Tom Hanks has made career out of playing regular guys

The Fresno BeeOctober 5, 2013 

Tom Hanks is all smiles as he strolls into the meeting room at the Four Seasons Hotel. It's not unusual. Hanks has built a reputation as one of the nicest and hardest-working actors in Hollywood.

This is the first day of a three-week publicity blitz for his latest film, "Captain Phillips," that will take him across the country and abroad. Later this year, he will make a similar tour for "Saving Mr. Banks," which will keep him so busy that he doesn't have another acting job on the schedule this year.

Dressed entirely in black, even the multiple pens he has in his jacket pocket match his ebony ensemble. His hair is cut short, which means only a few strands of gray along his neck give away that he's 57 years old.

It would seem logical that an actor who has won two Oscars would pick his next job at his leisure. That's not the case for Hanks, who looks at many factors — the writing, interest by the studio, what director or other actors are involved — when deciding what he will do next. It's not that he's picky, but Hanks doesn't want to put his time and energy into a project that may never get made.

"You don't go to the harbor and get on a boat that's not going out to sea," Hanks says.

That analogy might have been spawned by all of the water work he did while filming "Captain Phillips." The film, set to open Friday, is based on the true story of the attack in 2009 on a cargo ship by a group of Somali pirates, the first such assault on an American ship in two centuries.

As Hanks has done in so many films — from "Saving Private Ryan" to "Cast Away" — he takes on the role of a man who seems to be living an ordinary life but is pushed to do amazing things because of outside circumstances.

Director Paul Greengrass says no one is better at playing the ordinary man than Hanks. The fact Hanks had been cast to play Phillips was one of the major reasons Greengrass signed on to direct.

"He's not playing some superhero," Greengrass says. "He's not playing some guy with special powers. He's just a regular guy. Tom Hanks is the greatest actor for playing the everyman. Tom proves yet again — although it really didn't need proving again — that he's one of the great, great American actors of all time because he embodies the best of us."

"Captain Phillips" is the latest work for Hanks where he plays a role based on a real character. He had such roles in "Apollo 13" and "Charlie Wilson's War," plus "Saving Mr. Banks" had him playing Walt Disney.

Hanks sarcastically reacts to the mention of all the reality-based roles, saying, "I've got to get out of this line of work and start playing fake people."

Although both of his upcoming roles are reality based, his approach was different.

"Phillips is alive, and Walt Disney is dead," Hanks says. "Phillips is a concrete source of everything: what he thought, what he did, what he's like, what the job is like. With Walt Disney, we are dealing with some degree of iconography. In one, I'm playing a historic figure in a very specific setting in which the scenes are specifically constructed. With Richard Phillips, we are trying to capture the essence of what was going on in his head."

He calls his portrayal of Disney "a classical rendering" compared with his "emotional rendering" of Phillips.

Hanks sat down with Phillips twice — along with reading his book — to size up the man. What struck him the most was the Phillips' sense of humor. Hank is convinced that it was the one factor that helped Phillips survive the ordeal.

"He's a very happy-go-lucky guy," Hanks says. "I would describe him as almost jolly. He's funny, bemused by everything. But when he's on the ship, it's all deadly serious. His wife even told me that she doesn't visit him anymore when he's on ship, because he's all business.

"We tend to think merchant mariners are going to be cigar-chomping guys, but Rich is an accomplished professional. He earned this job, which is a bitch of a job."

Much of the filming was done off the coast of Malta, an experience Hanks found to be physically challenging. He's no stranger to uncomfortable shooting environments, having spent hours in an airplane used to replicate zero gravity while filming "Apollo 13."

Asked whether he ever thought, while studying theater at Chabot College in Hayward or California State University, Sacramento, that having an acting career would mean stomach-churning events, Hanks says he's never looked at any such requirements as a negative. He recalls how the first time he had an acting scene outdoors — in "Splash" — that he thought it was the coolest thing to go to work in a Speedo and a T-shirt.

Hanks has played mostly dramatic roles in recent years. During the early part of his career, he leaned toward comedy with movies such as "The 'Burbs," "Turner and Hooch" and "Dragnet." Those days, Hanks laments, are sadly over because the majority of full-blown comedies today feature young casts doing outrageous things. He feels like he's reached an age — unless Woody Allen calls — where comedy is behind him. His main comedy outlets now are the "Toy Story" movies.

And, he's OK with the dramatic direction.

"Comedies are hard, because they have to be funny," Hanks says. "And if they aren't funny, there is no substitute for that. Look, I've done enough. I'm 57. I don't sit around thinking, 'I'd love to make a comedy about coal miners.' I don't think that way. I just see what comes down the pike and see if I can figure it out or not."

Hanks does very dramatic work as Phillips and is already getting Oscar buzz — a fact of acting life Hanks has learned to take with a grain of salt. Despite all the success he's had, Hanks remains the same humble and approachable person who became a professional actor in 1980 with the low-budget horror film "He Knows You're Alone."

He credits his slow climb up the fandom ladder with keeping him grounded.

"I was fortunate because I was able to work a long time without any kind of celebrity heat," Hanks says. "I was just a guy on TV for awhile. Then I was a guy in movies for awhile. Then I did enough work that the attention became bigger. I feel bad for anyone who is 'an overnight success.' "

Once the publicity tours have wrapped, Hanks will get back to acting. There's no specific project in mind, but the odds are high he'll make another movie.

He doesn't see TV in his future.

He likes television. It had a big influence on him when he was young, and his first notice came from the 1980 TV comedy "Bosom Buddies," where he and Peter Scolari pretended to be women. It's just not the right forum for him now.

"When I was growing up," he said, "TV was like all of the old magazines that are in the doctor's office. Some of them you've seen a million times, but then you come across like a National Geographic, which says so much it actually alters you. There would always be some show that you would find on TV that would blow your mind, and you couldn't believe it was on TV. But TV is a beast. What's happened now is there is a whole new definition of what a series can be. It can last 10 episodes, and you're done. It's not that merciless need to come up with 22 episodes. You aren't just filling the void but telling a story."

Even with the new model for TV, and other veteran film actors like Robin Williams going back to the small screen, Hanks has no interest in the grind of a TV series.

"I don't want to work that hard," Hanks says, smiling. "I like going to Malta and having some days off."

 

TV and movie critic Rick Bentley can be reached at (559) 441-6355, rbentley@fresnobee.com or @RickBentley1 on Twitter. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.

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