'Awards Chatter' Podcast — Tom Hanks ('The Post')

One of the all-time most beloved and respected film actors reflects on his tumultuous childhood and becoming a dad at 21; why, in the years after 'Big' made him a star, he grew tired of playing "pussies," and how he managed a remarkable career reinvention capped by Oscars in back-to-back years; and what it was like making a period piece about obstacles faced by women in the workplace and journalists standing up to a hostile president at a time when those issues are front and center again.
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Tom Hanks

"I think it's because nothing ever dies, nothing ever goes away," says Tom Hanks, one of the most beloved and respected film actors of our time, or any other, as we sit down at the Ritz-Carlton in New York to record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter's 'Awards Chatter' podcast and I ask him if he feels like his new work is always being compared against past work, as opposed to being evaluated on its own merits. After all, it has somehow been 17 years since Hanks — who made his name in the 1980s and 1990s and, for 1993's Philadelphia and 1994's Forrest Gump, became the only person other than Spencer Tracy ever to win back-to-back best actor Oscars — has even been nominated for an Oscar, even though he has continued to do fine work into the 21st century, most recently as Ben Bradlee opposite Meryl Streep's Katharine Graham in Steven Spielberg's Pentagon Papers drama The Post. "I mean," the 61-year-old continues, "I can go through the grid on my Direct Television and — boom — there it is: 'Oh, Road to Perdition is on right now,' 'Here's Cast Away again,' 'Oh—.' It always is there. So, in a lot of ways, the first paragraph of every review of your new movie is about the movies you've made in the past."

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LISTEN: You can hear the entire interview below [starting at 41:29], following a conversation between host Scott Feinberg and Bob Gazzale, the president and CEO of the American Film Institute, about the organization's 50-year history, its "all-time 100 greatest" lists and its recent AFI Awards ceremony honoring 2017's top 10 films and top 10 TV shows, as determined by AFI juries.

Click here to access all of our 197 episodes, including conversations with Oprah Winfrey, Steven Spielberg, Meryl Streep, Lorne Michaels, Gal Gadot, Eddie Murphy, Lady Gaga, Stephen Colbert, Jennifer Lawrence, Will Smith, Jennifer Lopez, Snoop Dogg, Elisabeth Moss, Jerry Seinfeld, Reese Witherspoon, Aaron Sorkin, Helen Mirren, Ryan Reynolds, Kate Winslet, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Aziz Ansari, Jessica Chastain, Denzel Washington, Nicole Kidman, Warren Beatty, Amy Schumer, Justin Timberlake, Natalie Portman, Robert De Niro, Judi Dench, Tyler Perry, Jane Fonda, J.J. Abrams, Emma Stone and Jimmy Kimmel.

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Hanks was born near San Francisco, but lived in 10 different homes by the time he was 10 as a result of his father, who worked in the restaurant business, constantly needing to relocate for work. Then, when he was in fifth grade, his parents split up and his life, as he puts it, "went to hell in a handbag." Despite this tumult, Hanks insists that he was a happy kid of learned how to ingratiate himself among his peers wherever he went — the seeds, perhaps, of the "likability" with which he is so closely associated to this day. While in high school, Hanks says he finally "found two tribes" — a group of born-again Christians ("It was an intellectual place for me to be") and Rawley Farnsworth's drama class ("It wasn't a hobby, it wasn't like an afterschool activity, it was a real discipline that we ended up studying"). By the time he went off to community college, which he has described as "the place that made me who I am," Hanks had decided he wanted to spend his life as an actor.

Hanks eventually transferred from Chabot College to California State University, Sacramento. Outside of the classroom, he got to know and work with Vincent Dowling, the head of the Great Lakes Theater Festival in Cleveland, Ohio. Dowling invited Hanks, who had become a father for the first time at 21 (he married Colin Hanks' mother two years later), to intern at the festival, prompting the younger man to drop out of college and follow the older man to Cleveland, where he spent much of the next three years. Hanks occasionally tried his luck in New York, intermittently auditioning for jobs there and then returning to Cleveland. He eventually landed a low-budget slasher film, and then a meeting with ABC, which flew him to Los Angeles — his first time on a plane — to audition. And in 1980, he was cast on the sitcom Bosom Buddies as one of two men who dress in drag in order to live in an apartment for women. Though the show put him on the map, he and his young family continued to live "a hand-to-mouth existence" for some time.

Hanks broke into the movies after winning over two contemporaries, the up-and-coming producer Brian Grazer and director Ron Howard, who cast him in 1984's Splash. The film didn't make Hanks a full-fledged star — that didn't happen until 1988's Big, for Penny Marshall, for which he received his first best actor Oscar nomination — but it marked the beginning of steady work in films, perhaps too steady. "I said yes to every movie that came down the pike," Hanks acknowledges, and many were mediocre. "There was a point when I was older — I was in my mid-thirties — and I essentially said, 'There's a whole type of part I'm not gonna play anymore ... pussies." He elaborates, "I felt as though I had done enough work to be established in the business, but there was still sort of like a physiological desire, a fire in the belly that I had, that was not being fed." Hanks got divorced from his first wife and married the actress Rita Wilson in 1988; moved from WME to CAA; and then reunited with Marshall on 1992's A League of Their Own, playing a part unlike any he had before. It did not call for him "to do that same thing," but instead "liberated" him. Afterwards, he had a meeting with his agent, then and now, Richard Lovett. "I said, 'Okay, I'm not gonna play pussies anymore,'" Hanks recalls. "And he said, 'Well, what does that mean?' 'It means I'm not gonna play the guy who can't figure out why he doesn't have the thing, or he's not in love with the deal, or—' And that removed, literally, tons of paper [scripts] off my desk." He adds with a chuckle, "It's funny, I can remember more about this era than I can about the last three years of my life."

Thus began one of the most incredible three-year periods of an acting career in Hollywood history, encompassing 1993's rom-com Sleepless in Seattle (the first of two that he would make with writer/director Nora Ephron and actress Meg Ryan, the second being 1998's You've Got Mail) and drama Philadelphia (the first studio movie about AIDS, for which he lost 30 pounds to play a man afflicted with the disease) — he won the best actor Oscar for the latter; 1994's dramedy Forrest Gump, which, despite Hanks' early concerns ("I said, 'Bob [Zemeckis], is anyone gonna give a shit about this?'"), proved a box-office phenomenon and delivered Hanks a second best actor Oscar ("I was aware that it was a crazy-ass moment, but by that time I was like a somnambulate"); and 1995's drama Apollo 13 (which reunited him with Howard) and Toy Story (the first-ever Pixar film). Hanks emerged from this period as the biggest star in Hollywood, and chose to follow it with his directorial debut, 1996's That Thing You Do! ("I actually wrote that as an antidote to the worldwide press tour of Forrest Gump — I was in hotel rooms and on planes and at homes just slowly going nuts, and I needed a creative outlet") and the formation of his own production company, Playtone, which he and Gary Goetzman co-founded in — and have run since — 1998.

Then came Saving Private Ryan, the landmark 1998 war film that marked the beginning of what ultimately became the closest actor-director relationship of Hanks' career, with Steven Spielberg. "I knew Steven socially," Hanks says, "and I had done [1986's] The Money Pit for his company a long time ago, but I never would have imagined in eight million years that he would be calling me up to say, 'I'd really like to do this movie with you.' And from that just came this." Hanks and Spielberg subsequently produced two massively acclaimed HBO miniseries, 2001’s Band of Brothers and 2010’s The Pacific, and reteamed on four other very different films, 2002's Catch Me If You Can, 2004's The Terminal, 2015's Bridge of Spies and 2017's The Post. In-between, Hanks continued to do standout work for other filmmakers — for instance, reuniting with Zemeckis on 2000's Cast Away, in which he acts alone on screen for 75 minutes, and joining forces with Paul Greengrass on 2013's Captain Phillips, in which he gave one of his loosest performances, having been freed by moving cameras from having to hit specific marks. "It became nothing but behavior and procedure," Hanks recalls, and that was an insanely liberating moment." He adds, "I would say that in the modern era of my career, that's the thing that I've slowly discovered as being one of the guiding principles."

Through the years, Hanks' prevailing screen persona — as a decent man, the ideal American, really, his generation's Jimmy Stewart — has made audiences associate him with "likability" more than anyone else. He gets a kick out of it: "I've shot a guy in the head — literally shot him dead in the head [in 2002's Road to Perdition] — 'Well, ya did it for the right reasons.' 'You didn't want to electrocute those guys [in 1999's The Green Mile]!'" One might assume that Hanks sees this as an albatross around his neck, but he insists he does not. "You know, I've been the nation's babysitter since home video came into existence," he says. "And the fact that people can watch any movie you've ever made again and again and again any time they want to, that comes into play. So there is a body of work that you can't deny, you're not gonna get away from that. Robert De Niro has a body of work. Gary Oldman has a body of work. Matt Damon has a body of work. Greta Gerwig now has a body of work that you examine. Do you go beyond that? Do you somehow take all of that and put it into a new and different mix? The 'likability factor' — I would view it as more like an 'accessibility factor,' and gee, I think that, in a lot of ways, that's what you want." He adds, "It's an investment."

Hanks has made a specialty of playing everymen thrust into extraordinary situations for more than 25 years. As for why he increasingly has portrayed real people in recent years — such as Captain Phillips' Capt. Richard Phillips, Bridge of Spies' James Donovan, Sully's Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger and Charlie Wilson's War's Rep. Charlie Wilson — he has a theory. "Well, part of it, I think, is because the economics of motion pictures have changed," he says. "There are studios that literally do not make adult dramas anymore, they simply don't. So you need some sort of pre-knowledge of what the event is in order to get people." But sometimes, with the right formula of talent and material, it's still possible to tell an important story with which many people are not already familiar — The Post being a case in point.

In early 2017, Hanks was delighted to reteam with Spielberg and work, for the first time, with Streep, to make a film about one week in 1971, when The Washington Post's editor and publisher — Bradlee and Graham, each of whom Hanks met years ago — stared down an existential threat to do the right thing. It's a story that feels timely for many reasons, not least that it addresses the challenges faced by women in the workplace and journalists standing up to a hostile president at a time when those very same issues are front and center once again. "When we were making it," Hanks notes, "we had no idea that things would continuously get there the way they have." But, he emphasizes that, as a student of history, we shouldn't be surprised that they have. "There is nothing new under the sun. All of this has happened before. We've had the same people, we've had the same moments — it goes right back to July 2, 1776, and continues right along up to today. The current aspect of who we are is prescribed in tiny little moments in which someone is trying to maintain a status quo and somebody else is trying to bust it up. And in there is where America becomes visible."