An interview with Tom Hanks

October 06, 1996


Take another look at the beehive as a good-hair-day possibility. Renew that never-ending discussion about which was your favorite Beatle or even the pounding question about who was best - The Beatles or the Dave Clark Five.Nostalgia is coming at us with a vengeance. "Grease," the long-running 1950s musical, comes to Chrysler Hall beginning Tuesday. More prominent, however, is Tom Hanks' $26 million rock movie “That Thing You Do!" It has the mock-'60s songs, the four-lad band in blazers and ties, the up-beat, the shades and the warm feeling of pre-Vietnam.

Hanks ushers in the era, with his film directorial/writing debut in "That Thing You Do!" He also co-wrote four of the songs and appears as the gung-ho business manager of the movie's heroes, The Wonders.

"I was 8 years old in 1964, and I was the youngest in my family," Hanks said. "I remember the house being full of teen-agers all the time, and the radio played every minute. The girls all argued about who was their favorite Beatle. As for me, I thought the Dave Clark Five was way better."

At age 40, Hanks has a pudgy face and a heftier appearance than back when he was Forrest Gump. His life, indeed, HAS been a box of chocolates and who can blame him for sampling them?

Hanks is the Jimmy Stewart of his generation - the nice guy whom everyone can trust. He matched Spencer Tracy's record by winning consecutive Oscars for "Philadelphia" and "Forrest Gump." He brought back romance to movies with "Sleepless in Seattle." His recent films have consistently grossed no less than $100 million and usually much more, including his American-hero astronaut outing in "Apollo 13."

Blessedly, no one remembers "Bonfires of the Vanities" or "Turner and Hooch." If ever there was an actor who can do anything he wants, it's Tom Hanks.So why, of all the choices he had, did he decide to play a supporting role and direct himself in a rock movie set in 1964?
"It's just something way different from anything I'd done before," he said, after pausing a moment to ponder the question. "I needed an antidote to the `Forrest Gump' trophy year. That movie became bigger than any of us ever thought. It became a phenomenon. I spent a full year celebrating it, going around the world talking about myself and accepting awards. It was during that time that I started writing this script. It really isn't very interesting talking about yourself. You learn more when you get your ass kicked than when you're doing well."

He wrote the script in 30 days and took it to 20th Century-Fox, who immediately agreed to produce it - as long as the budget was kept at the "moderate" level."I'll admit I had an advantage," he said. "If my name had been Tom Smith, they might not have read it. But if it goes smackeroo, flop, you won't see me directing anything else. You don't get a second chance."
"That Thing You Do!" is about an unknown band in Erie, Pa., which suddenly gets a hit record and steadily climbs the charts. The central figure is the drummer, Guy Patterson, who escapes his job in his father's appliance store to run with the band. The part is played by Tom Everett Scott, who is a dead ringer for a young Tom Hanks. On the set, the crew irritated Scott by by calling him "Tom Junior.""He looks so much like me that I initially decided not to cast him," Hanks said. "Then I realized that wasn't fair. He's a natural."

The lead singer, Jimmy, is played by Johnathon Schaech, a lad who was apparently marked for stardom since he appeared in bathing trunks as Winona Ryder's boyfriend in "How to Make an American Quilt.""Ultimately," the director said, "the film's success or failure probably depends on whether the girls think Johnathon is cute enough."
Hanks wasn't smiling as he said it.

The guitarist, a cherubic but earnest type, is played by Steve Zahn and the bass player is Ethan Embry, a geek full of lovable energy. There isn't a star in the bunch, a factor which encouraged Hanks to take the role of their manager himself. "Besides," he laughed. "I wrote the part for myself."

Liv Tyler, this season's new screen beauty with the Ava Gardner eyes, was cast as Jimmy's girlfriend, and the Wonders' mascot. Since the movie went into production, she has become a star, making this probably one of the last small roles she'll play."Liv is the oldest 19 year old I've ever known," Hanks said. "She's 19 going on 32. She has quite a career in front of her."
"That Thing You Do!" has no bad guys.

"It was the year between Kennedy's assassination and the election of Lyndon Johnson," Hanks said. "Just before Vietnam. Probably our last time of innocence in this country. But, when you think about it, movies shouldn't always have bad guys. The vast majority of life, as I have come to know it, is rarely a protagonist situation. Everyone is motivated. There were no bad guys in `Forrest Gump' or `Apollo 13' either."

All those stories about Hanks having a sad childhood are, he says, only partially true. "I suppose I should be the poster boy for the dysfunctional family. My father was gone. We moved around a lot. My stepfather from 1962 could walk into this room and I wouldn't know him. But there was no alcohol and no abuse in my childhood. In the 1960s, we were just trying to figure out where we were going."He adds, sheepishly, "My wife comes from the most stable of families and she flips out over the silliest things. So there."
His wife is actress Rita Wilson. She has a bit part in the movie, as a waitress in a pizza restaurant. He also found a job for his old "Bosom Buddies" co-star Peter Scolari. The TV series was his introduction to Hollywood, followed by his movie debut in "Splash."

He was determined not to use golden oldies songs. "We've all heard Del Shannon's `Runaway' one or two times too many," he said. "I was determined to have new songs."Although he admits that he can "only play seven chords," he wrote, or co-wrote, four of the songs. The title song, though, was chosen from more than 300 submissions.
"I listened to varied versions of `That Thing You Do!' night and day, in the car - everywhere," he said. The winner was written by Adam Schlesinger, a 28-year-old New Yorker.

As for directing again, Hanks says, "There's something to be said for being a highly paid movie star. You may get bored sitting in your trailer, but the director never gets to go to the trailer. For this job, I started at 4 a.m. every day and didn't get home until 11:45 at night. I wasn't ready for the physical grind of it. The most valuable advice I got came from Gary Marshall. He told me to change my shoes at lunch time."I don't think I'll ever be quite the same actor again. I always thought I was a pretty good boy with directors but I had come in late, and grumpy, a couple of times. I know now what that poor guy is going through."

As for his dreaded N word, he hates it.
"When you get back home, people will ask you if I was as nice as you expected," he grinned. "They will. I know they will. I'm stuck with that 'nice' thing. I'm probably as nice as the next guy, but, you know, I have my moments. It can be a pain with people having that expectation."
Is it a burden?
"Well, yes. But it's part of the gig. If you can't take it - do TV."

Source : The Virginian Pilot