would be artificial and it would probably make for a crappy movie. I'm only governed by what I think is interesting."

But for Hanks, the path he returns to again and again is loneliness. "Not everybody has been in love, not everybody has experienced passion, not everybody has experienced the friendship you can have with a pet dog. But everybody has been lonely at some point. At the age of 47, I've been through a lot of stuff and, remember, that's one of the reasons I was so enthralled with acting. For me, even if I was going to see a play or a film by myself, I didn't feel like I was alone. There was something that was unfolding up there that brought me into it. And I recognised that."Those feelings of displacement, so strong while he was growing up, are still a part of him, even though he is married with a strong family life. "You get to a point where you just work it out. It's a trade-off and the fact is, yeah, my parents got divorced and I moved around a lot and I was confused and I truly was lonely for a long, long time, but eventually I realised that loneliness turned into solitude.

"And if I didn't have that period of time in my life I wouldn't have the imagination that I have now. I wouldn't have the drive that I have now. I wouldn't have the sense of humour that I have now. So it's like, 'Hey man, if you can't put it behind you by the time you are 47 you are in big trouble!' Particularly if things are going well. You count your blessings."

Hanks's first marriage was to the actress Samantha Lewis. They met and married while still at California State University, and had two children together: Colin, 26, is an actor, and Elizabeth, 21, is a student who hopes to be a writer. Hanks was often an absent father, away filming when they were growing up, and it wasn't a happy marriage. Hanks admits that he felt terribly guilty when it finally broke down in the early Eighties.

"I am never going to feel happy about those times," he said later. "The very worst aspect of separating was that I was sentencing my own kids to the same sort of feeling I'd suffered at their age. I felt horribly guilty. Food did not taste good, life was not nice and I did not sleep. I was in a bad house, with rented furniture, my marriage was smashed on the rocks and I had two kids I hadn't been home for."

His second marriage, to the actress Rita Wilson, has given him two boys - Chester, 13, and Truman, 8 - and the kind of support he craved. "We have been married for 16 years and in love for 20. My wife is my life. All this other stuff - this job - is great. I love it. But my family is the thing that is really important. I can't imagine a world without belonging to a home and a family."

He jokes that as much as he would love to come to work in the West End, he can't because "I'm in my child-rearing years". Whereas once Hanks was away frequently, these days his family isthe reason not to decamp to London for a six-month theatre run.

Anyway, there are plenty of other things that Hanks can do closer to home. He lives a stone's throw away from Steven Spielberg, with whom he has worked on three films - Saving Private Ryan, Catch Me If You Can and Terminal, to be released later this year. Hanks plays a refugee who arrives in America to discover that the borders of his war-torn homeland have been overrun and he is stranded, friendless and stateless - it's that loneliness theme again.

Spielberg is a close friend, and together they forge what must be one of the most powerful alliances in Hollywood - if a Spielberg picture starring Tom Hanks isn't going to get a green light, nothing is. "Steven's a movie-making juggernaut," Hanks admits. "I think Dan Aykroyd described him as the great artist industrialist and I kind of go along with that. The same way that Thomas Edison was a great artist industrialist. Hey, that's it: Steven's Edison and I change the light bulbs."

Typically, Hanks plays down his own power, although he is frequently listed in the top ten movers and shakers in Hollywood. "Part of it is mythic," he says of his influence. "But look, without doubt there is a business cachet that will carry you to a certain point. People will accept your phone calls, people will say, 'OK, let's put this in development.' That gives you the foot in the door, the return call, and that is very powerful stuff. But there's a cliff that it takes you to, and beyond that is an abyss that you must traverse somehow, with the power of a good idea or the power of talent or a good alliance or whatever. So for me, the power gives you potential but the potential has to be realised or it's a house of cards. And you know, you can look at those lists from ten years ago and it's like, 'That guy was powerful? Remember those days when he could get some stuff done?' And eventually that will come everybody's way."

That's hardly likely to happen with Hanks, although he does know what it's like to struggle. After college, his first paid acting job was at the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival, earning $50 a week. "But you know what? To me it was like, 'They're paying me to do this?' This is just great."

Perhaps it's because of those lean years and a fair share of duds that Hanks, unlike some of his contemporaries, seems to handle success and fame with such good grace. "For a period of time I did every job that came my way. They pay a lot of money and the movie is going to come out anyway and you like to work," he says. "But then I figured out that you can only really say 'yes' if you have a passion for it."

His place in the pantheon of American popular culture is secure and also provides him with a unique kind of influence. No one has a bad word to say about him, and he could use that enormous popularity to launch another career, say in politics. It's been done before and with a brand image far less potent than Tom Hanks's. And a few years ago, he hinted strongly in an interview with The New Yorker that it wouldn't be out of the question."No," he states firmly, when I ask if he could be tempted into the political arena. "Because I've never been politically inclined in that way. I think people who go into politics have always been drawn to it - student politics and stuff. And I think the actors that do it are that way as well. With Arnold Schwarzenegger, it's his personality, it's what he loves and it's what he lives for. I'm not like that. I mean, I have my opinions and I'm happy to share them; if you want to come to my house we'll have a big discussion about everything that is going on, but in the same way that I wouldn't know how to be a banker, much less would I know how to be a politician."

Instead, he's producing another Band of Brothers-type television series with Spielberg, which was itself a spin-off from Saving Private Ryan. "That's when the power helps a little bit because you can call up HBO and say, 'Listen, we have this idea.' And this is really Steven's passion. We want to do a story on the Pacific war as a bookend to Band of Brothers."

On screen, he's content to follow the instinct that has served him so well for a decade and more. When his agent mentioned a remake of the Ealing comedy The Ladykillers, he wasn't interested. When he heard that it would be directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, Hollywood's favourite left-field film-makers, he was on board immediately. He knows, of course, that here in the UK the film will be picked over like nowhere else. The 1955 original, directed by Alexander Mackendrick, is a classic, with Alec Guinness as Professor Marcus, the mastermind of a bank job who rents a room from the dotty Mrs Wilberforce. The professor pretends to be rehearsing an orchestra with his gang of thugs, but when Mrs W rumbles what is going on they have no choice but to try to bump her off. Or at least that's the plan.

The Coens have kept the skeleton of the story - Hanks is Professor Goldthwait Higginson Dorr, PhD - but we are in the Deep South instead the London suburbs, and the landlady is a formidable, church-going widow, Mrs Munson (Irma P. Hall), and the target is a casino within tunnelling distance of her house.

Hanks, surprisingly, hasn't seen the original. "I'm waiting to get this one out of my blood because it would be painful to compare it. What am I going to do - exactly the same as Alec Guinness? There was no point. I'll sit down and watch it one of these days."

In the States, reviews have been mixed, but Hanks's performance is worth watching. It's fair game, he says, to compare the remake to the original even though nearly half a century separates them. "Of course it is. In the same way every season somebody does a Hamlet and it's compared to the Hamlet of the season before. Sometimes it's better and sometimes it's different. Some people won't know the original and it won't make any difference, but for others they will compare it, and rightly so. I would imagine that in Britain the first paragraph of every review is going to mention the original. But that's all right."

For Hanks, making the film was immensely enjoyable. He got to try out a flowery Southern accent, and to change his appearance with a new hairstyle and a set of false teeth. And he got to work with the Coens. It certainly beats working in a burger bar.

Source : The Times