There are some artists, and Tom Hanks is one, who go beyond mere popularity and instead come to embody some part of our shared American story. Ever since the actor broke out from a string of roles as a goofy, lovelorn leading man via the complicated innocence of his work in “Big” (1988), Hanks has gradually become an avatar of American goodness. Over the course of his long career, he has found clever ways to convey a fundamental and aspirational decency. He has played honorable men on society’s then-margins (the discriminated-against gay lawyer of “Philadelphia”) and at the center of our history (“Forrest Gump”; “Apollo 13”). At other times, he has found ways to imbue with can-do optimism characters who are caught in the middle of seemingly unbearable situations, whether they’re alone (“Cast Away”) or surrounded by enemies (“Saving Private Ryan”). Such is the malleability of his gift that he has created trustworthy portraits of real-life characters (the heroic airline and cargo-ship captains of, respectively, “Sully” and “Captain Phillips”), cartoons (Woody the cowboy from the “Toy Story” films) and real-life characters who easily could have come off like cartoons (as Fred Rogers in “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”).
Is it telling, then, that in this time of declining trust in our institutions and one another, Tom Hanks is now playing a bad guy? One with a hand in the downfall of another American icon and myth maker? But in true Hanksian fashion he finds something unexpectedly hopeful even in this character. “I’m not interested in malevolence; I’m interested in motivation,” Hanks says about his role as the shadowy talent manager, Col. Tom Parker, in the director Baz Luhrmann’s biopic “Elvis,” which premieres June 24. “All you can say is that he’s wrong,” he adds, “not evil.” There’s a useful lesson there. With Hanks, there often is.
Tom Parker was a Dutch guy who passed himself off as a Southern colonel. Elvis was a poor kid from Tupelo who turned himself into a superhero. Both were careful to present very specific versions of themselves to the public. What might a movie star like you know about what’s underneath that kind of self-presentation that the rest of us don’t? Well, I don’t think in show business there were more authentic-to-themselves personalities than those two. Elvis dressed the way he dressed because he had to. He felt he looked good. Onstage, he wasn’t wiggling to say, “Hey, time to turn on the sex appeal.” It was instinct. Col. Tom Parker was the same exact type of thing on a crass, nonartistic level. I heard a story: When he was a carny, he had a dime welded to his ring. He’d say: “That cost 90 cents and you gave me two dollars. I owe you a dollar 10.” He would then take the customer’s hand, put the change in, close it up, say “Thank you very much” and cheat people out of that dime. He got the same pleasure from that as he did signing a deal for Elvis with the International Hotel in Las Vegas for millions of dollars. That’s got nothing to do with power, nothing to do with influence. It is a dispassionate desire to always get this other thing. That was the secret sauce of living for Col. Tom Parker, the same way that his hair and clothes and the music he loved was the secret sauce for Elvis.
That’s them. I’m asking about you. What do you know about the performance of authenticity? Me? You mean career-wise?
However you want to take it. You know, I was not an overnight sensation. I had been in movies for a long time until I had enough opportunities and experience to realize that I don’t have to say yes to everything just because they’re offering me the gig. Some of that was, What am I going to do instead? Wait for the phone to ring? The phone rang! I said yes! But I was fortunate in that my sense of self and artistic thirst grew at the same time. I had done enough romantic leads in enough movies and had experienced enough compromise to say, “I’m not even going to read those scripts anymore.” So then you hold out for something that represents more of the artist you want to be. When Penny Marshall came to me on “A League of Their Own,” I said: “Penny, this is written for a guy who’s older than I am. The character is in his 40s and washed up.” She said: “That’s why I want you. Because this guy should have been great until he was 40 and wasn’t.” I went Aaaah. Before that a director had never said something to me like, “Come up with a reason why you’re 36, broken down and managing a woman’s baseball team.” Then it was, Katie, bar the door! I was looking for more of that from then on. The other thing that happened in the ’90s was when Richard Lovett at C.A.A. said, “What do you want to do?” No one had asked me that question, either. People always said: “What do you want to do with this opportunity?” But what do you want to do? I said I’d like to make a movie about Apollo 13. That was the first time where I was saying, “This is the type of artist who I want to be.” But if you look at anybody’s career, there’s hits and misses. There’s movies that simply don’t work, and if something not working is debilitating to you, you’re toast.
What about trying to make Col. Tom Parker work? It’s rare for you to play a villain. I would say that with the Colonel, whatever motivation it is, the Colonel is often right, and the dynamic that I respond to best is not the antagonist-protagonist dynamic, it’s when everyone is coming from a position where they think, This is the best thing to do. You can say, “Where was the Colonel when Elvis was having drug problems?” The Colonel would argue that what I was doing was protecting my boy’s reputation as the world’s greatest performer. You will give him what he needs, and he will get up and sing enough so the audience will have what they want and Elvis will not be put in a position where he’s some rock ’n’ roll junkie — because he’s Elvis [expletive] Presley. The Colonel was not going to allow that man to be letting down his fans. So Col. Tom Parker’s motivations were oftentimes self-serving, but they were also motivations that anybody can understand, whether you agree with them or not.
I think of you as basically a naturalistic actor. Was it tough to translate that to a Baz Lurhman film? His aesthetic is so much about heightened reality. No, because it’s all connected to the logic of the piece. Every movie establishes its own parameters for what’s allowable and what’s not. Certainly, with “Elvis,” Baz would be saying: “You’re in a morphine dream! You’re high! It’s the morphine talking!” It all comes down to what the thing is. One of the most presentational movies I’ve ever been in was Frank Darabont’s “The Green Mile.” Most of the movie is major bum bum buuuh moments. It was all heightened reality and not naturalistic at all but was the logic of the piece.
Did you read the biography of Mike Nichols that came out last year? No, why do you ask?
There’s an anecdote in there about “Charlie Wilson’s War” that I wanted to ask you about. Apparently you and Aaron Sorkin didn’t want to show Charlie Wilson using cocaine because you thought it made the character unsympathetic. It made me wonder about what you believe audiences do or don’t want to see Tom Hanks doing up there onscreen. Let me tell you a story. The original “King Kong.” They’re on Skull Island. They’re going to try to save Fay Wray. They’re on a log across a ravine. King Kong picks up the log and knocks a bunch of guys off and they fall down into the ravine and break some of these viny things across the bottom. That’s all you see in the movie. In the first cut, though, those viny things were spider webs and out of a cave crawled the biggest spider you ever saw. What the filmmakers discovered was that after seeing those big spiders, the audience was not afraid of King Kong. So they cut it. There is that thing that can happen in a movie where, if you show the giant spider, it might blow your real story out of the water. But it was never in the script to show Charlie Wilson snorting coke. I could walk you through different disagreements I had: On “Saving Private Ryan,” Steven Spielberg said, “I don’t think I want to see John Miller fire his gun and kill Germans.” I told him: “I’m sorry, Steven. You’re not going to get me all the way over here and turn me into some other guy just because you don’t want Tom Hanks to kill soldiers.” We had this same moment in “Forrest Gump.” There’s the scene with the ambush in Vietnam, and Bob Zemeckis originally wanted Forrest to be confused and run away. I said, “Bob, why am I playing a soldier who is really good at his basic training without then showing me slapping in my clip and firing a set of rounds?” Anyway, with Charlie Wilson, not snorting coke was not spiders in “King Kong.” I would have done it. I didn’t care. Those kinds of choices are in every single movie.
And they’re dictated by the needs of the story rather than the image of its star? At the end of the day, the only people who care about your image in a movie is the marketing department. You know “The Gunfighter” with Gregory Peck? Gregory Peck had a mustache in that, and the guy who ran the studio said, “That mustache on Gregory Peck cost us millions at the box office.” What he was saying was, Thanks a lot for putting spiders in “King Kong.” But, and not to belabor this point, if you’re going to show Charlie Wilson in a hot tub with naked girls in Las Vegas doing coke, then he better be coked up for the rest of the scenes in Las Vegas. He better be gnashing his teeth. He better be talking fast. If we were going to do it, we would have said, “Let’s do that right.” But that’s not what was going on. [Laughs.] OK, what else can I explain for you?
You talked about a point earlier in your career when you wanted to get out of a particular box. Have you ever been concerned during the latter part of your career that you’ve been stuck in a different box? You mean the hero, the guy who could be trusted, the ordinary guy that gets put in extraordinary circumstances? I look at it like this. I have a particular cinematic countenance that I carry into any movie, the same way that De Niro carries a malevolence into every role that he plays. There can be new ways to explore what that means. For example, when Clint Eastwood said, “You want to be Sully?” I said to him, “I’ve sort of played that role before,” and he said, “Yeah, you have.” I took that as a challenge. It’s like he was saying there’s still an unplumbed thing. Gary Cooper and Humphrey Bogart and Bette Davis and Jimmy Stewart: They brought their countenance into every movie, and we were looking for some new turn of it. There’s no shiny object you wave at the audience to make them forget that countenance. So the biggest question you have to ask is: Is each new character’s behavior authentic to recognizable human behavior? Let’s take “Greyhound”: Tom Hanks in a uniform? Jeez, we haven’t seen this enough. Me doing the right thing? Oh, that’s brand-new. All of that stuff is in that movie, but it’s through a filter of a character who is scared out of his head, and that’s different. It’s the same countenance and the same “Trust me, folks,” but the cost becomes palpable.
Can an actor consciously use his countenance in a performance? And does that countenance reveal anything innate? No, I don’t think you’re going to know the person through performance. But the piling up of the jobs themselves — if someone has only seen half of my movies, they’ve still seen 30 movies. Over the course of that will come some imprimatur. It cannot be denied. But that doesn’t mean it’s not malleable. It is, provided you’re not just doing the same thing. You’ve gotta give ’em A. You’ve gotta give ’em B. But if you don’t also give ’em K and S, you’re going to start delivering movies by rote. Mr. Bruce Springsteen said his rock-and-roll show is like going to church. Provided that what he does in the big shows is give you six songs in a row that are Bruce Springsteen at his absolute E-Street Bandiest. After that he takes you anywhere he wants. It’s not exactly the same with movies, but the audience expects a thing from my name up there. I’m not saying they come in expecting something specific, but they’re going to trust me in making my choice to do the movie in the first place. “Let’s go for the ride with this guy because he’s only let us down one time out of two. He’s still batting .500.” You can’t pretend it doesn’t exist. But no matter what, here’s what you always want people saying after a movie: “I’m glad we went to the movies today.” What is worse than going to a movie and coming out and saying, “Coulda seen that on a plane”?
So many of your movies, and also the work you do with Playtone, convey an affection for a particular slice of mid-20th-century America. That’s a period, the period of your youth, that makes a lot of people nostalgic. But nostalgia for that time has curdled for so many Americans into retrograde politics. What makes “back in my day” tip over into something negative for some people, and why do you think it hasn’t for you? That’s such a loathsome argument: “Back in my day.” Those days were [expletive] up! “Oh, the ’50s were this carefree time.” Excuse me, no, they were not. How come things aren’t the way they were? You mean when you were comfortable? Institutions were gaming the system in order to maintain the status quo! That has always been the case except for when some redefinition of our institutions comes along out of a public outcry because the status quo isn’t fair. I was in a movie called “Cloud Atlas” that went right over everybody’s heads. It said, What is the point of trying to do the right thing when it’s just a drop in the ocean? But what is an ocean but a multitude of drops? Things get better when a multitude of drops form an ocean and sweep things away. World War II: The Nazis were defeated, as was a Japanese empire, because enough good people said no. Civil rights came about because of, I think, an American belief that our responsibility as citizens is to work toward making a more perfect union. I don’t know if I’m answering your question but “There’s Hanks, he’s got a nostalgia for the way America used to be”: No. I have a fascination with the progress that America has made in all these incremental moments. That is an American sense of what is right and what is wrong. What I don’t do, if I can continue on, I’m not cynical. Cynicism is a default position in an awful lot of entertainment. How many knockoff versions of “Chinatown” have you seen? Eight million. The conflict of cynicism is glamorous, gorgeous. Violence is glamorous and gorgeous. But it’s cynical, and I’m not a cynic.
Making those Robert Langdon sequels wasn’t a little cynical? Oh, God, that was a commercial enterprise. Yeah, those Robert Langdon sequels are hooey. “The Da Vinci Code” was hooey. I mean, Dan Brown, God bless him, says, Here is a sculpture in a place in Paris! No, it’s way over there. See how a cross is formed on a map? Well, it’s sort of a cross. Those are delightful scavenger hunts that are about as accurate to history as the James Bond movies are to espionage. But they’re as cynical as a crossword puzzle. All we were doing is promising a diversion. There’s nothing wrong with good commerce, provided it is good commerce. By the time we made the third one, we proved that it wasn’t such good commerce. Let me tell you something else about “The Da Vinci Code.” It was my 40th-something birthday. We were shooting in the Louvre at night. I changed my pants in front of the Mona Lisa! They brought me a birthday cake in the Grand Salon! Who gets to have that experience? Any cynicism there? Hell no!
Just to stick with the idea of cynicism for a minute: I was always intrigued by the idea that you and Martin Scorsese tried to make a Dean Martin biopic. I think of him as a profoundly cynical star. What drew you to him? I didn’t see Dean Martin as being the cynical presence in the Rat Pack. I think he’s the only one who got it. Dean Martin was not into any of the show-business razzle-dazzle except for the way it gave him a degree of ease and enjoyment that he wanted because he grew up so hardscrabble. He said, “Pally, there’s got to be an easier way,” and he discovered what that way was. There’s a great story about Dean Martin: After he broke up with Jerry Lewis, everybody said, “Jerry is a genius, Dean’s just a crooner.” Dean then went to play Las Vegas, and it was a disaster. He comes back and says to one of his guys: “They don’t seem to like me without the monkey boy. What are we going to do?” I’m paraphrasing. The guy said, “You could always do the drunky act.” So from that drunky act came jokes like: “I don’t drink anymore. I just freeze it and eat it like a Popsicle.” He was not a boozer. When he’s out there with the Rat Pack, it’s apple juice in his glass. He would pretend not to know his lines. “I’d like to have a response to that joke, but I have to wait for Mr. Cue-Card Man to do his job.” This was all fake! What is that other than an expertise beyond belief? That’s why I wanted to do it. I felt like I understood that guy to a T. Also, I’ve heard this story about Dean and Jerry at the end of their lives. Jerry was in some restaurant and Dean came in — did not say hello. Just took his seat. Jerry said, “I have to go talk to Dean.” Understand, the night they broke up at the Copacabana, Jerry said to Dean, “What we had all this time was love.” Dean said: “You know what you were to me? A big fat [expletive] dollar sign.” But at the end, they’re old, they’re infirm, and they just sat and held hands at some restaurant, weeping. Forgive me if I’m telling you too much about the movie we never made.
No, no, I asked. But now I’m thinking about what you said about the struggle toward a more perfect union, and I’m thinking about it in the context of the op-ed you wrote last year about the Tulsa race massacre. That came out of unadulterated frustration. I consider myself a student, I read history for pleasure, and when I found out about Tulsa, the question I had was, Why had I not heard about Tulsa? Quite frankly, that led into a personal enlightenment.
So my question is whether the stories you want to tell about America need to have a redemptive element in order for you to want to tell them. Because your American-history projects almost always offer some redeeming idea about the country’s values and its people’s character. But are there certain kinds of American stories, like Tulsa’s, which maybe don’t offer anything redemptive, that you wouldn’t be comfortable telling? You have to take into account the economics of what I do for a living. We come along and say we would like $250 million, in the case of “Masters of the Air,” to do a 10-part miniseries. About what? Americans bombing Nazis. That’s pretty commercial to me. But how are we going to do that? One of the things we’re going to do is show the cost of what it took in order to do that. It was brutal. The Eighth Air Force suffered half of the U.S. Air Force’s casualties. It’s not just, Yay, we bombed the Nazis. It’s, We bombed the Nazis and the pressure of doing that [expletive] up so many Americans. Then, we can’t go back and just show white people saving the world, because the Black airmen who got shot down were in these stalags, too. So you’re going to see Black people. You’re going to see these young kids who are just like their white counterparts, the same exact kind of prisoners of war, knowing that when they get home, the land they come from is institutionally racist. So to answer your question, this stuff costs money, and it has to make money. That means we have to sneak up on the trickier stuff. Now, you’re not a naïve guy, but, honestly, some people say, “How come you didn’t make a movie about blahbiddy blah blah?” They think that you get to make any movie you want. That is simply not the fact. But we had an opportunity in “Masters of the Air” to show segregated pilots, in the same prisoner-of-war camp as everybody else, and it’s the truth. If you don’t see that, if you don’t learn about Tulsa, that is saying you’re going to keep this rosy-eyed idea of the past. But as soon as you bring it up, that’s the movement toward a more perfect union. This happened. Know it. Because if you know that, you know who we are.
You talked about an American sense of right and wrong. Has your faith in that sense been shaken? There’s a million obvious reasons for what would cause that to happen and then also less obvious ones like the fact that some portion of people believe you’re involved with QAnon. That’s got to give you pause. Look, there’s plenty of reason to be demoralized. Goodness is not a constant, and the good fight is not always fought, but there is a strength and a resiliency and an eventuality to vox populi. There are events that shake up those Americans who still believe there is a right way to do things. It’s the Peter Finch moment: I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore. Now, a certain administration came down the pike, and the people who were screaming seemed to rule the day. Why? Because the people who cared about what’s right didn’t show up. Well, something egregious enough comes along, and guess what? People will show up. But their cages have to be rattled. We might be experiencing that right now. The problem, of course, is that technology has shifted so that truth has no currency. That is only going to be altered when enough people say, “[Expletive] that, I’m not going to pay any attention to social media ever again.”
Is that why you stopped tweeting? It’s been two years since you posted anything. I stopped posting because, number one, I thought it was an empty exercise. I have enough attention on me. But also I’d post something goofy like, “Here’s a pair of shoes I saw in the middle of the street,” and the third comment would be, “[Expletive] you, Hanks.” I don’t know if I want to give that guy the forum. If the third comment is “[Expletive] you, you Obama-loving communist,” it’s like, I don’t need to do that.
We’ve been talking a bunch about cultural shifts. I want to ask about cultural shifts related to the two movies you won Oscars for. Timely movies, at the time, that you might not be able to make now.
That’s exactly it. There’s no way a straight actor would be cast in “Philadelphia” today and “Forrest Gump” would be dead in the water. Gary Sinise would not have been able to play Lieutenant Dan because he has legs?
Not that. I’m positive that its premise alone would mean that “Forrest Gump” would be mocked and picked apart on social media before anyone even had a chance to see it. There’s nothing you can do about that, but let’s address “could a straight man do what I did in ‘Philadelphia’ now?” No, and rightly so. The whole point of “Philadelphia” was don’t be afraid. One of the reasons people weren’t afraid of that movie is that I was playing a gay man. We’re beyond that now, and I don’t think people would accept the inauthenticity of a straight guy playing a gay guy. It’s not a crime, it’s not boohoo, that someone would say we are going to demand more of a movie in the modern realm of authenticity. Do I sound like I’m preaching? I don’t mean to.
Do the generational politics of “Forrest Gump” register any differently to you today than they did in 1994? What do you mean?
I mean, do you remember when you were in that movie — Yes, I was in the movie.
Ah, dammit. I sound like Chris Farley interviewing Paul McCartney on “Saturday Night Live.” [Laughs.] How about when you sang that song? Do you remember that?
OK, so I’ll assume you remember the discourse when “Forrest Gump” was up against “Pulp Fiction” at the Oscars. Your movie was held up as this totem of boomer nostalgia and the other movie was the fresh new thing. Rightly so. Not inaccurate.
So, with the benefit of hindsight, do you think “Forrest Gump” overcame its nostalgic impulses or succumbed to them? Oh, it overcame them. The problem with “Forrest Gump” is it made a billion dollars. If we’d just made a successful movie, Bob and I would have been geniuses. But because we made a wildly successful movie, we were diabolical geniuses. Is it a bad problem to have? No, but there’s books of the greatest movies of all time, and “Forrest Gump” doesn’t appear because, oh, it’s this sappy nostalgia fest. Every year there’s an article that goes, “The Movie That Should Have Won Best Picture” and it’s always “Pulp Fiction.” “Pulp Fiction” is a masterpiece without a doubt. Look, I don’t know, but there is a moment of undeniable heartbreaking humanity in “Forrest Gump” when Gary Sinise — he’s playing Lieutenant Dan — and his Asian wife walk up to our house on the day that Forrest and Jenny get married.
“Magic legs.” Yes, “magic legs.” Then I look at him, and I say, “Lieutenant Dan.” I might get weepy thinking about it now. Forrest and Lieutenant Dan in those four words — “magic legs”; “Lieutenant Dan” — understand all they had been through and feel gratitude for every ounce of pain and tragedy that they survived. That’s some intangible [expletive] right there. That is not just running along to Duane Eddy’s “Rebel Rouser.”
The early ’90s were clearly an important time for you in figuring out what you wanted to do with your career. Have you had any similar epiphanies since then? I’ll tell you this anecdote. There was a period of time when my wife and I were invited to all these primo dinners. You walk into the restaurant like, “Holy cow, Swifty Lazar is still alive and Sophia Loren is at another table and I’m sitting with Tony Curtis!” I might have asked him a question about a famous movie he’d done. You don’t want to foam all over people at dinner. You don’t want to do the Chris Farley, “Remember when you were in ‘Some Like it Hot?’” like you did.
Yeah, yeah. [Laughs.] Right. So Tony said, “How old are you, Tom?” I was just about to turn 40. And he said, “You know, just before I turned 40” — it wasn’t Dore Schary but I’m going to use the name — “Dore Schary called me, and he said: ‘Tony, you’re going into your 40s. I want you to put your head down and do great work and by the time you’re 50, you’ll be an international movie star.’” That’s exactly what Tony Curtis did. Somewhere between his mid-30s and his mid-40s — he might have fudged the age — he was doing “Spartacus” and “The Vikings” and “Sex and the Single Girl.” That’s when Tony Curtis became big-time Tony Curtis. I guess I did a bit of that, because going into my 40s, there was a constant stream of people wanting me to be in movies with them. I ended up saying no to an awful lot of things, and the things I said yes to were pretty damn good, and I had a nice run. But “Tom’s the ordinary guy in extraordinary circumstances”: I aged out of that. You can only do it for so long. So what’s left to do? If I can’t generate the things I want to do at Playtone, I will be some brand of gun for hire. That’s not a bad way to go about things. When I did Nora Ephron’s play “Lucky Guy,” that was a conscious decision to cut down on the exposure. I wanted to do extraordinary work, but I also wanted to not be carrying the economic burden of another bigass movie. Because as soon as you carry one of those and it tanks, you’re in the doghouse for a while. It’s that old story: “Get me Tom Hanks. Get me the next Tom Hanks. Get me the young Tom Hanks. Who’s Tom Hanks?” But that’s the business. You can’t change that.
Is this the longest you’ve ever been interviewed without getting asked about being nice? Am I nice? I dunno.
I heard you kicked Hooch. I have never kicked Hooch!
That was a joke. [Laughs.] You know, it’s funny you say that about the “nice” thing. How many times have I been having a conversation with some journalist who wanted to say something unique and then the whole first paragraph is: “Is he nice or not?” It just goes on and on.
I have one last question: When I ask for a memory from your career, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? OK, we were shooting the park-bench scenes of “Forrest Gump.” It’s summertime in Savannah, Ga. We had shot 27 straight days. It was brutal. We were sitting there, and I got this haircut, we’re trying to make sense of this dialogue, and I had to say, “Bob, man, I don’t think anybody’s going to care.” And Bob said: “It’s a minefield, Tom. You never know what’s good. Are you going to make it through safe? Or are you gonna step on a Bouncing Betty that’s going to blow your balls off?” There’s never any guarantee. I’ll be 66 in July, and I’ve been acting for a paycheck since I was 20. Forty-six years and I now know what was evident when I was 20 years old is what Spencer Tracy said: “Learn the lines. Hit the marks. Tell the truth.” That’s all you can do.
This interview has been edited and condensed from two conversations.
David Marchese is a staff writer for the magazine and the columnist for Talk. Recently he interviewed Wendy Brown about angry college students, Julia Roberts about how Hollywood has changed and Tina Stege about climate change.