Average Joe Versus the Icons

November 07, 1999


Average Joe Versus the Icons: Tom Hanks plays the heroes, but don't discount his ability to portray the little guy or evil.

Steve Martin cornered Tom Hanks at a party a few months ago and asked the two time Oscar winner the question that has occurred at least once to any perceptive moviegoer. "You've become this great actor," Martin, a fellow funny man turned actor director writer, said to Hanks. "I'm curious what took you there. What did you do?"

The question was neither a joke, told by one wild and crazy guy to another, nor a pointed reference to what Hanks himself would describe as his lesser movies 1986's "The Money Pit," for example, or 1989's "Turner & Hooch." It was instead an earnest attempt to understand how Hanks had, in a relatively short amount of time, graduated from portraying clueless guys who can't cope to embodying a nation's best sense of itself.

"He's like the complicated John Wayne. Because he's iconic, but many sided," an admiring Martin said, remembering what made him initiate the discussion. "He has such complexity and depth, as well a great sense of the absurd. I told him, 'I know that acting just doesn't improve through study. There's some kind of personal growth to make that change.' "

Hanks is often decidedly closed mouth about his acting methods, according to directors who've worked with him. But he likes Martin, so he endeavored to answer.

"I used to just show up and say let's get on with it," Hanks remembers saying. "But you get to that point as an actor where you realize you're examining an aspect of the human condition as opposed to just a story that starts on Page 1 and ends on Page 20. And to do that, you have to have some other stuff that's loaded up inside you the stuff that happened [to your character] before the movie began. You don't have to sit down and write it out in longhand in single space on spiral notebooks. But it has to be a very tangible thing, because it has to play out in every scene."

Then, according to Martin, Hanks said something else something so in keeping with how we've come to think of Hanks that it's easy to imagine it being uttered by astronaut Jim Lovell in "Apollo 13" or Capt. John Miller in "Saving Private Ryan." "He said, 'I realized it was hard work that had to be done.' "

In last year's "Saving Private Ryan," that hard work enabled Hanks to portray an average man an English teacher, he likes to point out who was "scared out of his pants" to be at war but rose to meet the demands of his country. In 1995's "Apollo 13," Hanks gave Lovell the confident manner we'd expect from someone larger than life, but with a twist. "What happens to Jim is the great equalizer that removes him from the firmament," Hanks said, with empathy, of Lovell's failure to reach the moon. "He misses out. He just wants to go home."

To tick down the list of his last dozen films is to see how much of Hanks' talent, as the New Yorker's Kurt Andersen wrote last year, is in creating heroes that audiences embrace because of their flaws, not in spite of them. And he has put that skill to varied use, from the sweet simpleton in "Forrest Gump" to the AIDS stricken lawyer in "Philadelphia." Now, this fall, he's doing it again, in two highly anticipated movies that could not be more different.

In "The Green Mile," an adaptation of Stephen King's death row fable that hits theaters Dec. 10, Hanks is a Depression era prison guard wrestling to comprehend a miracle. He is, technically, an executioner, but one with so large a conscience, so fair a mind and so kind a manner that he makes killing people for a living look like a great career. And in "Toy Story 2," Disney/Pixar's animated sequel that opens Nov. 19, Hanks once again gives voice to the floppy cowboy doll named Woody, endowing him with a likable mix of self righteousness and vulnerability. Even without showing his face, Hanks has the power to make seemingly any character more human.

"I think the best movies are the ones that don't have bad guys versus good guys, but just people, where you understand everybody's motivations," Hanks said during a recent interview at Shutters on the Beach in Santa Monica. And Hanks' tastes seem to jibe with those of the moviegoing public: The last eight movies in which he's starred have all been big hits. The result: This ordinary looking actor has come to represent what it means to be a classy movie star and an honorable man. There has been confusion at times about whether the 43 year old is acting or simply playing himself. Part of that stems from the widespread perception that Hanks is in real life "a kind of hero," as Martin puts it "a model human without being in any way boring." Part of it stems from his recent roles, several of which are patently heroic in nature.

But another ingredient is more complex: Hanks has become so linked to our definition of heroism that he now brings that quality with him wherever he goes. And that has prompted some recurring questions. Is Hanks merely "Mt. Rushmore for people," as fellow $20 million leading man Jim Carrey recently told Vanity Fair an actor who has to be a "rock solid America man" in every role? Can he "do" dark? And will the public let him?

"Tom gets a kind of convenient rap for being everyman. My feeling about Tom is he's not so much an everyman as an every character," said Steven Spielberg, a close friend of Hanks who directed him in "Saving Private Ryan."

"Don't preclude colorful villains. Don't preclude characters of questionable morals. The choices he makes as an actor might have more recently defined who he is to all of us. But when he does make a choice to play the dark side of human nature, and we are required to despise the character he's playing, he will be despised."

Striding into a hotel lobby one recent afternoon, Hanks looked preoccupied. The family Samoyed had had surgery on her hind legs, he explained, and needed to be carried outside regularly to relieve herself. Hanks, it seems, was the one doing the carrying. He looked a little harried, like any working parent with too many errands to do.

"I'm in my child rearing years right now," he said, only half joking. "I don't have time to do much of anything."

That Hanks is a stand up guy who does his duty both on and off the screen is not big news. Stories of his collegial manner with other actors, of his collaborative interplay with directors and of his commitment to his second wife, actress Rita Wilson, and his four children (two from a previous marriage) abound in Hollywood. What's more, as has been reported so often that even Hanks appears a little tired of hearing it, this guy is a genuine mensch.

"Have you heard about the Friday thing? It's amazing," said Frank Darabont, the writer director of "The Green Mile," referring to Hanks' habit of boosting the morale of the weary cast and crew by feeding them at his own expense. "Tom loved to bring a treat to the set for everybody. On Friday evenings a couple of sushi chefs would show up. Or the In N Out Burger truck. You were looking at well over 100 people, so it wasn't cheap. More than the generosity, though, was the thoughtfulness. He's a very sweet and open man."

John Lasseter, director of "Toy Story 2," agreed.

"When Tom Hanks walks in the room, it's Tom Hanks! But he immediately puts everybody at ease," he said. "Every compliment he gets, you can tell it really means a lot to him to receive it. He's humble, and first and foremost, he's spreading [the compliments] around."

At the photo shoot for this article, for example, he amiably mugged and posed, but not before expressing genuine interest in the photographer's watch, the same type worn by the first astronauts on the moon. Gazing out the window at the ocean, he pronounced it a beautiful day and mischievously suggested we all go home.

"Let's all quit," he said in that familiar Tom Hanks voice, playful and poised at the same time, suggesting that instead of an article, The Times could run "a cryptic three lines a Tom Hanks haiku! that just says: 'The movie opens Dec. 10.' What would be wrong about that? The public would appreciate it. It's to the point. And there's nothing they don't know about this guy anyway." Hanks' quick wit and puckish charm are hard to resist. But they are not, fundamentally, at the root of his appeal to movie audiences (had they been, several of his earlier movies the ones like "Bachelor Party" and "Joe Versus the Volcano" that he wryly refers to as his "checkered past" might have done better at the box office). Instead, in his last several films, Hanks has tapped into what he calls the "beautifully ambiguous" nature of the struggles of common men.

"Look, I could play a terrorist tomorrow," he said at one point, as an ocean breeze blew in through an open window. "I could manufacture that. But ultimately, to what end? . . . It's not a matter of 'OK, I don't want to play somebody who's not heroic, because what will that do?' I don't want to play somebody who isn't dealing with something that most of us can actually imagine ourselves having to deal with."

Hanks said he would have signed on "in a minute" to play the downtrodden would be adulterer Kevin Spacey plays in "American Beauty." He said he would have "leaped at the chance" to play William H. Macy's sleazy car dealer in "Fargo" because "I understand exactly what that guy was going through."

If Hanks is ever going to play venal, he simply needs a villain with a believable human core, he said. "Because any other kind is like the guy who says things like, 'Before I kill you, Mr. Bond, perhaps you'd like a tour of my installation.' There's nothing to be gained by doing it."

Curious to see Hanks get irritated, ever so slightly? Introduce the idea that to some it appears he isn't stretching as much as he could.

"Look, I've got news for you, whatever the place that Capt. Miller was, it was a dark and bad place," he said pointedly. "Now, I realize it was a movie that became a national phenomenon and blah blah blah. . . . But Capt. Miller is scared out of his pants. So much so that his hands shake and he can't stop it."

" 'The Green Mile' is pretty dark, would you not agree?" he continued, somewhere between amused and exasperated. "I mean, come on! This is a good example of this. OK, I play a professional executioner. I play a man" he paused a beat "who makes his living" another beat "by strapping men into a chair and electrifying them to death. That's my job!"

When it was noted that he plays the most humane and respectful executioner imaginable, he laughed but didn't give in. "That's right: I'm the all American executioner," he said, gently sarcastic. "Yes, that's right. I was a good guy."

Apparently, we'd hit a nerve.

"After doing 'Philadelphia' and 'Forrest Gump' and 'Apollo 13,' [some critics] said, 'Look, he's just playing the same guy over and over again.' I'm sorry, but I don't get it. And I don't get the concept that I'm always playing the all American guys. I play all the guys. That's true. It is me. There's no doubt about that," he said. "But I don't see any of these characters as being big massive icons that are somehow placed up on Mt. Rushmore. That is a prism that is applied by way of retrospect onto the movies."

Bob Zemeckis worked with Hanks on "Forrest Gump," one of Hanks' Oscar winning performances, and is in the middle of shooting "Cast Away," in which Hanks plays a man stranded alone on a desert island. The director said that Hanks can't help but be viewed through the lens of his own mega stardom.

"Actors of the caliber of Tom get into this place where they're both a great actor and they're a gigantic movie star. The audience has a perception of what they expect when you become a brand name. And you have to work with that and acknowledge it," said Zemeckis, who like many others likens Hanks to Jimmy Stewart. "But Tom can play anything. He's brilliant. Brilliant."

Which brings the discussion back to how Hanks chooses roles. He has more scripts to pick from than he can actually read ("Sometimes it's hard, in all honesty, to get through [them] all. There's only 24 hours in the day"), though he stresses that despite his clout, he doesn't have access to everything.

"I'm not omnipotent," he said. "You would think, 'Well, I'm a big star so I would have had a shot.' But that's not the way it works." Still, he acknowledges that he is largely in the driver's seat right now. If he likes a movie, he can get it made, provided the budget is right. So how does he chart his course? The actor admits to applying a sort of prism of his own to the process.

"I like stories that are about the mystery of why in the world do we act this way? Why do we do this to each other? Why do some people do great and some people do badly? Why do some people live and some people die? You embrace the mystery of it all. And all you can do is struggle with it you'll never be able to answer it. But out of that struggle comes some brand of triumph," he said.

"That's all we're looking for, no matter who we are. We want to experience some brand of triumph that is going to make us feel special," he continued, sounding suddenly and this is a habit with him more like a moviegoer than a movie star. "It's almost an old fashioned kind of sensibility. And I may change, so I don't want to lay down any credos here. But if the movie doesn't somehow try to examine that, it's just not that interesting to me."

What Hanks clearly finds fascinating is the process of building a character. He describes this as being "the great fun" of his job.

It was not always this way. Early in his career, soon after director Ron Howard turned him from a TV star (on the sitcom "Bosom Buddies") into a movie star with "Splash" in 1984, he admits, "I didn't really know what I was doing. It was just, 'Ooooh, this is fun! I'm in a movie again.' You can do it that way."

But over time, he figured out that doing it that way had limits. For one thing, the movies he did in the late 1980s were, by and large, disappointing. The delightful exceptions "Big" and "Punchline" (both in 1988) featured characters with which Hanks had a natural affinity: a child trapped in a man's body and a struggling stand up comic. He could embody them, it seemed, not without effort, but without the painstaking preparation he now so prizes.

The turning point came with "A League of Their Own," the 1992 women's baseball comedy directed by Penny Marshall. Hanks' character, a team manager named Jimmy Dugan, was originally conceived as a 52 year old alcoholic. Hanks, who was 36 at the time, persuaded Marshall to let him play the part younger, and thus more tragically.

"I specifically wanted to do it because this was a man who'd experienced bitter compromise in his life," Hanks recalled. "He should have still been playing ball, but he wasn't because of his own foolishness or what have you. So there was a life experience prior to the movie that was really important."

Hanks sat down with his agent, Richard Lovett, the president of Creative Artists Agency, and laid down the law.

"I said, 'I don't want to play a pussy anymore.' I was done," he said. "I had examined that concept of a guy in the middle of something he didn't understand. A guy who can't fall in love. A guy who can't build his house. Or a guy who had not had any real life behind him and so therefore could only react to the reality of that individual circumstance. The end result: Kookiness ensues." The decision could not have had a richer payoff, catapulting him from solid B status (what the New Yorker described as "more or less on the same level of the Hollywood food chain as Steve Guttenberg") to the top of the heap. In the years since, his paycheck per picture has quadrupled from about $5 million to about $20 million. And his roles and the resulting accolades are the envy of any actor honest enough to admit it.

First, in 1993, came "Philadelphia," for which he won an Oscar, and the hit romantic comedy "Sleepless in Seattle." With "Forrest Gump" in 1994 he became the first person since Spencer Tracy to win back to back best actor Academy Awards. "Apollo 13" and "Toy Story" were both blockbuster hits in 1995. He had a supporting role the next year in "That Thing You Do!," which marked his writing and directing debut. In 1998, in addition to starring in "Saving Private Ryan" and Nora Ephron's "You've Got Mail," he also created and executive produced the acclaimed HBO miniseries "From the Earth to the Moon."

"Right after you say, 'OK, I'd like to do this,' then you have to start working."

That's what Hanks says about attempts to give his characters a convincing back story. Listen to Hanks talk about Paul Edgecomb, the death row supervisor in "The Green Mile," and you can hear empathy at work: "This guy is glad to have this job. And he's been able to somehow compartmentalize the tasks that are at hand. What these guys have to look forward to with the big event on E Block an execution is a very long day. They pull out the cleansers, polish up Old Sparky, clear out the warehouse, sweep it out, line up the chairs nice and neat. And down in the basement afterward, we've got the body on the gurney... Man, it's a long day."

Having given this much attention to what isn't in the script, can it be any surprise that Hanks is a meticulous analyst of what is? He is known for speaking up about the movies he's in, making suggestions and revisions, though usually so charmingly that no one takes offense.

On the set of "Ryan," Spielberg remembers Hanks, whom he calls simply Old Faithful, "was extremely deferential. We never had a fight or an argument about anything. I would come to the set and say, 'I'm cutting out 20 of your lines.' And he'd run over, get his script and [show me] Tom overnight had cut out the same 20 lines that I'd cut out. We'd look at each other with our mouths open, we were so tuned in to each other."

Similarly, Zemeckis describes Hanks as a "creative soul mate."

"I use Tom as a gigantic sounding board," he said, "because the reason he is exceptional as a performer is that he approaches his part from the perspective of the whole movie. He's not just looking at what he has to do. 'Generous with other actors' is the term that's often used. But actually, he's taking care of the movie."

In the next Zemeckis Hanks project, "Cast Away," taking care of the movie literally means taking care of Hanks for much of the film, he will be the only one on screen. Hanks plays a man who is stranded for 32 years on an island before being rescued and reentering the world. The production is unusual; the first segment of the film was shot in Fiji in March, and it will resume next April after Hanks has lost enough weight to resemble an island dweller. But the movie's appeal is, for Hanks, strikingly familiar: an ordinary man facing extraordinary obstacles.

Hanks is visibly excited about the project, which he said has posed all sorts of physical, philosophical and storytelling difficulties.

"You'd think: What do you need? A pair of cutoffs and some coconuts? End of story. How bad can it be?" said Hanks, who developed a serious knee infection during the first tropical phase of shooting. "There were people dropping like flies. Because you think: Oh, it's paradise. But it's only paradise if you can walk really slow and take a three hour nap in the afternoon. If you're actually trying to make a movie..."

The film also battles the lingering specter of "Gilligan's Island," which has lulled Americans into believing, as Hanks hilariously riffs, "Well, there's bamboo. You can make an Exercycle which can power the generator which recharges the battery of the transistor radio! How hard can that be?" But the biggest challenge has been the most basic one: deciding who his character will become. "The hardest thing about the whole movie is, what happens after [I'm rescued]?" he said refusing to even hint at the answer. "Is [my character] the new sensitive man because he's been jungle boy for all this time? Or does he just want to go to Pizza Hut and start eating? Does he become famous and the next thing you know he's on 'Crosswits' with the cast of 'CHiPs'? What happens to him? That's what we've ended up discussing. It's highfalutin stuff!"

Zemeckis, too, is mum about where the project will lead. "But I must tell you," he confided, "that in 'Cast Away' Tom plays a character that is certainly a lot more flawed emotionally than anything we've ever seen Jimmy Stewart do. Except maybe 'Vertigo.' Tom's character is not a perfectly rounded human being. There are some cracks in the veneer."

Could it be that Hanks is sneaking up on true evil? Is this a warmup for Tom Hanks, bad to the bone?

The closest we got to an answer was when Hanks explained the realistic qualities of the scariest character in "The Green Mile," a condemned murderer named Wild Bill.

"He's a sociopath and there are sociopaths in this world," Hanks said. "He's not a drug lord who wants to take over the world and colonize space with a race of beautiful model creatures." Wouldn't he ever want to try such a thing, just for a lark? "God bless! I just wouldn't know how!" Hanks said, somehow making his modest folksiness ring true. A beat, however, and his voice changed, as if he was trying nefarious on for size.

"Well," he said, "maybe one of these days..."

By Amy Wallace

Source : Los Angeles Times