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Tom Hanks' Winding Road 

For the large part of his career, Tom Hanks has cornered the Hollywood market on playing admirable Everymen and occasional paragons of virtue. From Big and Sleepless in Seattle to The Green Mile and Cast Away, he is among the most inherently likable actors of his generation -- a veritable personification of normalcy and ordinariness with whom audiences seem to instinctively identify.Hanks doesn't necessarily buy it: "If I was really going to attach any significance or logic to that, then I never would've done Saving Private Ryan, or I never would've played Jim Lovell in Apollo 13, because there's nothing average or ordinary about the Marines who landed at Omaha Beach or the astronauts who flew to the moon," he observes. "OK, so maybe I'm not a very threatening or intimidating screen presence. Well, the vast majority of people you meet in the world are neither threatening nor intimidating, so I guess I'm just not sure there's anything all that special about me."

That's easy for him to say, what with a couple of Oscars on his shelf (for Philadelphia and Forrest Gump), not to mention the more recent addition of this year's American Film Institute Lifetime Achievement Award (at 45, he's the youngest recipient ever). Evidently, nothing is sacred -- because if you ever wanted to see a threatening or intimidating departure from his familiar nice-guy niche, then wait until you get a load of Hanks as an icy Prohibition-era mob hitman in Road to Perdition (opening this Friday), the stylish and evocative second film from American Beauty director Sam Mendes.

But Hanks isn't buying that change-of-pace spin, either: "Listen, when an actor starts looking for a specific change of pace just for the sake of changing his pace, then I think he'd be making an artificial, inorganic decision," the actor explains during a recent interview in Chicago, where Road to Perdition was filmed last winter. "I certainly thought this would be a change of pace for me, but that didn't matter as much to me as a lot of other tantalizing aspects about the project. It wasn't like I was telling my crack team of show-business experts, "Find Tommy something dark to do.' It wasn't anything like that. Once I read this script and realized the themes it would be dealing with, and once Sam came on board and I sensed how the movie would be dealing with those themes, whether or not it was a change of pace for me personally wasn't nearly as important as whether or not the audience was going to be able to connect with the story on an emotional level."

After a pause, Hanks continues, "Sam's doing a very specific kind of variation on a theme here. I mean, this could've been a lot of different things. It could've been a strict genre piece, more of a traditional action-slash-gangster movie. But I think it's interesting that the movie never gives the audience one of those moments where they want to stand up and cheer, which might be the normal reaction to have at the end of most prolonged action sequences.

"By the same token, it could've been a much more touchy-feely, warm-and-fuzzy sort of saga about this young boy and his father, but Sam never lets it become just a story about the personal growth and development of this particular hitman," he notes. "The way Sam described it, (my) character was a bad man and a bad father who becomes a good father even though he pretty much remains a bad man. Let's face it: Father-son relationships have been powering great works of literature since the days of clay tablets, but I thought Road to Perdition offered an intriguing take on it. Parts of it play like an old-fashioned morality tale, notwithstanding the fact that the character's morality is severely flawed."

Most efficient as a proverbial right-hand man and strong-arm for a Chicago mob boss (played by Paul Newman), at home Hanks' Mike Sullivan is a rather dispassionate husband (to Jennifer Jason Leigh) and father to two young sons (Tyler Hoechlin and Liam Aiken). Inevitably, a series of dire events compels Sullivan to reprioritize his life and take matters into his own hands, as he tries to right a grievous wrong while getting one of his boys to distant safety and eluding the sociopathic hired gun (Jude Law) who's trailing them.

It ain't Scooby-Doo or Men in Black II, that's for sure. Just don't refer to it as "counter-programming," either. "I think it's funny (how) the studios and the media keep calling movies like this counter-programming, because I'd just call it common sense. Wouldn't it be a really demoralizing atmosphere for movies if we always let the marketing dictate the way things should work? I think it's been proven that audiences are dying for something that isn't like a hundred other movies they've seen lately, and that they'll seek out a movie like that whenever it comes out. Just looking at some of movies I've been in, there were people at other studios saying we were crazy for releasing a so-called fall movie like Forrest Gump in the middle of the summer. Saving Private Ryan came out in the summer, and people thought audiences wouldn't stand for it. These rules are broken all the time, and yet it seems weird to me that these rules are adhered to anyway, as though they were the gospel truth. To paraphrase an old expression, if you give the people a good movie, they will come."

At the top of his game for more than a decade now, Hanks hasn't lost his boyish enthusiasm for the work. "It's the best job in the world, and I'm having a blast," he gushes. "When something this good comes along, I still can't believe people are asking me to play these roles. The money's nice, and the attention is more than anyone deserves, but none of that can begin to compare with the thrill of getting to the set, putting on the costume, pretending to be someone else, and working with a lot of other talented and inspiring people."

Or even an occasional icon like Paul Newman. Hanks admits he isn't so seasoned that he's beyond being awestruck every now and then. The actor concedes, "I don't think it's physically possible not to be awed by working with someone like Newman. He's the kind of guy who'd hate knowing we were sitting here talking about how in awe we are of him, but there's no denying that feeling and it takes some effort getting past it."

Hanks smiles. "The first scene we shot together was just a simple little exchange of glances as we're getting into a car, but for the first few takes, I was like, "Hey, look at me, I'm working with Paul Newman!"

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