Thursday, 21 July 2011

Tom Hanks

My Sunday Times interview with Tom Hanks...

'It's fun. This is stunning to me'
After 15 years, Tom Hanks is directing (and starring) again. He’s still the most bankable actor in the world, so where’s he been?
Jeff Dawson Published: 19 June 2011
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It was as Forrest Gump that Tom Hanks first demonstrated his remarkable knack for writing himself into history — acquainting Elvis with his pelvis, informing JFK of his need to wee, grunting his way through Nam. In the age of global power summits and international glad-handing, he has since honed the art to perfection. No gathering of leaders is quorate without Thomas Jeffrey Hanks in attendance (and/or his co-Zelig, Steven Spielberg), there to schmooze with the suits, to gurn with the gubernatorial.
In January 2009, on Washington’s National Mall, Hanks mugged through the mother of all warm-ups: whipping up America as part of President Obama’s inauguration. Last month, at Buckingham Palace, there Hanks was, hobnobbing with the Windsors as part of the American state visit. Quite what the star of Turner & Hooch was doing escorting the leader of the free world evaded debate. But, to be fair, Hanks acknowledges the absurdity. “I don’t know why I was invited to those things,” he shrugs. It’s all “pretty goofy”, as he puts it. “My wife [Rita Wilson] was sitting next to Gordon Brown and the guy who runs MI5.” Blame it on the politicians, on their disturbing infatuation with showbiz.
Hanks has been around long enough to take it all in his casual stride. The skinny geek once besotted with a mermaid is now a genial gent of 54. As if to mark the passage of time, he is also a freshly minted grandfather — one son, the actor Colin Hanks (from his first marriage), recently fathered a little girl. He beams. “Who would have thought, man?”
Since I first met Hanks in Los Angeles 17 years ago, little seems to have changed him on a personal level. His waist is thicker than it used to be, his hair not quite as grey as it ought to be (though we can forgive him this trespass). But as he bounds, all spruced up, from the bathroom of his suite at Claridge’s, he retains that essential puppy-dog enthusiasm — like the kid in Big, the one trapped in the grown-up’s body. He is the über-celebrity possessed of a rare gift, that of granting you his sincere and undivided attention — or, at least, of creating the impression he’s doing so; the reason, you fancy, he gets invited to all the plum parties.
Hanks’s presence today is for an increasingly uncommon purpose. He has a film to promote — one he’s acting in. For, despite the distinction of being the most bankable film star of all time, one whose pictures have earned a combined $8 billion at the box office — “The movies have done pretty good so far,” he deadpans — the facts show that he has starred in fewer than 10 (in the flesh) this millennium. The roll of honour includes two outings as Robert Langdon (The Da Vinci Code, Angels & Demons): solid work and highly lucrative, but a far cry from the heady days when Hanks would pick up a gong just for picking his nose. “I have people congratulate me for winning the Academy Award for Saving Private Ryan,” he says, “which I did not win for.”
His new film, Larry Crowne, by comparison, is rather modest, a labour of love produced by his own Playtone company.
In it, Hanks is the title character: a recently redundant, scooter-riding midlifer who must go back to college to get the necessary qualifications to re-enter the workplace. Love blossoms in the shape of his cynical tutor, Julia Roberts, whose icy heart is there for the melting. “She’s not gonna suffer any fools gladly,” he says of his co-star — in real life, apparently, as much as on screen.
Though set against the harsh economic realities of job loss and house repossession, it’s a film you would still file under “heart-warming” — as heart-warming as any film can be with the sight of a fifty­something man in his underpants. “I would say that it’s upbeat for its lack of cynicism,” he adds, which you might also construe as a personal motto. “There’s no bad guys, there’s no drugs, there’s nobody who’s trying to screw Larry Crowne, apart from his teacher. He’s just got to figure out what he’s gonna do next in his life.”
Hanks also directs, for the first time since 1996’s That Thing You Do!, the consequence of the project being “this personal crusade”; and he writes, too, having co-penned the screenplay with Nia Vardalos, whose surprise smash, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, currently stands as the most profitable film ever made. Hanks produced that, too. Not for nothing does Forbes estimate his current personal worth at $350m.
Middle aged and moving on: Hanks is now acting in, writing and directing movies (Denis Rouvre)
In 1980, on his debut feature, the slasher flick He Knows You’re Alone, he was paid precisely 800 bucks. “Hey, that was a lot of money, man,” he exclaims. “I paid my rent for, like, six months off that.”
The original title of Larry Crowne was actually Harry Brown. “Good job we didn’t stick with that,” he chortles — that name was taken by a 2009 Michael Caine film —before launching into an impression of Caine according to the rules laid down by Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon in The Trip. Hanks is a huge fan. “Those guys slay me.” If it comes off more Dick Van Dyke than Maurice Micklewhite, there is nonetheless something majestic about Hanks in full flow. “She was only bloody 16,” he bellows. (Is this what he gets up to over the salmon mousse with Barack and Dave?)
If there’s one thing Hanks knows, it’s his audience. In the 1990s, his going off-piste as a Wall Street bastard helped baste the turkey that was The Bonfire of the Vanities — though, still, as is his wont, Hanks was about the only person to emerge with any credit in Julie Salamon’s fiendish exposé, The Devil’s Candy. It was a valuable lesson. Anointed “the new Jimmy Stewart” — “Sooner or later, that’s gonna start getting old, but I’ll take it” — only once, in recent times, and splendidly, has he diverted from Mr Nice Guy, in Sam Mendes’s Road to Perdition. Though even here, his casting seemed a form of cinematic shorthand: not a mere gangster, but a gangster with a heart. “This is the countenance that you get,” he concedes. “I can’t change that unless I start hiding inside make-up. I’m not that mysterious a presence.”
As an actor, Hanks is in a league of his own: back-to-back Oscars for Philadelphia and Forrest Gump, the only thesp, besides Spencer Tracy, to have achieved this feat. Let us not underestimate Hanks’s legacy. In his most commercially successful performance, voicing Woody in the Toy Story films, he has been party to a creation that will outlive us all. Those awards heralded a sort of maturation, the shift from the romcomer of Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail to the all-American hero of Saving Private Ryan and Apollo 13, films that also elevated Hanks as a spokesman for both war veterans and Nasa: one giant step from the suburbs of San Francisco, where he grew up in a Brady Bunch household and acted in school plays.
He doesn’t forget, however. On winning his best actor Oscar in 1994 for portraying an Aids sufferer — quite daring in its day — Hanks’s spectacularly free-forming acceptance speech had him thanking, and, according to Hollywood legend, inadvertently “outing” his high-school drama teacher, Rawley Farnsworth, as one of the “finest gay Americans I had the good fortune to be associated with”. But Hanks denies it was ever a revelation, saying the story was “a product of newspaper headlining”. The following year, Hanks surpassed himself, clutching his statuette for Forrest Gump, burbling something lachrymose about “standing on magic legs”. Those Oscars have long receded in the rear-view mirror. “It went by in the wink of an eye and, now, it’s so long ago,” he sighs, “it’s, like, fixed in amber.”
Still, it seems a shame he’s now so economical with his presence on screen. “You don’t want to go to the well too often,” he explains. “Look, at the age of 50, you can’t keep banging out movies over and over again. The audience doesn’t give a shit about you after a while.” It’s the industry that has changed, too, he says. His speciality, what they call the midbudget drama, has been virtually squeezed out of the multi­plexes. Hollywood no longer makes them. “One of the things we were fighting with this movie is that it’s not a sequel,” he grumbles. “If this were Larry Crowne 2, we would have a much better shot at doing well. And if this were an R-rated movie that had nudity and foul language and people getting laid, we would have a studio much more willing to have made it and to push it.”
With the forum for top-notch drama having shifted to cable television over the past decade, it is here that Hanks has focused his attention, as the producer of such landmark series as Band of Brothers, John Adams and The Pacific. “I’m not saying that took me away from movies by choice, there just were not things out there that I was willing to throw myself into. You can’t really take a movie unless you’re fascinated by the theme. We were doing stuff on television that was incredibly rewarding, the best work you can do.” More recently, there has been the radical polygamy drama Big Love. “That, to me, was exploring the high country,” he enthuses. Though the usually unimpeachable Hanks got into hot water with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints when he publicly branded its stance against gay marriage “un-American”, something he later retracted. He doesn’t duck the issue. “I said a bad thing. Quite frankly, I’m not wild about some of their political stances, but for me to call anyone ‘un-American’, that was not right.”
Hanks has two more movies in the works — there is a 9/11 drama with Sandra Bullock, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, based on the Jonathan Safran Foer novel, and he is also in talks to appear in an expensive, big-screen version of David Mitchell’s complex, time-hopping novel Cloud Atlas.
He smiles. “This is all still really quite stunning to me,” he says. “It’s fun, it’s a blast. All the people I love are pretty well taken care of. They don’t have to worry about financial security. God bless America and the Queen, but I still can’t figure out how I got here.”
Larry Crowne is released on July 1

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