Tom Hanks on Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis, being the nice guy, and whether he’d still be able to play a gay character today.

Over the course of his long career, Tom Hanks has found clever ways to convey a fundamental and aspirational decency. He has played honourable men on society’s then-margins (the discriminated-against gay lawyer of Philadelphia) and at the centre of American history (Forrest Gump, Apollo 13). At other times, he has found ways to imbue with can-do optimism characters who are caught in the middle of seemingly unbearable situations, whether they’re alone (Cast Away) or surrounded by enemies (Saving Private Ryan).

Such is the malleability of his gift that he has created trustworthy portraits of real-life characters (the heroic airline and cargo-ship captains of, respectively, Sully and Captain Phillips), cartoons (Woody the cowboy from the Toy Story films) and real-life characters who easily could have come off like cartoons (as Fred Rogers in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood).

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Is it telling, then, that in this time of declining trust in our institutions and one another, Tom Hanks is now playing a bad guy? One with a hand in the downfall of another American icon and myth-maker? But in true Hanksian fashion, he finds something unexpectedly hopeful even in this character. “I’m not interested in malevolence; I’m interested in motivation,” Hanks says about his role as the shadowy talent manager, Col Tom Parker, in director Baz Luhrmann’s biopic Elvis. “All you can say is that he’s wrong,” he adds, “not evil.” There’s a useful lesson there. With Hanks, there often is.

Tom Parker was a Dutch guy who passed himself off as a Southern colonel. Elvis was a poor kid from Tupelo who turned himself into a superhero. Both were careful to present very specific versions of themselves to the public. What might a movie star like you know about what’s underneath that kind of self-presentation that the rest of us don’t?

Well, I don’t think in show business there were more authentic-to-themselves personalities than those two. Elvis dressed the way he dressed because he had to. He felt he looked good. Onstage, he wasn’t wiggling to say, “Hey, time to turn on the sex appeal”. It was instinct. Col Tom Parker was the same exact type of thing on a crass, non-artistic level.

I heard a story: When he was a carny, he had a dime welded to his ring. He’d say: “That cost 90 cents and you gave me $2. I owe you $1.10.” He would then take the customer’s hand, put the change in, close it up, say “Thank you very much” and cheat people out of that dime. He got the same pleasure from that as he did signing a deal for Elvis with the International Hotel in Las Vegas for millions of dollars.

That’s got nothing to do with power, nothing to do with influence. It is a dispassionate desire to always get this other thing. That was the secret sauce of living for Col Tom Parker, the same way that his hair and clothes and the music he loved was the secret sauce for Elvis.

That’s them. I’m asking about you. What do you know about the performance of authenticity?

Me? You mean career-wise?

However you want to take it.

You know, I was not an overnight sensation. I had been in movies for a long time until I had enough opportunities and experience to realise that I don’t have to say yes to everything just because they’re offering me the gig. Some of that was, What am I going to do instead? Wait for the phone to ring? The phone rang! I said yes! But I was fortunate in that my sense of self and artistic thirst grew at the same time. I had done enough romantic leads in enough movies and had experienced enough compromise to say, “I’m not even going to read those scripts any more.” So then you hold out for something that represents more of the artist you want to be.

When Penny Marshall came to me on A League of Their Own, I said, “Penny, this is written for a guy who’s older than I am. The character is in his 40s and washed up.” She said, “That’s why I want you. Because this guy should have been great until he was 40 and wasn’t.” I went, “Aaaah.” Before that a director had never said something to me like, “Come up with a reason why you’re 36, broken down and managing a women’s baseball team.” Then it was, Katie, bar the door! I was looking for more of that from then on.

The other thing that happened in the ’90s was when Richard Lovett at [talent agency] C.A.A. said, “What do you want to do?” No one had asked me that question, either. People always said, “What do you want to do with this opportunity?” But what do you want to do?

I said I’d like to make a movie about Apollo 13. That was the first time where I was saying, “This is the type of artist who I want to be.” But if you look at anybody’s career, there’s hits and misses. There’s movies that simply don’t work, and if something not working is debilitating to you, you’re toast.

I think of you as basically a naturalistic actor. Was it tough to translate that to a Baz Lurhmann film? His aesthetic is so much about heightened reality.

No, because it’s all connected to the logic of the piece. Every movie establishes its own parameters for what’s allowable and what’s not. Certainly, with Elvis, Baz would be saying: “You’re in a morphine dream! You’re high! It’s the morphine talking!” It all comes down to what the thing is. One of the most presentational movies I’ve ever been in was Frank Darabont’s The Green Mile. Most of the movie is major bum bum buuuh moments. It was all heightened reality and not naturalistic at all but was the logic of the piece.

“I’m not interested in malevolence, I’m interested in motivation,” says Hanks of playing Colonel Tom Parker opposite Austin Butler, right, in Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis.

“I’m not interested in malevolence, I’m interested in motivation,” says Hanks of playing Colonel Tom Parker opposite Austin Butler, right, in Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis.Credit:Warner Bros

You talked about a point earlier in your career when you wanted to get out of a particular box. Have you ever been concerned during the latter part of your career that you’ve been stuck in a different box?

You mean the hero, the guy who could be trusted, the ordinary guy that gets put in extraordinary circumstances? I look at it like this. I have a particular cinematic countenance that I carry into any movie, the same way that De Niro carries a malevolence into every role that he plays.

There can be new ways to explore what that means. For example, when Clint Eastwood said, “You want to be Sully?” I said to him, “I’ve sort of played that role before,” and he said, “Yeah, you have.” I took that as a challenge. It’s like he was saying there’s still an unplumbed thing. Gary Cooper and Humphrey Bogart and Bette Davis and Jimmy Stewart: they brought their countenance into every movie, and we were looking for some new turn of it. There’s no shiny object you wave at the audience to make them forget that countenance.

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So the biggest question you have to ask is: is each new character’s behaviour authentic to recognisable human behaviour? Let’s take Greyhound: Tom Hanks in a uniform? Jeez, we haven’t seen this enough. Me doing the right thing? Oh, that’s brand-new. All of that stuff is in that movie, but it’s through a filter of a character who is scared out of his head, and that’s different. It’s the same countenance and the same “Trust me, folks”, but the cost becomes palpable.

Can an actor consciously use his countenance in a performance? And does that countenance reveal anything innate?

No, I don’t think you’re going to know the person through performance. But the piling-up of the jobs themselves – if someone has only seen half of my movies, they’ve still seen 30 movies. Over the course of that will come some imprimatur. It cannot be denied. But that doesn’t mean it’s not malleable. It is, provided you’re not just doing the same thing. You’ve gotta give ’em A. You’ve gotta give ’em B. But if you don’t also give ’em K and S, you’re going to start delivering movies by rote.

Mr Bruce Springsteen said his rock ‘n’ roll show is like going to church. Provided that what he does in the big shows is give you six songs in a row that are Bruce Springsteen at his absolute E-Street Band-iest. After that, he takes you anywhere he wants. It’s not exactly the same with movies, but the audience expects a thing from my name up there. I’m not saying they come in expecting something specific, but they’re going to trust me in making my choice to do the movie in the first place. “Let’s go for the ride with this guy because he’s only let us down one time out of two. He’s still batting .500.” You can’t pretend it doesn’t exist. But no matter what, here’s what you always want people saying after a movie: “I’m glad we went to the movies today.” What is worse than going to a movie and coming out and saying, “Coulda seen that on a plane”?

So many of your movies, and also the work you do with Playtone (the film and TV production company Hanks co-founded in 1998), convey an affection for a particular slice of mid-20th-century America. That’s a period, the period of your youth, that makes a lot of people nostalgic. But nostalgia for that time has curdled for so many Americans into retrograde politics. What makes “back in my day” tip over into something negative for some people, and why do you think it hasn’t for you?

That’s such a loathsome argument: “Back in my day.” Those days were [expletive] up! “Oh, the ’50s were this carefree time.” Excuse me, no, they were not. How come things aren’t the way they were? You mean when you were comfortable? Institutions were gaming the system in order to maintain the status quo! That has always been the case except for when some redefinition of our institutions comes along out of a public outcry because the status quo isn’t fair.

I was in a movie called Cloud Atlas that went right over everybody’s heads. It said, What is the point of trying to do the right thing when it’s just a drop in the ocean? But what is an ocean but a multitude of drops? Things get better when a multitude of drops form an ocean and sweep things away. World War II: the Nazis were defeated, as was a Japanese empire, because enough good people said no. Civil rights came about because of, I think, an American belief that our responsibility as citizens is to work towards making a more perfect union.

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I don’t know if I’m answering your question, but “There’s Hanks, he’s got a nostalgia for the way America used to be”: no. I have a fascination with the progress that America has made in all these incremental moments. That is an American sense of what is right and what is wrong. What I don’t do, if I can continue on, I’m not cynical. Cynicism is a default position in an awful lot of entertainment. How many knock-off versions of Chinatown have you seen? Eight million. The conflict of cynicism is glamorous, gorgeous. Violence is glamorous and gorgeous. But it’s cynical, and I’m not a cynic.

Hanks with Antonio Banderas in the 1993 movie, Philadelphia. “I don’t think people [today] would accept the inauthenticity of a straight guy playing a gay guy.”

Hanks with Antonio Banderas in the 1993 movie, Philadelphia. “I don’t think people [today] would accept the inauthenticity of a straight guy playing a gay guy.”Credit:Alamy

Making those Robert Langdon (Hanks’ character from Dan Brown’s book series) sequels wasn’t a little cynical?

Oh, god, that was a commercial enterprise. Yeah, those Robert Langdon sequels are hooey. The Da Vinci Code was hooey. I mean, Dan Brown, god bless him, says, Here is a sculpture in a place in Paris! No, it’s way over there. See how a cross is formed on a map? Well, it’s sort of a cross. Those are delightful scavenger hunts that are about as accurate to history as the James Bond movies are to espionage. But they’re as cynical as a crossword puzzle.

All we were doing is promising a diversion. There’s nothing wrong with good commerce, provided it is good commerce. By the time we made the third one, we proved that it wasn’t such good commerce. Let me tell you something else about The Da Vinci Code. It was my 40th-something birthday. We were shooting in the Louvre at night. I changed my pants in front of the Mona Lisa! They brought me a birthday cake in the Grand Salon! Who gets to have that experience? Any cynicism there? Hell no!

Just to stick with the idea of cynicism for a minute: I was always intrigued by the idea that you and Martin Scorsese tried to make a Dean Martin biopic. I think of him as a profoundly cynical star. What drew you to him?

I didn’t see Dean Martin as being the cynical presence in the Rat Pack. I think he’s the only one who got it. Dean Martin was not into any of the show-business razzle-dazzle except for the way it gave him a degree of ease and enjoyment that he wanted because he grew up so hardscrabble. He said, “Pally, there’s got to be an easier way,” and he discovered what that way was.

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There’s a great story about Dean Martin: after he broke up with Jerry Lewis, everybody said, “Jerry is a genius, Dean’s just a crooner.” Dean then went to play Las Vegas, and it was a disaster. He comes back and says to one of his guys: “They don’t seem to like me without the monkey boy. What are we going to do?” I’m paraphrasing. The guy said, “You could always do the drunky act.” So from that drunky act came jokes like, “I don’t drink any more. I just freeze it and eat it like a Popsicle.” He was not a boozer. When he’s out there with the Rat Pack, it’s apple juice in his glass. He would pretend not to know his lines. “I’d like to have a response to that joke, but I have to wait for Mr Cue-Card Man to do his job.” This was all fake! What is that other than an expertise beyond belief? That’s why I wanted to do it. I felt like I understood that guy to a T.

Also, I’ve heard this story about Dean and Jerry at the end of their lives. Jerry was in some restaurant and Dean came in – did not say hello. Just took his seat. Jerry said, “I have to go talk to Dean.” Understand, the night they broke up at the Copacabana, Jerry said to Dean, “What we had all this time was love.” Dean said: “You know what you were to me? A big fat [expletive] dollar sign.” But at the end, they’re old, they’re infirm, and they just sat and held hands at some restaurant, weeping. Forgive me if I’m telling you too much about the movie we never made.

Hanks as Forrest Gump in 1994. “There’s no way a straight actor would be cast in Philadelphia today and Forrest Gump would be dead in the water.”

Hanks as Forrest Gump in 1994. “There’s no way a straight actor would be cast in Philadelphia today and Forrest Gump would be dead in the water.”Credit:Alamy

We’ve been talking a bunch about cultural shifts. I want to ask about cultural shifts related to the two movies you won Oscars for. Timely movies, at the time, that you might not be able to make now.

That’s exactly it. There’s no way a straight actor would be cast in Philadelphia today and Forrest Gump would be dead in the water.

Gary Sinise would not have been able to play Lieutenant Dan [in Forrest Gump] because he has legs?

Not that. I’m positive that its premise alone would mean that Forrest Gump would be mocked and picked apart on social media before anyone even had a chance to see it.

There’s nothing you can do about that, but let’s address “could a straight man do what I did in Philadelphia now?” No, and rightly so. The whole point of Philadelphia was, “Don’t be afraid.” One of the reasons people weren’t afraid of that movie is that I was playing a gay man. We’re beyond that now, and I don’t think people would accept the inauthenticity of a straight guy playing a gay guy. It’s not a crime, it’s not boohoo, that someone would say we are going to demand more of a movie in the modern realm of authenticity. Do I sound like I’m preaching? I don’t mean to.

Is this the longest you’ve ever been interviewed without getting asked about being nice?

Am I nice? I dunno.

I heard you kicked Hooch [Hanks’ canine co-star in 1989’s Turner & Hooch].

I have never kicked Hooch!

That was a joke.

[Laughs] You know, it’s funny you say that about the “nice” thing. How many times have I been having a conversation with some journalist who wanted to say something unique and then the whole first paragraph is, “Is he nice or not?” It just goes on and on.

I have one last question. When I ask for a memory from your career, what’s the first thing that comes to mind?

Okay, we were shooting the park-bench scenes of Forrest Gump. It’s summertime in Savannah, Georgia. We had shot 27 straight days. It was brutal. We were sitting there, and I got this haircut, we’re trying to make sense of this dialogue, and I had to say, “Bob [director Robert Zemeckis], man, I don’t think anybody’s going to care.” And Bob said: “It’s a minefield, Tom. You never know what’s good. Are you going to make it through safe? Or are you gonna step on a Bouncing Betty that’s going to blow your balls off?”

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There’s never any guarantee. I’ll be 66 this month, and I’ve been acting for a pay-cheque since I was 20. Forty-six years and I now know what was evident when I was 20 years old is what Spencer Tracy said: “Learn the lines. Hit the marks. Tell the truth.” That’s all you can do.

This interview has been edited and condensed from two conversations.

This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared in The New York Times.

To read more from Good Weekend magazine, visit our page at The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and Brisbane Times.

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