Colin Hanks on 'Life in Pieces,' Getting Cast on 'Mad Men' and What He Learned From 'Fargo'

The actor reflects on his recent TV roles and his documentary work with THR. "I’m always looking to do something different, because that keeps it fresh for me," he says.
Francis Specker/CBS

When Colin Hanks first hit the TV circuit with Roswell, it was impossible not to compare him to his father, Tom Hanks. But over the years the younger Hanks has established himself via a slew of noteworthy performances featuring his dramatic flair and comedic chops, setting him far apart from his Oscar-winning dad.

Hanks' latest turn, as new father Greg on CBS's Life in Pieces, marks another career shift, one that perhaps mirrors his actual life as a young father more than most. 

Here he talks to The Hollywood Reporter about signing up for this particular role, how stints on Mad Men and Dexter gave him new opportunities and what Fargo taught him about choosing projects.  

Watching Life in Pieces, why would anyone want to give birth?

When my wife and I had our firstborn I think we scared a lot of people into not procreating. Get your sleep, that’s the most important thing. Make sure you get everything you need done during business hours because once you go to bed, you really do not want to get up again. 

Was being able to relate part of the reason for taking this role?

That’s part of it for sure. The humor is cutting a little bit deeper for me. The structure of it  not only the four stories, but the way the stories are structured  are just really well written. You understand very clearly where the joke is or what you’re trying to do. It sets us up to execute it or do the scene the way it needs to be done but also bring other things to the table and do alts. It’s a fun, creative atmosphere. Maybe it’s because I already have two kids and I’ve gone through it twice, I just have a lot to work with.

Did you and Zoe Lister-Jones hit it off right away, and what's that alt process like?

For whatever reason, Zoe and I hit it off instantaneously. I’m grateful because by the end of the first day of working with her, I was in between her legs with a frozen glove. So we got to know each other very quickly. That’s just luck. The ability to come up with alts, there are people that are used to working that way, of trying new things or make them as funny as they can be. That’s one of the things we try to do on the show. It’s a fun way to do it  when it’s going well.

Is that new for you as well?

It’s not so much that this is new for me because I’ve done it in one way or another. For me, the thing that is most important with a script is that first introduction grabs my attention. It was one of the things I learned on Fargo. That script was so different than anything else I’d done, even though it was based on this incredibly famous movie and your first instinct is, "Oh my God, why would we do that?" That script had none of the conventions of a normal pilot. We didn’t meet all the characters in the first five pages. We didn't do all of those things we’re told we must do when establishing a new show. That was liberating. So when I came into pilot season, I did not say to my agents, "Find me a network comedy, please." It was much more, let’s see what’s out there and if something comes along, we’ll see. This pilot stood out so much. That goes a long way for me.

What stood out about the Travis Marshall character on Dexter?

Obviously I leapt at the chance to do something different in that case. So I guess you can argue that I’m always looking to do something different, because that keeps it fresh for me. But with that particular character they didn’t tell me about the reveal that was going to happen at the end of the season. I went in thinking there were two very, very bad guys. It wasn’t until the end that I realized what was going on. But I didn’t see him as this horrible, sociopath killer; I saw him as a really mentally deranged person who needed help and never got it. Maybe you can describe all of the killers on Dexter like that? But he was obviously having delusions that were very different from some of these other people that were rational about why they were killing people. Travis was clearly not right in the head and had slipped through the cracks. It wasn’t just a bad guy for the sake of being a bad guy. He didn't do it because he knew he was doing something bad, but because he thought he has a moral obligation to do so. 

And Father John Gill on Mad Men?

I look back on Mad Men and I’m amazed that happened, because I was such a huge fan of the show from the moment it premiered. I remember reading about them making that show before it premiered. And when it did, it was about very young men pretending to be adults. I said, "Finally, there’s a show that would not be a stretch for me to be on." I spent a lot of time trying to get a meeting with [creator] Matthew Weiner. When I finally did get a meeting with him we talked about everything but the character; history, America and the '40s leading up to the '60s and all this other stuff. Then he goes, "I think we might have something for you." I was not expecting to play a priest! In fact, I remember going through a fitting where I said, "I really was excited when I got the part, but I really thought I’d be one of the guys in the suits."

You had done Roswell, but did Mad Men change your perception of TV roles?

Here was a serious, dramatic role. It wasn't about getting invited to a party or trying to be funny or any of those young adult rom-coms. It was a dramatic role, as simple as that, that was the appeal. There was a period after I finished Roswell and I had gotten Orange County and they said, "Congratulations, you never need to do TV again." That was very much the temperature at the time, what the business was like. Eventually I just stopped paying attention to whether it was a movie or a TV show; I was much more focused on the role. It just so happened that a majority of the parts ended up being on television where I could get cast. I couldn’t get cast in that part in a movie, but I could do it on TV. So I just went where the parts were. That’s the reality to this day.

Very early in your career you had bit parts in That Thing You Do! and Band of Brothers. Since then was it a conscious decision to not do what your dad had done or was doing?

I’ve always done my own thing, really. I didn’t even see him during Band of Brothers because he was a big producer and I was just one of a 150 dudes dressed in green, yelling in the English countryside. From the moment I decided to be an actor, this was because it was what I wanted to do. And I’ve always wanted to try and challenge myself to be engaged and to have fun. That’s always been the goal since day one and that’s never changed.

You're also directing the upcoming documentary All Things Must. Why this project?

Overall, I think people's connection with music is incredibly personal, and Tower Records was, for a long time, where a large majority of people got their music. I thought that was special and unique. There was a history of the company that a lot of people didn't know about. I thought, for a story to start in your classic 1940s Americana drug store and to end in a bankruptcy 40-something years later with 192 stores around the world... that’s a pretty amazing journey. There’s got to be a story in there somewhere. But then Russ Solomon as a character is incredibly engaging and an amazing storyteller. So all of those things  combined with long bouts of unemployment as an actor  made me want to try and take it on.

You’ve got a few docs under your belt as a producer. What’s the appeal of those versus something scripted? Is that a creative outlet?

It’s definitely a creative outlet. I don’t necessarily have the patience to sit down in front of a computer and write a scene. I have always been very jealous of the fact that so many of my friends who are writers or who are actors who write on the side would have this creative outlet to be able to do stuff. And so basically the whole documentary thing really came about because of needing a creative outlet to do something but also being a stickler on telling real stories in a proper way.

Life in Pieces airs Mondays at 8:30 p.m. on CBS. 

What's your favorite Colin Hanks role? Sound off below. 

Twitter: @amber_dowling

 

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