Tom Hanks: Still exploring human behavior

October 21, 2012


Tom Hanks has played a quietly heroic astronaut and a mentally disabled jogger, a shy lawyer dying of AIDS and a guy in love with a mermaid, a solitary castaway and a cowboy action figure. He has even played a crook or two.

And yet he's almost always playing a man reaching toward the light -- trying to be good, hoping to be better.

"That's just the kind of work I gravitate toward, as an artist, as an audience," Hanks says. "Life, you know, sometimes it's just one damn thing after another. We fall down, we don't always have the courage we'd like, but we keep going."

That's the human condition, Hanks says, and it's something that's both simple and endlessly complicated.

"Human beings do things for a reason, even if sometimes it's the wrong reason," he says. "And it's our job, as actors, to explore that, to 'hold a mirror up' to humanity. That was in one of the first plays I did, 'Hamlet.' "

He laughs.

"Of course, I didn't play Hamlet," he says.

"I just played some guy. ... But that conflict, that difference between what we do and why we're doing it, is what I end up exploring in almost every job."

He has a fistful of jobs in "Cloud Atlas," the trippy new epic from directors Lana and Andy Wachowski and Tom Tykwer. It's a huge cast, but most of the stars play the same soul over many incarnations; Hanks starts as a rascally doctor mixed up in the 19th-century slave trade and ends as a father trying to save his family from post-apocalyptic cannibals.

"We all evolve in different ways," Hanks explains. "Hugh Grant starts off as someone who is just ignorant and ends up playing someone who eats human flesh, so he's definitely on the way down. I start off as being governed by nothing but greed and end up trying to overcome all sorts of self-loathing and fear to do the right thing. ... As actors, we all got to really explore the whole gamut of emotions."

And exploring that gamut is a job that's won Hanks two Oscars, and kept him busy for more than 30 years.

Drama starts at home
Hanks, 56, was born in Northern California and grew up in "a bunch of towns and step-families" as his working-class parents divorced, remarried and moved around looking for work. ("By the time I was 10," he said once, "I had had three mothers, five grammar schools and 10 houses.") Eventually, Hanks and his father settled in Oakland.

At first, Hanks was just the kid making cracks during the hygiene filmstrips, voted "Class Cut-up" of Skyline High. But ultimately, he focused his energies on the school plays.

"We would do the auditions on Friday and then wait until Monday to see if we were cast," he remembers. "Those weekends were the longest weekends of my life; I'd be absolutely sleepless. And then, on Monday, if I did get a part, I felt so special walking home that day, the way other people must when they crack an equation or build something. ... I felt like my brain was expanding."

His horizons soon expanded even further -- first, at tiny Chabot College; then, at California State University, Sacramento -- as a drama major.

"I had thought, oh college, you have to take chemistry and stuff and sit there slogging through work in the library," he says. "And then it was like, wait, you can go to college and study theater? And act in plays? This is almost a racket, you know. And then when the opportunity came along to do it professionally, I thought I'd won the lottery."

The lottery took Hanks to Cleveland and the Great Lakes Theater Festival, where he was first paid about $45 a week. ("The real actors' secret," he confides, "is that we would do this for nothing.") After three years, he moved to New York, then L.A., where the guys-in-drag sitcom "Bosom Buddies" made him a TV star and led to a movie lead in the 1984 romantic-comedy "Splash."

It seemed like a natural, if very fast, progression. But, Hanks says, the learning curve was sharp.

"Repertory theater is all about being part of the whole, one of the many colors in this vast palette," he says. "You can't be too big, or too small; you've got to fit. But television, when I was doing it, was all about scoring. You had to make these jokes bang, do whatever you could to make the material really pop. And if it didn't, there was something wrong with the material, or with you."

It was a lesson he had learned -- and had to unlearn -- fast.

"I remember on the very first read-through for 'Splash,' and I thought, okay, my job is to be as funny as possible here," Hanks says. "I was really trying to make hay out of alfalfa, just pushing every line. I was still operating the same way I had on the TV show -- and it wasn't working."

Then, he says, director Ron Howard took him aside.

"It was one of the great lessons," Hanks says. "Because Ronny said, 'I know what you're doing. I know you think your job is to be funny. That's not your job in this. Your job is to fall in love. If you don't fall in love, we don't have a movie.' And suddenly, I got it. Which was good, because really, what I'd been doing up until that point, I could have been fired."

Hits and misses
The film was a hit and made its young star a very comfortable living. Maybe too comfortable. The movies that followed -- "The Money Pit," "The Man With One Red Shoe," "Dragnet" -- weren't really memorable (except, maybe for Hanks, "Volunteers," on which he worked with future wife Rita Wilson).

And then, in 1988, came "Big," a movie in which Hanks played a 12-year-old kid from Cliffside Park who suddenly turns into a 30-year-old toy executive. It was a hit, too, but far more importantly, it helped establish Hanks as a truly skilled, understated actor -- and one willing to take risks.

It's a badge of honor he's hung onto.

"I've made a lot of films the powers-that-be said weren't going to work," he says. " 'Apollo 13' -- 'There's no suspense, we already know how it ends!' 'Forrest Gump' -- 'You're going to follow an imbecile around for a whole movie?' We actually heard that. 'Cast Away' -- 'You're going to have no dialogue, no music, just this guy trying to find enough to drink?' 'The Da Vinci Code' -- 'Who's going to relate to this, it's just a big scavenger hunt!' Really, that's what people said."

But Hanks made those movies. And also movies like "Saving Private Ryan," "Philadelphia," "Catch Me If You Can," "The Green Mile" and three "Toy Story" cartoons. All besides writing, directing or producing several top-notch TV miniseries, including "From the Earth to the Moon," "Band of Brothers," "The Pacific" and "John Adams."

Oh, and he also, along the way, won two best-actor Oscars, for "Philadelphia" and "Forrest Gump," back to back -- only the second actor to do so, after Spencer Tracy.

Although Hanks is in the record books as the biggest box-office star in history, not every film has been a hit. "Joe Vs. the Volcano" and "The Bonfire of the Vanities" were two big risks that flopped with audiences and critics alike. The Coen brothers' remake of "The Ladykillers" was an awkward mess, and more recently, "Charlie Wilson's War," "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" and "Larry Crowne" (which Hanks also directed) all failed to make much of a mark.

"Well, what are you going to do, make the same movie over and over again?" he asks of the gambles. "Besides, movies linger. Something like 'Larry Crowne' -- maybe someone will see that years from now and have a connection. ... The thing is, you just have to keep going and throw yourself into it, regardless of the end result. And as long as you've done it for the right reasons, you'll be fine, whether it finds a huge audience at the time, or a small one, or is even accepted at all."

He'll be tempting fate again next year when he makes his Broadway debut in "Lucky Guy," playing real-life crime reporter Mike McAlary. But the play was by his good friend, the late Nora Ephron, and after making "Sleepless in Seattle" and "You've Got Mail" with her, Hanks was determined to give her this final salute -- even if it meant going back to a medium he hasn't really done since his 20s.

"I'm just going to throw myself on the critics' mercy," he says. "Or maybe their bonfires."

Dazzled by acting
The risks of "Cloud Atlas" are different, but no smaller. Although it has elements of adventure movies and sci-fi epics, it's also a metaphysical extravaganza with race-blurring, gender-bending casting. (Halle Berry plays a German-Jewish refugee at one point; Hanks sports some really unfortunate teeth and hairstyles throughout.) It's a big gamble for everyone -- its studio, its directors, its stars.

But Hanks has no worries.

"I don't want to say it's really extraordinary, because I've done a lot of movies and, at the time, I probably said they were all really extraordinary," he jokes. "I probably said 'Turner and Hooch' was really extraordinary. ... But this is a movie that I think achieves everything that 'Moby-Dick' set out to do, and '2001' set out to do, and I'm proud to be part of the ensemble. I know it encourages this whole deep symposium on the reincarnated spirit and everything, but it's also just an incredibly visual story full of classic movie-going excitement; it invites in an audience that may be expecting one thing and just dazzles them."

All these years later, Hanks is still dazzled by the whole idea of acting. Although he recently became a grandfather for the first time, he hasn't slowed down or stopped trying to balance work and family. He and Wilson celebrate their 25th anniversary next year; all during his career, Hanks' four kids (his two oldest are by his first wife, the late Samantha Lewes) stayed with him during shoots whenever possible.

"I can measure the passage of time by where we were and on what location," he says. "My 22-year-old took his first steps in the Chicago hotel where we were staying while I shot 'A League of Their Own.' I can show you a moment in 'That Thing You Do' where suddenly I have four kids, because that's when our youngest was born. ... I am the luckiest man in the world, at home and at work, but I couldn't imagine doing this without the freedom and acceptance of a family that knows this isn't just a job but a life. And it has rewards that go deep."

By Stephen Whitty

Source : The Star Ledger