July 2002 By Philip Berk
THanks for the memories.
Get it? T.Hanks, Tom Hanks. Thanks.
Recently honored, at 45, with a lifetime achievement award by the American Film Institute, you have to wonder why.
As Steve Martin put it that evening, “This is a half-life tribute.”
So what does Tom think of it?
“I still don’t feel like I deserved it. But do I feel proud about the body of my work? Yes I do. Do I accept it in the spirit that AFI presented to me? Yes I do. And if anybody has any qualms about it, you can log onto afi.com, and type in, ‘What the hell were you thinking!”
At his press conference for his new movie, Road to Perdition, Tom’s in Chicago for both the world premiere and the press junket.
The movie is a depression era gangster drama in which he plays a ruthless hit man who is also a caring father.
Tom of course is a model parent.
The movie’s slogan is Every Father Is a Hero to His Son.
What kind of hero was his own father?
“My dad was amazing because he could do anything with tools. He was never intimidated by anything that required a wrench or a hoe — he would fix anything. And he would work hard at everything.”
Five years ago he had a different recollection.
“My dad was in the restaurant business. He moved around. He ran dinner houses. To call him an itinerant cook, as some have done, is I think hilarious. In the latter part of his life he was an instructor, he taught hotel and restaurant food preparation at a college in Oakland.”
I guess you can be both a cook and handyman at the same time!
What kind of a dad was he?
“He didn’t have good communicative skills; he wasn’t able to put things into perspective for me or any of his kids, but he was a good example for us. He was right and decent, not overly proud, vain, or bombastic. But not overly warm either. Still, he was a good guy, an ordinary man but extraordinary in being ordinary.”
After a failed marriage, a divorce, and a second marriage to actress Rita Wilson, Tom has worked hard to become a model father.
He has four children, two from his first marriage and two with Rita.
What advice does he give his older children?
“There’s no real advice you can give them. You can lead by example. The example that you set a decade ago is more (important) than anything you’re able to do for them right now. My son Colin has met with a degree of success as an actor, for which I’m extremely proud, but I’m not surprised because I’ve known his personality since he was born. I saw him in high school plays, and I thought that kid’s got it. There’s definitely a natural talent there. I just hope for all my kids that along with the talent, they develop a passion for whatever they pursue no matter what degree of success or failure they encounter. You just want your kids to love what they do.”
Does he support them financially?
“I want them to feel secure in their needs. But am I going to give them money? Am I going to buy them cars? No. By and large they have to make their own way through. Will I give them aid in times of trouble? Of course. My kids know that. All they have to do is pick up the phone — no questions asked. And of course they’re always welcome at the table.”
What legacy would he like to leave his kids?
“One that has nothing to do with the work that I did.”
“That I was always laughing, that I was always fair, that I was around much more than I actually was. I say that because I missed so much of my daughter’s growing up. She remembers birthday after birthday when I wasn’t around. So I’d like my younger kids to think, ‘I don’t even remember dad being gone.’ That would be a good sign.”
In Road to Perdition he plays a character who feels uncomfortable when his son hugs him. How is he with his own children?
“We pass out the hugs like crazy. We are incredibly affectionate, and we hug them and kiss them all the time. Of course there was a time when some people didn’t know how to do that. I do it because I like the way they smell.”
Was that also true of his father?
“My dad passed away four years ago, and we gave each other sturdy handshakes, a couple of uncomfortable arms around the shoulder, but by and large he just didn’t know how to do it. But he did it to his grandkids.”
His two sons in the movie vie for his affection.
What does he do to make all his children feel equally loved?
“They all have different personalities so I try to love them for those differences. I try not to demand any behavior out of them. I honestly believe that one is not loved more than the other. The trick is to love them at face value. They don’t have to do anything in order to be loved.”
Road to Perdition is directed by Sam Mendes the Academy Award winning director of American Beauty. The film has done well in a summer market where mindless films dominate.
Did it cross his mind that audiences might not accept him as a ruthless killer?
“If you are going to be afraid of that, you shouldn’t be making films. I’d like to think that audiences make the assumption that they’re going to see something familiar from me in pretty much every movie I make because they know who I am. But at the same time they’re prepared to see something they’ve never seen me do before. I like to think that in the last ten years I’ve tried to do that with every choice and every performance I’ve had the opportunity to do.”
Paul Newman returns to the screen playing his boss (and surrogate father.) Was he excited at the prospect of working with him?
“When Sam told me he had spoken to Paul, my eyes kind of went buggy and the room spun around. It was intimidating until you actually meet him. He’s very dry, and he talks about salad dressing (Newman’s Own) a lot. He’d much rather be racing cars than making a movie. But when it comes to actually doing it, he bypasses everything that’s artificial and just inhabits what goes on there.”
Was there a generation gap?
“There is a big difference in age, but it was like working with someone I went to school with. Once you get past how truly lean he is, how tall he is, how deep those blue eyes are, once you get past the first scene, you realize he’s just a pleasant bloke.”
And the piano duet they share in the movie?
“It was originally going to be an Irish dance sequence, but Paul has no rhythm, and I have no rhythm. Sam was looking for a totally visual way to communicate the relationship between our two characters, and he came up with this. I rehearsed my piece for the better part of two months. We really practiced. And we really are playing the piano. Paul can play. He does this really bad bluesy rift over and over again. He’ll go on for twenty-two minutes. To me it all sounds the same. But it is quite an amazing moment in the movie.”
Watching the movie at the premiere what was his reaction?
“I’m pretty pragmatic about it because there’s nothing I can do to change it. It’s always painful to hear my voice and to watch it all knowing that every bone-headed choice you made is up on the screen for everybody to see. Maybe the audience doesn’t know it’s boneheaded. For me, it’s not a objective experience, so I make my peace with the fact that I can’t change anything and concentrate on what everybody else did.”
Does he watch his old movies?
“No, I don’t. I might watch segments of them but again they never change. It’s locked. So after I see them once or twice, I can’t watch them again.”
On the set, what type of actor is he? Does he stay in character all day or does he have fun until the director says Action?
“I’m usually called Tom in the make-up trailer because it’s goofy to be called anything else while people are putting stuff on your face. I’m not the type that stays in character all day. I mean, how do you talk to your kids on the phone when they call you? But there are ways in which you approach a scene, interaction with somebody else who has nothing to do with the movie might add to what you’re doing that day. At other times you have to be off standing alone, not talking to anybody for 45 minutes, before you walk on stage. I can’t explain my technique but I can tell you I pay great attention to where those moments on screen are going; so when the cameras start to roll I try to make it happen without stepping on anybody else’s toes.”
And at the end of the day can he leave his work in the trailer?
“I’m very good at doing that or at least better than I used to be. Just walking in the house, seeing muddy tennis shoes by the front door, the TV’s on too loud, and nobody’s eating their asparagus on their plate: you get into the brass tacks of what it is to be a regular human being as opposed to somebody that goes off and pretends to be somebody else for a living. Yet sometimes, at three o’clock in the morning, I’m being driven insane thinking about a role, and I have to get up and pace around the house for a while.”
What makes his marriage to Rita so special?
“We just have a great relationship. We know why we’re married to each other, and we work on our problems on a day in day out basis, not that we have many problems. Look, it’s not that hard work. Everybody says, it takes so much work to keep a relationship. Hey man, if it does, maybe you should break up. I don’t understand. It should be a pretty easy thing. People ask me, what’s the secret? I think liking each other is a good start. And if you don’t like each other, maybe you should move along. I know I’m the luckiest guy in the world. I have so little to worry about, and she gives me so much security.”
That Thing You Do, which he wrote and directed, shows up on cable all the time. Was that a good experience and would he do it again?
“It was a magnificent experience. I loved every minute of it. However directing motion pictures requires two years of fever-pitched interest in one subject, and I’m not in a hurry to do that. I wouldn’t do it unless I had 100 percent enthusiasm for an idea.”
Would he work again for Sam Mendes?
“In a nano second. I think Sam’s a genius for casting me in this movie. There was one moment where the character I play almost hits his kid. He probably had hit the kid once or twice before, but at that moment he doesn’t do it because he remembers what the kid has witnessed. To me that’s a wonderful balance of how cold-blooded he is and yet how calm he can be. It’s a fascinating dichotomy that Sam saw in the casting.”
Does he have rage?
“Certainly, like everybody else, we all have moments when we can’t keep it under control, but we all have goodness within us, we all have badness in us. This is a character who does bad things for good reasons.”
Will he continue to play bad guys?
“I have no desire to play Darth Vader or someone who does bad things, but I’m fascinated to play a guy who does terrible things for reasons that I understand.”
What about theatre. Would he do a play if Sam asked him? (Mendes directed Cabaret on Broadway.)
“He’s talked about that to me. The problem is life gets in the way of doing such things. I am in my child-rearing years. I live in Los Angeles. The idea of doing a protracted stage show somewhere is something you just can’t do. But when the time comes, I’d do it in a minute with Sam.”