Q&A: Tom Hanks

February 28, 2008


As a producer behind the new HBO miniseries "John Adams," Tom Hanks talks about what it took to make the revolutionary show about America's second president.

You've acted in or produced other historical dramas such as "Saving Private Ryan" and "Band of Brothers." Are historical subjects of particular interest to you?
David McCullough said the line, and now I'm going to steal it: "He loves a good story, but he really loves a true good story." I agree. Why make things up when what actually happened is incredibly fascinating? Not only is it fascinating, but it's true human nature. Human nature by and large does not change. Human knowledge does, human enlightenment does and in some cases human experience alters it. But that instinctive sense of when one is truthful and when one is not, that's a battle we continually fight. With the historical stuff I've had my hands in, I'm only interested in the things that are human nature. Human nature is what is dominant in everything, whether it's the Apollo space program -- those guys were very much in competition with each other, it wasn't an easy sale -- or "Band of Brothers," which was much the same thing: guys who didn't get along but at the same time were going after the same thing.

What was it about John Adams that appealed to you?
John Adams was privy to everything, appointed to everything, a key player of everything except the writing of the Constitution. By way of letters that were kept between him and [his wife] Abigail, he kept the most vivid, the most alive, the most accurate record of what it was like back then. I completely responded to the power of the story of John Adams and the new, distinctive perspective it was going to give us on that time in our history. Back then is exactly like today -- except for the quills.
Our joke was, we will view ourselves successful [with this series] if John Adams gets a bill of his own. He's got a coin, but that's not exactly the same thing.

David McCullough said you had a dog-eared, marked-up copy of the book when he met you. What in it did you think would make for good drama?
I actually had gotten a call from Graham Yost, who worked with us on "From the Earth to the Moon" and "Band of Brothers." He called me up and said, "Have you read McCullough's 'John Adams'? It's got stuff that might work on multiple levels." I was probably 50 or 60 pages into it when I saw exactly what he was talking about it, the trick being what's in here is brand new. You've got a real problem when you're going back to colonial America: ye olde Brits, tri-cornered hats, buckles, the "1776" Broadway mythology of it all -- that is so de rigueur kind of boring. What McCullough did was get down to these fascinating details. By the time I was done reading the section about the Boston Massacre, I was slapping my head and saying, "Why did no one ever teach me this?" If someone had told me that these evil British soldiers killed Crispus Atticus in that famous Boston Massacre that Paul Revere engraved, that their lawyer, John Adams, got them off and proved them not guilty, that he was going to be the second president of the United States and one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, it would have altered my consciousness about the history of our country.

Were there any pitfalls in creating a drama set during the American Revolution that you wanted to avoid?
Throughout, from when we first stated talking about it…we were always saying that the time, the climate and the geography would have to be characters in this thing. Nighttime has to be night. You can't have shiny blue backlight on the trees. For the interior of the home on Brattle Street, if the only light comes from a fireplace, the rest of the room has to fall off into darkness. We have to get across all of the particulars of how difficult it was to be alive back then. We started with the idea that the beginning and the ending of each episode has John Adams in motion, going somewhere or coming from someplace, in order to understand that geography of the day and the time it took to traverse. It was not an easy thing to ride from Massachusetts to Philadelphia. You wonder: How did they live such productive lives and get so much done when travel took up so much of their time? And everybody went to etiquette school, wig school, kitchen school.

Did you ever think of playing a part yourself, or are you too well known an actor to be part of a Founding Fathers drama?
I don't want to get into a stunt casting kind of thing. I've had plenty enough to do. My name is in this enough. But now, as an actor, I'm looking at what Stephen Dillane did as Jefferson or Tom Wilkinson did as Ben Franklin, and thinking I wish I could have played that part. When we were casting it, and [HBO Films President] Colin Callender had floated the idea of talking to Paul Giamatti, I said, "You're nuts -- Paul Giamatti is a movie star, no way he's going to want to work for as long or as hard as it takes for an HBO miniseries." We were given an incredible coup when he said yes.

Your production company Playtone has also optioned David McCullough's "1776" to be made for HBO, and Kirk Ellis has signed on to write the screenplay. Do you have a director or any actors lined up yet?
That book is absolutely fascinating. George Washington gets his a-- kicked for all of the year of 1776. He's almost a disaster. Nobody who hasn't read McCullough knows this. You can actually go and visit the spot where George Washington abandoned Brooklyn Heights. But as for director or casting, it's just too early.

By Robert J. Hughes

Source : The Wall Street Journal