Interview: Tom Hanks

Pure Hanks, Mr. Nice Guy is put to the test in ‘Cast Away’

Dec. 19, 2000, Austin American-Statesman

For his new film “Cast Away,” Tom Hanks, nicest guy in the universe, shed 55 pounds to play a plane crash survivor who spends 4 1/2 years alone on a desert island.

How’d he do it? What an actor! What a guy!

Get over it.

“No secret at all,” Hanks smirks when asked, yet again, how he lost all that weight. “Just bacon and grapefruit. Nothin’ but bacon and grapefruit. Every day. And cigarettes. Bacon, grapefruit, cigarettes.”

Hanks thinks it’s a dumb question, and he’s right. That unimaginative journalists keep asking it chaps him silly. At this point in his publicity rounds, sarcasm (see above) is his buffer from banality.

But moments later, super fellow that he is, Hanks melts and gives it up. “It’s just time and discipline,” he sighs. “You eat a lot of fiber, lots of fruits and vegetables, cut down on everything, exercise every day for an hour and a half.”

(But what about the roly-poly girth you packed on for the first part of the film? “Oddly enough,” he quips, “bacon and grapefruit.” Tom. You nut.)

Hanks looks hale and happy, natty in dark blazer and slacks, his familiar puffy eyes completing a vaguely cherubic face. He and four journalists sit at a circular table, like a forced dinner party, in a Dallas hotel suite. He sips coffee.

Hanks, who comes off in person exactly as he does on screen — just as tall, same towering forehead, slightly goofy — does his best not to act like a prisoner of war as the reporters interrogate him with shopworn questions that don’t even qualify as softball. Most are, at best, mini-marshmallows. Baby lobs like: “Is it still a thrill to see your giant face on a billboard?”

It’s a credit to his forbearance and professionalism that Hanks doesn’t individually throttle us or excuse himself to the restroom never to be seen again. Public figures are geniuses at erecting deflective ramparts around their true selves. They have the persona thing down. No doubt Hanks is donning his force-field on this day. Still, flickers of personality escape the veneer.

Such as: This PG guy peppers his speech with expletives that would earn him an R. He offers a, shall we say, clear-eyed take on the Academy Awards, of which he has won two, for “Philadelphia” and “Forrest Gump.” Winning, he says, is “really a great personal moment that has a finite shelf life. It goes away. . . . The first one was fabulous. The second one was actually quite problematic. I never escaped the white-hot glare of the spotlight.”

And, what do you know, he deplores press junkets — endless, structured interviews with streams of reporters — cursing them as “demoralizing.”

Reporters, he says, “don’t want to talk about the movie. Eighty-percent of them are on some other agenda. I find myself either defending the fact that I’m a nice guy or trying to downplay the fact that I’m successful or commenting on the private lives of my friends.”

He summarily ruled out a traditional press junket for “Cast Away.” “I’m not going to sit in the chair and answer 57 times in one day how I lost the weight,” Hanks snorts.

If only he had told us this at the beginning of the interview.

Hanks has wanted to make “Cast Away” for more than six years.

“I had this kind of (vague) idea about a guy who worked for FedEx and his life is loaded with distraction and he ends up on this island and he’s got to figure out how to survive,” Hanks says. “He gets home somehow and life has gone by in the wink of an eye and everything is different.”

In the finished film, which opens Friday and recently made The New York Times’ Top 10 list, Hanks plays average guy Chuck Noland who works for Federal Express. Hours after Chuck proposes to his longtime girlfriend, played by Helen Hunt, the delivery plane he’s riding in plummets into the Pacific. Chuck washes ashore on a tropical island whose white sands are necessarily a cliche.

Chuck’s high-strung, go-go-go life is reduced like that to primitive survival. He learns to spear fish, crack coconuts, collect rain water and make fire. In no time he’s gone native: His beard’s a tumbleweed, his hair nappy dreads, his clothes shredded to a loin cloth. He’s skinny as a reed (cue Hanks’ weight-loss regimen).

“Originally I thought of it as being called ‘Chuck of the Jungle,’ ” Hanks recalls. “The idea was you took a guy whose whole life was talking and communicating and you took it all away from him. What would that do to him?”

More pressing, what would that do to a movie?

Hanks tapped Austin screenwriter William Broyles to write the script, which they started developing in 1994 while Hanks was shooting “Apollo 13,” which Broyles co-wrote.

“Bill was literally the first guy who got it,” says Hanks. “He has a stack this thick of our correspondence since 1995 about how to do it right. We pounded this thing for years and still had only two-thirds of what we wanted.”

Robert Zemeckis, Hanks’ Oscar-winning “Forrest Gump” director, came aboard and helped shape the story. The trio set out to make a film that was, in Hanks’ words, “uncompromisingly original.”

To that end, they took a daringly spartan approach that belies the film’s hefty $85 million budget ($20 million-$25 million of that went to Hanks). Hanks’ character is stranded on the island for more than an hour. Not only is he alone, but most of the time he does not speak and the soundtrack is eerily devoid of music. As the story developed, Hanks and Broyles kept deleting dialogue to create a hermetic realism.

“We knew it would be an amazing thing to do it without any kind of companion and without any dialogue, no voice-overs, no cutaways of worried families,” says Broyles, who researched the story by spending a few days on an island, alone and without provisions, spearing fish, splitting coconuts, doing the survival thing. “We’re just watching a guy in the elements who’s trying to figure out how to stay alive.”

Sustaining the realism called for an unorthodox shooting schedule. To allow Hanks time to shed his heft and blossom like a Chia Pet, the production shut down for a year. During the hiatus, Zemeckis shot and edited the Harrison Ford thriller “What Lies Beneath,” while Hanks worked on the HBO World War II miniseries “Band of Brothers” and did publicity for “The Green Mile.”

Hanks is no stranger to artistic sacrifice. He thinned out to play a man dying of AIDS in “Philadelphia” and trained in a quasi-boot camp for “Saving Private Ryan.” None of it prepared him for the acting rigors of “Cast Away.”

“Going into this I knew there was a huge amount of adventure and a huge amount of challenge and hard work,” Hanks says. “I knew that all those weeks on the island or on the raft it was just me having to react to the actual elements or circumstances and that it was going to be hard.

“But it’s a very pure form of acting. Any time you take verbiage out then you have to find some other way to communicate, and that’s a stretch. It’s like acting exercises, getting up on stage and doing something without speaking. It’s exhausting and a brand of emotional stress that’s unlike anything I’ve ever gone through. . . . There’s no faking it.”

A reporter reminds Hanks that it’s been 20 years since his breakthrough role, that of a kooky cross-dresser on the sitcom “Bosom Buddies,” first hit TV screens.

“Is it? No,” he says, cross-eyed in thought. “You know what? Yeah, it is, because we went on in 1980. Wow, that’s a trip.”

Hanks was 24. Since then he’s been through the good — “Splash,” “Big,” “Sleepless in Seattle” — and the abominable — “Bachelor Party,” “Joe Versus the Volcano,” “The Bonfire of the Vanities.”

A dash of philosophy helps him understand the journey. “Look, I thought I was a pretty good actor at age 23, but in reality I hadn’t even begun to fully understand what was demanded of me as a creative artist,” he says. “I think now, at 44, I’m a very different kind of actor. So much of what you do in a movie as you get older is not based on natural abilities. It’s based on refined ability.”

The constant polishing in the course of some 30 films has garnered Hanks four Oscar nominations and unblighted global regard. (The New York Film Critics Circle has named him best actor for “Cast Away.”) You will not find Hanks entangled in tabloid scandal. His image is hugged by a corona of wholesomeness thanks to an upright personal life and penchant for Noble Man roles. It is a source of occasional exasperation for Hanks.

Nice? Sure. But there’s more.

“To call him a nice guy is to diminish the complexity of his personality,” Broyles says. “I would not have liked spending 6 1/2 years with a saint. He is a nice guy in a gentlemanly way, but he’s also just a guy. He gets mad, he’s competitive, he’s profane at times, he’s funny. The way he sees the world has a comic cynicism in it, yet he also has a great deal of hope and idealism.”

Zemeckis calls Hanks an “intelligent, decent man” and would never have done the project without his pal. “Tom was the most exciting element in the package,” the director says. “He approaches it from the movie’s agenda, what’s right for the movie. That’s what makes the audience find it accessible, which then makes it honest, which then makes it really good.”

“Accessible” is not a critic’s favorite word, which is perhaps why some sniff at Hanks’ stubborn affinity for morally sanitized everymen. He’s been accused of picking roles that won’t threaten his good guy persona. He’s heard it all before.

“I am only interested in characters whose motivations I understand,” he says. “I don’t do anything to protect (my image).”

Hanks says his next project will show him in a darker shade. In “Road to Perdition” Hanks plays a vengeful hit man in Al Capone’s Depression-era Chicago. Sam Mendes (“American Beauty”) directs.

You can bet any image-tinkering will be calculated and scrupulously stage-managed. Hanks is a Hollywood player, mindful of a fickle public that could cast him away into irrelevance. It scares him.

“I’m 44,” says Hanks. “I don’t know how many years I can put my head down and give my all to making these movies before the marketplace abandons me.”


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