Tom Hanks, You've Got Mail Interview

December 1998


Well here we go again. Tom Hanks. Meg Ryan. Nora Ephron all reteamed for another romantic comedy...
Well, you don't really treat it like a romantic comedy. Essentially, romantic comedies mean somebody works a lot longer on my hair than they usually do. The rest of it is you show up and Nora Ephron works. Working on a movie with Nora is kind of like going to a dinner party of hers. There's a lot of great conversation. There's a certain amount of screwing around but, by and large, you wind up talking about what Nora dictates you're going to wind up talking about. The screenplay of You've Got Mail is just like people talking. The fact that we're in Manhattan and in real restaurants and coffee houses made this thing almost as though I wasn't even at work. There was a very small level of fakeness to it -- my hair rarely looks as good as it does in real life, as you can probably tell.

Is it easier to shoot in New York than, say, in Hollywood?
New York is a pretty jaded town when it comes to such things. Actually, I think they're still reeling from The Mirror Has Two Faces up on the Upper West Side. As soon as they see trucks, they're afraid that Barbra Streisand's back making another movie. (Oh, she's gonna love that, isn't she?) New Yorkers take it all in stride, y'know, "Oh look Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan are eating hot dogs in Gray's Papaya. How interesting."

When The Shop Around The Corner, the film on which You've Got Mail is based, was made back in the black and white days, pen pals were the vogue and computers were the stuff of pulp sci-fi magazines. Now that we've modernized, how active are you on line?
I don't have time. I'm in my child rearing years here. Other than bang out a couple of e-mails I just don't have time. We use it a lot at the office, research people go off and come back with 60 pages of history on the brown shoe.

Have you ever done the chat room bit?
No, not really. I went in a chat room once, for fans of 2001: A Space Odyssey. There was nobody in the room.

Do you think the kind of story that plays out in You've Got Mail is possible for real thirtysomethings, like the characters you and Meg play?
I think anybody can be enraptured in some sort of anonymous relationship with somebody. Obviously a chat room is the perfect thing. I wouldn't be surprised if there were hundreds of thousands of people who could say the same thing that happened in the movie. There's something thrilling about the power of being anonymous. People want to feel as if they're special and loved and I think they respond to it wherever they get it, even if it's somebody with a 6 digit identifying number typing "Hey! You sound pretty great!"

But you don't have that anonymity anymore.
Oh gee, poor movie star. I used to go to baseball games alone, and just sit there and keep score. I can't do that now. There's a lot of stuff that I can't do with my family. Sometimes being a movie star in a public place is kind of like being the man with the chicken on his head, hard to hide the fact that you have a chicken on your head and everyone is looking at you. By and large, I've had a long time to get used to it. Usually, when I'm in a hotel room, I strip down naked and walk around naked on the patio, which is as close as I can get to a feeling of anonymity and power. The pictures will be on the Internet in another 45 minutes [grins].

Is there pressure to do movies with Meg Ryan because the team seems to work so well?
No, none at all. You kind of hope that you'll be able to work with people that you like again. In the course of the history of the movies there's an awful lot of creative teams that periodically got together. Sometimes they're men, sometimes they're women. With Meg, this is the 3rd movie I've made with her and we pick up where we left off.

What is it about Meg Ryan...
Meg is very smart. I always feel as if I have to be on my toes around Meg. Honestly I don't think we've ever talked about the making of the movie, the three movies that we've made. We talk about things like paradigm shifts and [laughing] quasi great questions of philosophy. The most two actors can wrangle with. She is not driven, so it's not about power. She's not a diva although quite frankly she has her professional responsibility very much together. I think, in the best of all ways, we're absolute peers and absolute friends but she's constantly challenging me by the nature of how she does her job. It's unspoken. It's not a can you top this. The first day we worked together, which was on Joe vs. The Volcano (she was the role of Didi, the mousy brown haired girl that I worked with in the office) and I literally didn't recognize her. I thought I was talking with an extra at the coffee table. Then she says, "Nice chatting with you Mr. Hanks" and wanders away. When she was walking away I could tell by the walk "that's Meg!" Truly, I had talked to her for 15 minutes without knowing it. It wasn't flashy. It was just doing it. By and large I think Meg gets really good work out of me because of that. It's like a great tennis match. She's on the other side and she's a very good player and she makes me better.

Do you recognize a Tracey-Hepburn kind of connection in your role playing?
I wouldn't raise us up to the level of Tracey and Hepburn but by and large yes. On this movie there's a scene towards the end when I'm wooing her and trying to tweak the situation (oops, sorry). We would just start, improvising, and eventually we'd be aware that the camera was running. We'd hear noise and Nora say "Action" and we would keep the scene going with what it was. That started from the very first moment we sat down. It wasn't an exercise. It was just being. I've worked in really good tandems before and you really are quite aware of when it's natural and when it's right. It is with Meg.

Your characters discuss corporate strategy and battles in language right out of The Godfather.
Yeah, and how does Nora come up with this? Not The Godfather 3 mind you but certainly Godfathers Part 1 and 2. Everything you need to know you can learn from The Godfather. The sad part is you have to kill your brother.

OK then, at what point do you as a performer allow yourself comfort with the comparison to Tracey and Hepburn ?
Never. These are the true icons. The Mount Olympus type legends of the genre, of the art form. It would be tantamount to some artist saying "I am the next Picasso." No way. That will be defined over a long period of time but I can't lay claim to that.

People say you have the potential to be the next Jimmy Stewart.
I'm sorry. It's lovely. I can't ask for better praise but I'm not about to say, "I've made a couple of movies that were just as good as It's a Wonderful Life." I can't do that. Our movies are good and nice and of this generation but, as far as making the timeless classic or even defining the give and take banter of the art form like Hepburn and Tracey did, we haven't done anything like that yet.

How far do you think you can stretch yourself as an actor as your career movies on?
Well, not every movie is You've Got Mail. I had one other movie out this year which I think was very different from You've Got Mail and I hope I can be as continually different from this to that.

Oh boy did I misphrase that question. I'll get back to Saving Private Ryan in a moment. You have maintained a good set of "nice guy" roles. All positive, all sympathetic, even when you're pushing the boundaries of what some people might consider immoral (as in Philadelphia). Have you ever thought about doing a complete 180 a la the nice guy who is truly an evil man ?
I am always looking for something that's going to be different, be demanding something new of me, no matter what the logic is. I'm making a movie right now called The Green Mile which is about death row prison guards in 1935. A very different kind of thing. But I'm never looking for change merely for the sake of change. It's not I'm so tired of being a nice guy I want to play someone who's venal and evil. I could play an evil bad guy tomorrow but there'll be no connection to the part. I won't feel as if I'm examining anything about the human condition. I'd just be playing the next Bond villain who wants to take over the world. There's no future in that. There's nothing to be gained. I look at movies in the past and think "My God if I had been able to do Bill Macy's role in Fargo; that was most magnificent. And you easily could see me playing that guy. So it's all a matter of the logic of the piece when it comes around ‘cuz by and large playing the bad guy means you're playing the antagonist in the standard antagonist-protagonist narrative and it's just not that interesting to me. But when it comes along, I'd leap at the opportunity.

There's been Oscar® talk about Saving Private Ryan. Your role excepted, any thoughts?
Well, it's a good thing. It's a fine thing. Hope we make the playoffs, we have a pretty good team. We had a pretty good season. We'll find out. The whole trophy run season is so big and so long and so all encompassing; it now starts in February and goes straight through to the following February so we'll find out. It'd be a wonderful thing if the movie is singled out.

How's your interaction been with WWII vets been since the release of the movie?
We get quite a lot of response. It's pretty much ongoing. It's not so much to me, they're still talking about the movie. I think it was a bit of a watershed.

What do you do in your leisure time?
I go to the dentist. I've got three kids so by and large that devours your leisure time. I wish I could say I parasail in the Indian Ocean but I just haven't done that.

The kids can do that...
Not during the school year.

Do you want to take time off and just hang with the family?
Yeah. The last year has been much more hectic than I was anticipating and it does stack up on you. Between From the Earth To the Moon, Private Ryan, You've Got Mail and The Green Mile, it's been a long, long heads down working process and I do need to read for myself. That question about reading? It's tough to read for your own enjoyment.

What were your favorite books to read?
When I first started reading I read all the books of Leon Uris, because they were kind of like these non fiction, full of turgid melodrama at the same time. Chaim Potok, the man who wrote "My Name is Asher Lev," I've read almost everything that he wrote. But growing up there was the "Catcher in the Rye" thing. That's a big thing to go through. I take credit for never having read that Tolkien trilogy. I read "The Hobbit" in 5th grade, but got 20 pages into the Trilogy and went "Yeah. Right. Frodo, Bilbo, Middle Earth. Yeah, thank you." And I was done. So I never bothered with the rest of it. I'm actually taking claim for not having read something, which I'm very proud of. I never read the trilogy.

Last question: What's the status of Toy Story 2?
That's an ongoing thing. They call you every 5 months and say can you come back into the studio to do some more recording. I think I‘ve done 5 sessions of it.

Source : Cranky Critic® StarTalk