Tom Hanks has won two Oscars for best actor, for Forrest Gump and Philadelphia, proving that he’s adept at both comedy and drama. He started acting on the stage in high school (a small part in Night of the Iguana came first), worked his way into television for a couple of years in the one-joke Bosom Buddies, and achieved movie star status early on with his leading role in Splash. A few weeks ago he became, at 45, the youngest person to receive the American Film Institute Life Achievement Award.
And, oh yeah, move over, Ron Howard; it looks like Hanks is the nicest guy in show business. At a recent junket for his new film, Road to Perdition, Hanks bounded from room to room and table to table, greeting everyone with a big “Hey, how are ya this morning?” with an enthusiasm that once again brought out that young boy in a man’s body he so brilliantly portrayed in Big.
Yet although he comes across as bubbly and happy, almost carefree, Hanks is a guy who’s spent a great deal of time studying the business that’s won him fame and fortune, and he knows a lot about its rewards and its pitfalls.
But these days he’s not the least bit concerned about his venture into new territory with Road to Perdition, a moody gangster film set in 1930s Chicago, in which Hanks plays his first gun-toting bad guy.
“I’m not worried about people accepting me in the part,” Hanks says. “They either do or they don’t. I trust whoever sees the movie will become involved in what’s going on. Beyond that, it’s not really a marketing concern. It still comes down to the quality of the movie and the quality of the performance. I find that the audience is incredibly smart, and they make this organic decision themselves. And it’s got nothing to do with any sort of strategy. It’s whether or not they become involved in the story.”
The story itself involves several layers of father-son relationships, with Hanks smack in the middle of two of them: He’s the sort of “adopted” son of—and hired hitman for—tough mobster Paul Newman, and he’s the father of newcomer Tyler Hoechlin, who turns inward when he realizes what his dad does for a living.
Hanks insists he didn’t take the part just so he could try something new.
“I think that if you’re looking for a specific change of pace just for the sake of changing the pace, you’re making an artificial, inorganic decision,” he says. Then he puts on an impish smile and adds, “I didn’t tell my crack team of show business experts, ‘FIND SOMETHIN’ DARK FOR TOMMY TO DO!’ It wasn’t like that.”
Nor does he agree that Road to Perdition is an example of what the trade papers call “counter-programming”—in other words, a serious adult movie opening at a time of the year when film fare is usually lighter. (Road to Perdition premieres on the same day as Halloween: Resurrection, Reign of Fire and The Crocodile Hunter).
“If you’re gonna let marketing drive the entire way the movie business works, I think it would be a demoralizing atmosphere for movies,” Hanks says. “You’d only see mindless movies from the middle of May to the middle of August, and you’d only see dark, depressing, serious movies from Labor Day to the week before Thanksgiving.
“And then all through Thanksgiving it’d just be happy puppet movies with a lot of bright colors and singing ponies,” he adds, laughing. “If you actually think there is a time to release a movie versus another time, I think it’s absolutely wrong. People are dying for a good movie to go see. And they’ll show up to see it whenever it comes out.”
Hanks is enjoying this interview, leaning forward, hand on chin, waiting for the next question. He’s excited because he believes Road to Perdition certainly is a good movie. But he admits he didn’t know that while it was being made. He never knows that.
“I think it’s always a landmine,” he says. “Are you gonna step on something and blow yourself up? Is it gonna have any reverberations anywhere? You don’t have any idea. If you actually think you’re in the running for it, the chances are you’re making Bonfire of the Vanities.”
He laughs a little uneasily at having brought up one of his few big flops, but segues smoothly into his own degree of involvement with each project.
“One of the things I found is that you can be too involved,” he says. “The job of the actor, in many ways, is to stay aloof and separated from an awful lot of the Sturm und Drang that’s going on. I think my job is to provide the director with whatever he or she really needs or wants from me. So when I eventually see the finished film, I see stuff that I’ve never seen before, and it’s actually been reinterpreted in a completely different way. There’s been aesthetic choices that the director has made that he might have come to late in the game or that maybe he had from the very beginning, but I never even realized it because I was being manipulated by the son of a bitch.”
He smiles again at the naughtiness of his mild oath, and the smile is still there when he’s asked if, after all these years, acting is still a challenge.
“It’s still fun,” he says. “Something comes along and I still can’t believe that they’re asking me to do it, to play the role. I went into this because it’s the best job in the world. The money’s nice, the attention is more than anybody deserves. But it doesn’t have anything to do with when you get there and you put on the clothes and you’re pretending to be something else and you work with other people who are inspiring and intimidating at the same time. It’s still a blast.”