Tom Hanks Interview
Hollywood is stuffed like a tin of Beluga caviar with people "famous for being well known," to use a phrase coined by historian Daniel Boorstin. Off the screen, there are actors known for the photographers they punch and for the causes they support; there are actors known for their dollars and actors known for their scents; there are those who are famous for being arrested at nuclear-test sites and for not being able to get themselves arrested; there are those known for their hair and those known for their stubble.
And then there is Tom Hanks.
Let's put it delicately: If Tom Hanks had to depend on his off-camera image to become celebrated, he wouldn't be. Hanks is the first to admit that he is neither particularly good-looking nor a scintillating conversationalist. He doesn't fight, do drugs, carouse, gossip or speak out on politics.
Yet Hanks's face is everywhere these days, from the big screen to the season premiere of Saturday Night Live to the cover of Newsweek. They're even talking about an Oscar for the guy. What gives?
This: Tom Hanks does one thing incredibly well—he can act like a dream. The respect in which he is held by both critics and his fellow actors has been remarkable, given his relatively brief career. He has been likened to such greats as Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart. He has held his own—and more—with such pros as Sally Field and Jackie Gleason. Normally reserved reviewers have described him in words they reserve for the De Niros, Pacinos and Nicholsons. Most of all, what they say is that Hanks makes acting look easy.
Nineteen eighty-eight was the year of Tom Hanks. Big was released during the invasion of the body switchers—that spate of boy/adult movies with nearly identical plots—and his competition included the likes of Dudley Moore and Judge Reinhold. But Hanks, in "Big," would deliver a touching honesty not visible in the other movies. The story of a 13-year-old boy who wishes that he were (and then really becomes) "big," the film became an immediate smash. "Big," like all hit comedies, had its classic moments: Hanks at his first grown-up party, gagging on the caviar; Hanks and Robert Loggia tapping out "Chopsticks" on an oversized keyboard; Hanks cooling off Elizabeth Perkins by telling her that if she really wants to "sleep over" at his place, he wants to be on top (he means the top bunk); Hanks peering into his shorts to see if he's big there, too; Hanks shooting silly string from his mouth and, of course, politely nibbling row after row of his tiny appetizer corn.
Producer James Brooks, who had directed Broadcast News and Terms of Endearment, had originally wanted Harrison Ford or Robert De Niro for the part. Hanks was a fortuitous third choice. The film lived up to its name, becoming one of the biggest movies of 1988, grossing more than $110,000,000 and instantly catapulting Hanks, who had earned rave after rave, to the ranks of stardom.
There was also Punchline. Made before but released after Big, the film had Hanks tackling the risky role of a brilliant but tortured stand-up comedian. It was the type of assignment in which being a good actor—like his co-star Sally Field—simply wasn't enough; he'd also have to learn how to sidle up to a microphone and, without dialog or partner, be genuinely funny. When "Punchline" was released, critics generally agreed that Hanks's performance was better than the film itself. Talk of an Oscar began then.
All of which was wildly unlikely, given Hanks's less-than-lucky past. Born in 1956, he had a difficult childhood, caused in part by the divorce of his parents when he was five. He and his brother and sister lived with their father; his younger brother went to live with their mother. Hanks's father worked in the restaurant business but moved the family often from town to town, mostly in Northern California. When his father married for the second time, he got a stepmother, along with five more kids. Divorce came again two years later and that family was split up. Then a third wife moved in. Meanwhile, life with Tom's natural mother was even less stable: She remarried three times and he rarely saw her during the years he was growing up. The Brady Bunch it wasn't.
Nor was school Hanks's strong suit. He had few compelling interests until, at a community college in Sacramento, he enrolled in a drama course. His first job was that of a stagehand, and he never looked back.
Hanks met actress Samantha Lewes in Sacramento, where they had been working in a college theater group. Moving to New York City, where they married, the two struggling actors combed the city for work, only to move back to California—this time to L.A.—where Hanks had been offered his first important role, in Bosom Buddies, a sitcom in which he and co-star Peter Scolari appeared mostly in drag. Despite an enthusiastic cult following, the show was canceled after two years, just in time for Hanks's first major film role—as the guy who falls for a mermaid in Ron Howard's Splash. The film became one of the biggest hits of 1984.
Since that film's success, Hanks has been on a roll, making 12 movies in six years. A kind of droll comic genius is the common denominator in almost all these films, though the roles have varied: one of the guys after suds 'n' girls in Bachelor Party; the beleaguered new owner of a ramshackle mansion in The Money Pit (with Shelley Long); the whiz-kid ad man with a hard-boiled dad in Nothing in Common (with Jackie Gleason); Dan Aykroyd's carefree partner in crime prevention (but careful enough to practice safe sex) in Dragnet.
Tom and Samantha were divorced in 1987, with two children, now six and ten. He was remarried last year to Rita Wilson, an actress whom he met on the set of his forgettable Peace Corps comedy, Volunteers. His next film, due for a spring release, is The 'burbs, a comedy with Bruce Dern and Carrie Fisher.
When Playboy decided to track down Tom Hanks, a surprising number of women offered assistance to interviewer and Contributing Editor David Sheff—"Maybe I can carry your tape recorder, huh?" Ever the professional, Sheff braved the assignment solo. Here's his report:
"Hanks was wearing sweats and sneakers and had forgotten to shave the day I met him in his office at Disney Studios—just past the Mickey Mouse mailboxes and Chip and Dale ashtrays. The fact that his office is in the studio's animation building seems somehow appropriate. Inside, there are only a few personal items to distinguish it as Hanks's: For one, hanging on the wall above his Macintosh SE is a framed 'Dear Tom' letter, congratulating him on his marriage and raving about his performance in Top Gun, which, of course, he wasn't in.
"Almost immediately, I learned that Hanks is a soft-spoken, modest man who is stubborn about only one thing, as far as I could tell: letting anyone from the press into his house. The location, in Los Angeles, seems to be one of his most fiercely guarded secrets.
"When I drove up to it during one of the later sessions, he came out to meet me, saying, 'This is the closest anyone has ever been.' I was only at the garage.
"Although I promised Hanks that I wouldn't reveal the location of his house, let me note that it isn't particularly lavish, and neither are the cars in front of it—among them, a VW convertible and a Honda Accord.
"That particular morning, Hanks was dressed in a rubber wet suit. We were going surfing, one of his newer passions.
"He took some surfing gear from the garage and jammed it into the trunk of his car, next to a set of golf clubs. We secured the surfboard onto the roof of the car and, as we strapped ourselves in for the ride, he offered me coffee from a large Thermos. He had made the coffee himself—there was just the right amount of cream already in it—and balanced his own cup as we drove down Sunset Boulevard toward the Pacific Coast Highway.
"At Malibu beach, he stopped the car and handed me a towel. 'I thought you might want a towel so you'd be more comfortable on the beach,' he said. I remember thinking, How considerate. And he makes such great coffee. But after the many hours spent with him over the course of the interview, I began to wonder about this comic actor, When is the fun supposed to start? How about a joke? "Not working is what drives actors stark-raving mad and why they develop ulcers and drug problems."
"Finally, a wave came. It was not a large wave, but it was a wave and Hanks paddled frantically to try to catch it. It came to shore without him. Soon, another tiny wave broke and he missed that one, too. But still he waited, his hands on his hips, out there on his board.
"Then, another wave came, and he started paddling again. The wave began breaking and it looked as if he were going to catch this one. He was up, he was down. For someone who had been surfing for only a few months, he was certainly determined; and he rode the wave until it petered out about four seconds later.
"He shrugged and headed out again. There he was, paddling about and missing waves—his legs flailing behind him, his hair sticking up on top of his head—and it was becoming funny. I found myself laughing out loud.
"Finally, it dawned on me. If a camera had been on him, this would have been a quintessential Hanks scene: He was doing something with the utmost sincerity and was by turn endearing, charming, silly and goofy just being himself."
You're on a streak. The critics heap praise on you and the public seems to love you, too. No offense, but what's the big deal, anyway?
I would hope it's because I'm fascinating, interesting, charming, witty, funny and yet...can be taken seriously. [Laughs] Actually, I have no idea. I couldn't figure it out in a million years. Nor would I want to. I do what I do.
The word vulnerable appears often in articles about you.
Fine, great. Vulnerable. Also: "He appears so crushable." Yeah, fine. I don't know anybody who isn't. This popularity thing, it can happen to anyone who's in a couple of hits in a row. I have no idea why, but for some reason, I'm able to make movies for a living. That's it.
What about the comparisons to Cary Grant?
I think those comparisons came after Volunteers, in which I play a very cool guy with a Bostonian accent and I'm dressed real nice.
Isn't it also because, like Grant, you appeal to a cross section of people?
Yeah, the babes—I mean the women—loved Cary Grant and the guys wanted to be just like him. But I don't like those comparisons. I just think the guy I play in Volunteers is that kind of guy: He always has the right thing to say, has all the women. Pure fantasy, like a James Bond movie.
Your movie Bachelor Party also contributed something to your image—as a carouser.
Yeah, though I'm the only one at the bachelor party not to get laid. The movie is just a sloppy rock-and-roll comedy that has tits in it. It was made when the studios were making lots of Porky's and Animal House kinds of things.
Were you concerned about getting stuck in teenage beer-and-sex movies?
I had already done Splash, so it was something very different for me. Splash had been a romantic-leading-man role—you know, the innocent, lovesick guy who falls in love with a fish. A very well-rounded, wholesome movie.
And a fair entry into the business.
Most definitely. And the reason I got to do it was that a lot of big actors turned it down. If you were a big-name guy and got an offer for a movie directed by Mayberry's Opie Taylor for Walt Disney, you weren't going to leap at it.
But you did.
It sounded great to me. I hadn't done any movies yet. But I can't take credit for the success of Splash and Bachelor Party's being hits, other than having been in the right place at the right time and having got the job.
You must have been humbled when your next two movies, The Man with One Red Shoe and Volunteers, came out.
Sure. When you have a hit, you get so much attention paid to you. Splash made eighty million dollars and Bachelor Party made forty million. You think, Oh, I know how to do this. But you can't even begin to know anything after two movies, though you can get arrogant and lazy.
Is that what happened to you?
I didn't become an actor to develop a personality cult or to get power over people. I went into this because it's fun, because it's a great way to make a living. That really governs my reaction to it all. But you get all this attention. Your head can play all sorts of bizarre tricks. By now, I think I have a pretty good grasp of how this stuff works. I fought my battles a long time ago.
What kinds of battles?
Oh, I guess you have a period when you think you deserve all the attention you're getting. You have people surrounding you, telling you that you're the greatest thing in the world. I honestly don't think I have an inflated view of myself now. But it happens.
Play critic for us and review your movies.
A really good movie that made a lot of money.
Has enough stuff in it that's genuinely funny, lots of surprises. It also made a ton of money.
The Man with One Red Shoe.
Not a very good movie. It doesn't have any real, clear focus to it. It isn't about anything particularly that you can honestly understand. It made no money at all.
A really good idea and maybe sixty percent of it is pretty funny. The last forty percent... What can you say? The audience passed judgment on it and it didn't do that well.
The Money Pit.
Some parts of that are absolutely hilarious, but, for the most part, it just doesn't cut it. All right? For a while, it made a ton of money, and then it stopped.
Nothing in Common.
Has a bit of a split personality, because we're trying to be very funny in the same movie in which we're trying to be very touching. It's the best work that I had done up to then. It didn't go through the roof, but it did very well.
Every Time We Say Goodbye.
Disappeared without a trace, even though it's probably the most visually beautiful movie I've made.
Made a lot of money but probably not nearly as much as anticipated. It's convoluted. There are problems with it. It should be funnier.
It's a genuinely good movie that I think is really honest and touches the consciousness.
That's the hardest one to make any sort of judgment on. The movie didn't do that well, which was really disappointing.
Any idea why?
If I were going to figure out why, I would end up taking a bunch of cheap shots at an awful lot of people who tried real hard, and that's not fair. What can you say? But it's the best work I've ever done. We were talking some real naked truths about the characters and, in a lot of ways, about myself. I was too close.
What do you mean?
The guy in Punchline probably has the worst aspects of my worst aspects.
He is extremely competitive, for one thing. Competitive to a fault. He is unable to balance his daily existence so that real life and what he does for a living have an equal weight. I've certainly had those problems; I think any actor has: The only time you really feel alive is when you're working. I've gotten a little more mature since I was like that, but...
How do you feel these days when you're not working?
I think that's what really drives actors absolutely stark-raving mad and why they develop ulcers and drug problems.
And that's why you've made twelve movies in six years?
Part of it is the insecurity factor—every time, you feel like you're never going to get another chance again. They're going to catch on, and that'll be it. Even when you're working a lot, you think, How many of these do I get? It's like they give you only so many dollars in your wallet and once those dollars are spent, you're broke.
You made the cover of Newsweek. Did that feel like some kind of validation?
I guess. Supposedly. That's what everybody says. I just thought, Couldn't they have used a picture where I wasn't smirking? They took really nice, handsome photographs of me and they used the one where I've got this goofy look on my face. But, yeah, they want you on the cover of Newsweek and they say nice things and you're publicizing a movie, so you say, "Yeah, sure, go ahead." It's all praise now, but that means there'll be a period when it's all bad. You prepare for that. None of it is true, it's only for that particular moment. The backlash hits in a few months. Who is on the cover of Newsweek now? Geraldo. How's that for company?
The Newsweek piece makes a lot of your being a nice guy. You even did a monolog on that theme on Saturday Night Live. Was Newsweek right?
I think they confused my not caring about a lot of things with being nice. I just show up for these things—photo shoots and stuff—and say, "Hi, what do you want me to do?" They get to do whatever they want and I don't care about what clothes they put me in or anything like that. But it's not that I'm being a nice guy—I simply don't care. Life's too short to worry about all that.
Since you've brought up fashion, what does the Tom Hanks collection look like?
I'm wearing it. Neutral colors, beat-up things. No labels, no labels anywhere. You know how hard it is to find clothes without labels on them?
Will you be bringing out a perfume, as Cher and Liz have done?
Yes. Vanilla Extract Hanks. A little behind the ear. I do think that smells real good, matter of fact.
Before we leave Punchline to the video stores, why wasn't a real comedian cast in that role?
If you're going to make a movie about the postimpressionists, are you actually going to hire painters to play painters? We weren't making a documentary. This was acting, squared.
For example, Lenny was an accurate movie about a great stand-up comedian, but it wasn't funny to the audience who was in the movie theater. We, as an audience, weren't laughing at what Lenny Bruce was saying. We were watching him make other people laugh. In order to raise the stakes of what we were doing, we wanted stand-up material that was funny to audiences within the movie as well as to people watching the movie in theaters. In some ways it was harder.
And was the manic edge in your character written into the script, or did you bring that to the role?
Well, his humor was supposed to be aggressive, mind-controlling. My character makes people laugh, then shakes them up. There are comedians who do that in real life. Richard Pryor certainly does.
I think that Pryor's the most influential of the stand-up comedians since World War Two. There are four guys who have been the most influential: Pryor, Bruce and Steve Martin. Martin is the one who changed stand-up the most. I think he's behind the rage in comedy clubs today. And the fourth is—ahh—I can't remember. He was so influential and—God, I can't remember his name.
Milton Berle? Robin Williams? Jerry Lewis?
No, he hosts a show—on cable. I'm blanking out on this guy's name.
It'll come back to me. I'll scream it out when I remember.
We were talking about what you brought to the role in Punchline. Were the stand-up routines in the script?
No, a stand-up routine can't be written down on paper and then just delivered. You have to try it, build it. We built the routines in the movie step by step, piece by piece, performing in the clubs. My stuff was written by me and Randy Fechter and Barry Sobel, two comedians who are also friends.
The first few times, I tried it alone, before getting together with those guys, simply for the baptism by fire. It was terrible. I had what I thought was maybe five minutes of material; it turned out to be forty seconds of material and four minutes and twenty seconds of embarrassing myself and flopping and sweating.
That bad, eh?
Yeah. I felt like a jerk. I had a safety net because I'm a well-known guy, but that lasts for about a minute and a half. After that, they expect you to make them laugh, no matter who you are.
On the other side of that was when it finally clicked, when it worked. It felt incredible. Addictive. There's a tremendous boost of adrenaline that would keep me up until three o'clock in the morning. That power to whip people into a frenzy—ROBERT KLEIN!
Robert Klein! He's number four! Whenever I saw him or heard him as a boy, I always felt he was the one comedian doing something genuine and brand-new.
You said that you found stand-up addictive. How?
You control everything. You are your own producer and director and writer and star. You get up there all by yourself—you, alone, at a microphone. I know comedians who do it for two hours at a time—hold absolute dominance over an audience. You call all the shots and you feel all the glory. But that's the same thing that scares me about it: You're up there all by yourself. It's not a matter of taking somebody else's words and making them your own. It's you.
So how is your comedy habit? Will you be sneaking out to comedy clubs in the middle of the night?
Oh, no, no, no. When the movie was over, I was finished with stand-up. In order to do it seriously, in order to do it and honestly be good at it, it has to be a mission in life; it's not mine.
Your characters in both Punchline and Nothing in Common have confrontations with their fathers. Was that coincidental or did the theme intrigue you?
It probably happens on a conscious level early on, when you read the script. You get the ephemeral sense of what the writer is saying and you relate it to something you've been through. You draw on that. Later, as you build the character, while the movie is being shot, bolts out of the blue come at you, things you can't even begin to imagine.
My dad has been really ill a number of times. And in Nothing in Common, when the father was in the hospital, it took me back to the time I went to the hospital and my dad was lying there and he was unconscious, comatose, you know, hardly even there. The only thing I could do was wash his face with a washrag. That does something to you.
In that case, your father was Jackie Gleason. Was it intimidating working with such an old pro?
I was intimidated up to a point, but we worked as peers. I was certainly deferential and respectful. He wasn't feeling a hundred percent as far as his health, so he was kind of slow. But it was amazing: He came in exactly at nine, worked straight through to five. He had it down, knew what he wanted to do, got up and did it. He was just very, very professional.
We couldn't help noticing that when that movie opens, you're engaged in sex at thirty thousand feet with a stewardess.
Yeah, well, that's a movie from the previous sexual era. He's a guy who gets laid a lot because he can talk women into bed. That was pre-safe sex.
As opposed to Dragnet, in which your character makes a big point of using condoms?
Yeah; we couldn't make a movie that was supposed to be set in 1987 without addressing that issue. Dragnet, I think, was the first movie that featured something about safe sex. It happened ex post facto. We had to go back and reshoot some scenes as bridging material, and that's when I suggested we do something with condoms. They wrote that scene, the first safe-sex scene of the modern era. No lines. He takes the condom box, it's empty and he shrugs, like, Sorry, babe, we can't do it.
Just to finish this topic, what's your next movie?
A movie called Turner & Hooch. Henry Winkler is directing. It's essentially about a policeman and a dog. But that doesn't really explain. High-jinks ensue. It will probably be shooting right around the time people are holding this issue of Playboy in their one hand.
Did you acquire such a smart mouth at an early age?
As a child, I had an incredible amount of freedom to do whatever I wanted to do. By the time I was in junior high school, I was wandering around, freely, as much as I wanted to. A free spirit.
Did you have too much freedom?
No, because I had good sense. It wasn't like I was driving over to San Francisco, going to the Avalon Ballroom and dropping acid.
What did your parents do?
My dad was in the restaurant business. Sometimes it was a small coffee shop, sometimes dinner houses, sometimes a restaurant inside a hotel, you know, with union waiters and the whole bit. I was the third kid to come along. I was about five when my parents' marriage began to break up. My brother and sister were older and I had a younger brother.
Was the divorce hard on you?
I never saw them together very much—my dad was always working—so I wasn't really aware of any big change. When they broke up, my dad took the three oldest kids and my younger brother stayed with my mom.
Why did they split you up?
Mostly because of money. They weren't well off, and neither one of them could deal with four kids at one time. Also, my dad wanted us. Since then, I've had a divorce myself and I went back and talked to my parents. I asked them how they could do that, split us up. The answer was that you do what you have to do at the time.
After that, my dad met another woman and married her and we moved to Reno. She had five kids of her own. Suddenly, it was, like—bang, zoom!—there were eight kids around. We were total strangers, all thrust together. I remember in school we had to draw a picture of our house and family and I ran out of places to put people. I put them on the roof. I drew Dad in bed, sleeping, since he worked so hard in the restaurant. When he and she split up, I never saw those people again.
Your second family?
I've heard news of a few of them, but for the most part, I have no idea where they are. It was like the first time the three of us had left with Dad: We packed up the car and drove off at nighttime. We seemed to do that an awful lot.
Did you see your mother much?
I had scattered contact with her at that point. She remarried. She didn't have a lot of money. It was a tough time for her, trying to make ends meet with a kid on a waitress' salary. I saw her a couple of times, but I don't remember seeing her a lot.
Next, we went to my aunt's house in San Mateo. We lived there for a while; my dad slept in the back yard in a trailer. Then we moved into an apartment. We liked it, because it was the first time we'd lived alone with our dad. You remember those TV shows like Bachelor Father that showed kids living with their father in this neat home? We used to think they were crazy: We lived in these ripped-up, stained apartments that we completely destroyed in the course of living there. And we had no Philippine houseboy.
Were you a movie fan back then?
I saw movies all the time.
Did you have screen heroes?
Robert Duvall. All he has to do is walk across the street. And certainly Jack Nicholson. And Robert De Niro. I would see whatever Jason Robards did. Steve McQueen; he was really cool.
Also, film directors. Stanley Kubrick was a huge thing for me; 2001: A Space Odyssey was probably the most influential film, movie, story, artistic package, whatever, that I ever saw. It was just bigger. It affected me much, much more than anything I had ever seen. There was just awe. I've seen that movie twenty-two times. In theaters, not on video tape. Every time I saw it, I saw something new, something else that Kubrick had put in. He was able to suspend my disbelief. I just felt, We are in space.The only other things that affected me as profoundly were reading Catcher in the Rye and finding out, in the fifth or sixth grade, about the Holocaust.
Did you identify with Holden Caulfield?
I think everybody does when he goes through that period—when we form our opinions about ourselves. I remember feeling as alone as Holden Caulfield did, thinking, This isn't talking about me, or my life, yet I know how he feels. Another thing about that book: I remember being very impressed at seeing the word crap in print. "All that David Copperfield kind of crap..."
And you remember learning about the Holocaust...
We were the children of the World War Two generation. I remember seeing the very famous picture of the little boy being escorted out of his home in Poland. He's got this look in his face. I remember thinking, Geez, I'm older than that kid is. That led me to find out everything I could about the horror of the Holocaust, trying to figure out how that could happen in my parents' lifetime.
You were a pretty serious kid.
No, no more serious than anybody else. And I'm not saying that I was able to understand those things after seeing one photograph. I just remember feeling them.
Then we moved again. To Oakland. That was really where I grew up, because Dad would work every night till ten o'clock, so we were on our own. We made our own dinners, which was more comical than anything else. I remember throwing away frozen peas and carrots and spinach so Dad would think we'd eaten them. We'd burn a steak and have some bread with it and make some instant mashed potatoes and that would be our dinner. I still can't eat tomato soup because of the constant smell of burned tomato soup that hovered over the electric stove.
Sounds pretty nutritious.
We gained something for the lack of nutrition: We learned a lot, we became really independent. We did our own laundry. We supposedly had to keep the house clean, though it never was. That house was a shambles, too, by the time we left. We were completely unsupervised, but we got into surprisingly little trouble.
We finally left there because my dad met the woman he's married to now. She had three daughters. We moved again.
Do you remember being angry about all the moves?
No. But the friction began then, in 1966. Everything started going crazy at that time. We had lived alone for two and a half years. We had called our own shots. Now there was this woman telling us what to do. We weren't about to suddenly be told to make our beds when we hadn't made our beds for two and a half years. Or to be told we couldn't go somewhere. My sister was getting into trouble staying out late.
This split the family right down the middle. My sister left and went to live with my mom. My brother and I lived by ourselves in the downstairs of the house. We talked to the rest of the family only at mealtimes, and barely even then.
What was the effect of all that?
Like everything else, it was a blessing and a curse. A blessing because it made me very self-sufficient, I think. I don't need an awful lot to make me feel comfortable or happy. I travel very, very light.
And the curse?
I guess I travel light with emotional possessions, too. I can easily walk away from something that is difficult. It's a case of the rolling stone that gathers no moss. I find it very, very difficult to put down permanent roots.
Is that why your first marriage failed?
Partly. We married young. We had a child. That was the last thing either of us needed, and yet there was the fact of the matter... I don't want to talk about it, because it would lead to talk about my divorce, and I don't want to do that.
Just sum up what happened.
It was a college relationship. I was going off to work in the theater, but when my son was born, we decided to give it a shot and marry. Look, I was doing just a version of what my parents had done and what all of our parents had done. We tried. I was married for five years.
You met your present wife, Rita Wilson, on the set of Volunteers. How soon did you get married?
We got to know each other on the set, but we were both involved at home. I went back home and went through a bunch of stuff for the better part of a year, and so did she.
Did you spend time being single and dating between your marriages?
I've never really been good at that. I didn't want to, to tell you the truth. She and I dated for two years before we got married, so we had a long, protracted period of getting to know each other. But I've never been one to date.
We assume you have no ambitions to get onto the Supreme Court, so we can ask: Did you experiment with sex and drugs?
As to drugs, there isn't anybody who didn't smoke pot. And I also had done some blow [cocaine]. But I never did LSD. I never even did Quãaludes or anything like that, though all of this stuff, especially for someone who worked in the theater, was abundant. Smoking pot just made me the stupidest human being in the world.
And sex? You grew up in the middle of the sexual revolution.
I had no concept of that whatsoever. I think my world image would have been very different if I had lost my virginity in high school, but I didn't. No Bachelor Party antics, I'm afraid. I just had a girlfriend for a long time.
But something important did happen in high school. I took a drama class that determined my career. In the course of ten weeks, I saw five completely different types of theater. I felt that the theater was as magical a place as existed, and I wanted to be involved in it. So I majored in theater arts. After I saw a Berkeley Repertory Theater production of The Iceman Cometh, I knew I'd do anything to be a part of it.I went to Chabot College, where they had a great theater department. I started out operating the lights and building the sets. Later on, I began to perform and went off to the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival in Cleveland as slave labor. That was my big break. I went back to Sacramento as a professional actor and then went to New York with my wife and child.
Did you find work right away?
It was a war of survival, really. I was a kid who had never been in such a big city before. I was on unemployment and trying to act. My wife was an actress as well, and she was pursuing that as best she could. This went on for two years. Finally, I got a job in a low-budget movie, and after that, I got a development deal with ABC and we moved to California.
And were hired for the TV series Bosom Buddies.
Yeah. You've got to remember, this is old TV, before cable and the VCR. Back then, the three networks were battling it out like crazy to be number one. It was millions and millions of dollars, because they had more or less a lock on the TV audience. It's still very competitive, but it's not as big bucks as it used to be, because the networks have a dwindling percentage of the market.
So, since this was old TV, when money was really no object, the networks would do things such as send people just to go out and find the stars of tomorrow. And that's what happened with me at ABC. The odds were a billion zillion to one against anything happening, but it did.
I had lived in New York for a couple of years and had developed, I guess, a defense mechanism when it came to auditions. And that was not to care about them too much. So I was able to go in and be so casual, so nonchalant about impressing those people that I'd screw it up—as opposed to trying to show them how great and unique a talent you are. People hate you when you do that. Eventually, a development deal was struck, which meant I would probably work in some ABC-TV series. It worked out to be Bosom Buddies.
Did you enjoy episodic TV?
We all had a great time. I thought we did some really excellent television shows. We, as actors, got to be a very, very finely honed team. It was a great marriage, as far as that goes.
The marriage, of course, was the two of you in drag.
Yeah, but less and less with time. After the first half of the first season, we felt we'd done the drag thing to death. How many jokes can you make about Mydol, for God's sake?
The show was canceled after two seasons. Why?
Burnout. By the end of two seasons, we were pretty well flagged. We were just exhausted. Everybody probably would have said the show was canceled at the right time, because we would have begun to chew each other's heads off.
And not too long afterward, you managed to get a role in Ron Howard's movie Splash. But it was Big that captured the critics and caused talk about a possible Oscar nomination. We read that both De Niro and Harrison Ford were supposed to have your role in Big.
Yeah, though it's really a waste of time to consider it. I'm sure that it had been in a lot of other people's hands.
There were also stories about Penny Marshall's eccentricity as a director. Was she difficult to work with?
Well, one thing she did that drove me crazy was to test over and over and over again with all sorts of actors. There were scenes that I must have done two hundred times on video tape and then two hundred more in the rehearsal process. Penny just wanted to see all sorts of things. I would say, "I can't do this scene one more time. I don't care who it is. I cannot read these same goddamn words one more time or by the time we get to making the movie, I'm going to hate it so much that I'm not going to do it at all."
Well, what happened instead was, I knew the material so well that by the time we shot it, it turned out to be the best rehearsed of all the movies that I've done. There are only certain people I would accept that from. Penny is one. To most others, I would say, "Look, you either tell me exactly what is wrong or what is right about this or I'm going to strangle you."How does one prepare to be thirteen years old, as you did for Big?
First, there were memories of my own feelings of thirteen. If there's any age that I had gone back and analyzed, even before preparing for the movie, it was those junior high years, when you can't figure anything out. You're cranky all the time; the chemicals in your body are out of whack.I also watched the kid who played me before I got big, David Moscow. For the physical stuff.
What do you remember about that awkward time?
Two things. I say that so authoritatively, don't I? When I was thirteen, I was younger than my years. I could still play really well. I can remember things that I loved to do, the way you could have, you know, toy soldiers or a plane, and you could sit on the couch for hours and have incredible adventures. [Uses his hands to dive-bomb imaginary planes while making the sound of machine-gun fire] What was the other? I said there were two things. I forgot. Robert Klein! No? Hmmm.
Oh, here it is. Yeah, this is it. His cluelessness. Without a clue. There were times when he just didn't know what was going on. The kid was preverbal, in a way. And I remember being that way at the same age. I remember adults' talking to me and just going, "Yeah, right," but not knowing what they were talking about.In the movie, Elizabeth Perkins is trying to figure out our relationship—if it's serious or what. I have no idea what she's talking about. So I start hitting her with a rolled-up magazine and jump on top of her. It works because he's a very honest kid. He's not trying to duck anything. He doesn't know what she's asking.
Why, when your character gets laid, does he suddenly become serious and boring and begin wearing grown-up business suits?
Maybe from a thirteen-year-old's point of view, sex means maturity. Hey, I get laid, so everything's different now.
When you eat the centers out of Oreos and dribble cherries and whipped cream from your mouth and gag on the caviar, are we seeing you as a thirteen-year-old?
No, not really, though I'm sure we've all sucked the jelly out of the middle of doughnuts in our time.
The scene in which you and Robert Loggia play Chopsticks with your feet on the giant keyboard has been compared to a Gene Kelly-Fred Astaire dance. Was it as graceful to do as it looked?
It was exhausting. We rehearsed until we dropped. Robert plays three sets of tennis every day, so he was in shape for it. It was like jumping rope for three and a half hours every time we did the scene. It was really hard work.
With all the comparisons to other actors that resulted from your performance in Big, whom do you consider your male peers in the profession?
Sean Penn brings an integrity to his work that I think we all wish we had. Mickey Rourke is a guy I'll pay five dollars to walk across the street and see. There's something he does that he loads up his movies with, whether they're good or bad. Also Kevin Costner, Tom Berenger and Michael Keaton. I rarely go to the movies when I don't think, Man, I wish I had that part, you know?
Many actors spoke out during the Presidential campaign. You didn't. Do you feel any responsibility to get involved in social or political causes?
No. I think we have no responsibility whatsoever and that we hold no clout whatsoever. And I think that we do no service by throwing ourselves into causes. I will vote at my polling place and be very vociferous about my opinion around my kitchen table. But elsewhere, it's nobody's business. And I don't expect anybody to be swayed because Tom Hanks says vote no on Proposition B or something like that.
How about doing benefits for charity?
I choose to do things in my own way, which is anonymously. I don't think it is good for the cause, nor good for me, nor good for the people who are suffering it to have a celebrity do something. I think we're in the age of media overkill on this kind of stuff. Eventually, people are just going to say, Who cares? I mean, We Are the World was a great thing. But then it became, "Let's all jump on the band wagon." Whatever impact it had is gone.
Have you gotten used to being rich?
It's a kick in the head, but it doesn't add to my ability. It doesn't add to my selfworth. I've always felt I could buy whatever I wanted, to tell you the truth, even when I didn't have any money. I honestly don't need an awful lot to keep me happy. What the money can do is guarantee the security of an awful lot of other people. I've been able to help my family. It's great to be able to do nice things for the people I care about.
Have you gotten used to the attention you get as a movie star?
Yeah, but you have some rules that you adhere to. I remember that I'm not a rocket scientist. The only thing I have to protect from too much attention is my family, which I can do, for the most part. I talk to the press all the time. I'm accessible. It makes things easier. People leave you alone more. It is still a bit disconcerting to see a picture of myself and my wife in a tabloid or something like that, but big deal. I don't really go out into real public situations. I don't know what's going to happen if I try to go to hockey games next year and I can't get out of the place. But I still pursue the things that are important to me.
Such as surfing, which you've recently taken up. Just what are you up to, taking up surfing at your age?
There's really a placidness to it. It's otherworldly. Then you come out of the surf and you're tired and you're cold. Recently, I was out there and there were these squadrons of pelicans flying all over the place. They looked like prehistoric beasts. They were flying low, just a few feet over your head, vreeeem, all around you, and these little, tiny fish—I have no idea what kind of fish they were—but hundreds, thousands, millions of them all around you, shimmering, and other fish feeding on them, so there's a rippling on the water, and all of a sudden, they just jump out all at once and chase each other in and out... A rush, one of the greatest feelings I know.
If you weren't an actor, what would you be doing?
I don't know. I'd probably be in the hotel business, which stems from my being a bellboy once. Or I might have gone into sales. I truly do thank heaven that very early, I was able to land in this job and lifestyle.
I think I've always been aware that this is a very gossamer thing that we have here—not my thing, life itself. Life is a very precious, flimsy thing that can disappear in a moment. And not just by way of nuclear holocaust, by way of our giving in to our own lack of responsibility. We're all very capable of fucking up our own lives. We have to protect what's worth while—our environment, our democracy, our sense of decency and fair play. But we also need to protect our ability to adapt to hardship.
What do you mean by the ability to adapt to hardship?
When you make it impossible for people to, if they want to, throw all their belongings into the back of the car and drive somewhere else and start all over again. When you make the impossible, you are robbing them of their ability to adapt and change and grow. I think that freedom and ability to close a chapter in our lives that isn't working—like getting a divorce—is really important. To pack up and move away. And do something else. I've done it, my parents did it before me.
That may preclude commitment, though—just picking up and leaving.
I'm not saying that because we have the option it's good for everybody. It's something I struggle with. The way to check commitment is to understand it. I think I just may be able to do it now.
Source : Playboy