Tom Hanks: I have nothing that stayed with me through my life

Tom Hanks. Photograph: Daniel Dorsa/New York Times

Here is a list of stories about Tom Hanks I’ve heard here in the United States over the past few miserable months, as it appeared that politeness and civility and manners were facing an extinction event in this country.

Once, in 2008, when he was shooting Angels & Demons in Rome by the Pantheon, a bride and her father couldn’t approach the chapel because of the hullabaloo, so Hanks stopped filming to escort them to the altar.

Once, in 2015, Hanks stopped by a table of Girl Scout cookies and bought some boxes, donated an additional $20, then offered selfies to passersby as an enticement to buy

Once, in 2015, he stopped by a table of Girl Scout cookies and bought some boxes, donated an additional $20, then offered selfies to passersby as an enticement to buy.

That same year he found a young woman’s student ID in a park and used his charming Twitter feed, which is filled with found items, to get it back to her.

Once, in 1997, before shooting Saving Private Ryan, Steven Spielberg sent Hanks and other cast members out to do military training in the woods with a former marine. After spending time in the rain, they all voted to quit the training, except for Hanks, who chose to obediently perform the job he was hired for and spurred the other men to stick with it as well.

Tom Hanks escorts the bride to the Pantheon in Rome in 2008. Photograph: Elisabetta A Villa/WireImage/Getty
Tom Hanks escorts the bride to the Pantheon in Rome in 2008. Photograph: Elisabetta A Villa/WireImage/Getty

These are the regular-nice acts of a person who holds the mantle of Everyman in our movie-star culture. But lately they have signified more than simple good deeds. They’re something like the embodiment of a gold standard of integrity, which is not just gone from the culture at large but now plays like a parody of it.

There’s more. Spielberg once said about him, “If Norman Rockwell were alive today, he would paint a portrait of Tom.” Quick, who is your favourite president? Is it Abraham Lincoln? Well, you’ll never believe this, but Tom Hanks is related to him. The maiden name of Lincoln’s mother, Nancy, was Hanks, and, yes, it’s the same Hanks.

Quick, who is your second-favourite president? If it’s Barack Obama, here’s what he said about his true-life friend Hanks at the Kennedy Center Honors reception in 2014: “People have said that Tom is Hollywood’s Everyman; that he’s this generation’s Jimmy Stewart or Gary Cooper. But he’s just Tom Hanks. And that’s enough. That’s more than enough.” Two years later Obama gave him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

The day after Hanks’s new movie, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, in which he stars as the public-television children’s host Mister Rogers, debuts at Toronto International Film Festival, in September, he is sitting on a bench in a hallway outside a conference room, making jokes to a group of publicists, waiting for me ahead of the appointed time. This does not really ever happen, an actor waiting for me ahead of the appointed time, versus clearly dreading me two hours past it. “I think, a long time ago, I learned how important it was to show up a little bit early,” Hanks says. “Be ready to go, you know? And to respect the whole process, and I think that you could respect the whole process even when the other people don’t.”

Tom Hanks. Photograph: Daniel Dorsa/New York Times
Tom Hanks. Photograph: Daniel Dorsa/New York Times

So Tom Hanks is as nice as you think he is and exactly what you hope him to be, which is great unless you are someone trying to tell a good story about him, with elements like an arc and narrative tension. “Saintly actor playing saintly TV presenter Mister Rogers is saintly” is not a great story. But what am I supposed to do? He sits facing me, cheerful and focused and willing. Maybe this could just be a story that makes you feel better.

An hour later he sits on a panel with the film-makers and other actors, all of whom seem giddy to put a Mister Rogers movie out into the world, relaying all the stories they’ve heard about him. Tom Junod, who wrote the 1998 article in Esquire that the movie is based on, talks about the way his interactions with Fred Rogers changed his life. You sit there and you listen and it’s hard to believe that these stories are real.

In our first interview in Toronto, Hanks sits back in a chair with his left ankle pressed against the top of his right patella. He is wearing clear-plastic framed glasses and a beard for shooting News of the World, which is set in the aftermath of the American Civil War. In our interviews he says “oh dear” and “Jeez” and “for cryin’ out loud”. He is a history enthusiast. He is an information enthusiast. He is an enthusiasm enthusiast. At one point he recites the preamble to the US constitution.

In the panels after the premiere, some of the questions seem to be based on the notion that Tom Hanks is so wonderful and Mister Rogersy that he just had to show up and read some lines, since, hey, they’re both essentially the same: easygoing nice men with greying hair.

Tom Hanks as Mister Rogers in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
Tom Hanks as Mister Rogers in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

This creates as close to a crisis as the people who made this movie will probably have: it is 24 years since Hanks won an Oscar (two in a row, for Philadelphia and Forrest Gump); it has been 18 years since he was even nominated, even though he has had an unrelenting leading-man career that includes the last three devastating minutes of Captain Phillips. So while other movies this year opened to PR disasters around the offscreen behaviour of their stars or directors or producers, it is this that the Beautiful Day team feel they have to get in front of: the notion that Hanks wasn’t acting when he was playing Mister Rogers.

At a panel, a journalist suggests that he’s actually playing Tom Hanks, just “slower”. But the slowness of Fred Rogers – the un-self-conscious, considered slowness – was hard, Hanks says. It felt ridiculous when he first tried it out. He studied hours of tapes, because sometimes he couldn’t imagine that he was supposed to go this slowly.

It wasn’t just about pace, though. It was about a specificity of cadence, and an intention. When Hanks watched those tapes, he saw that Mister Rogers was “always talking to a single kid, a single person two feet on the other side of the camera screen. They said when you were talking to Fred, you felt as though you were the only person in the world that mattered to him.”

Whereas Mister Rogers was the closest thing my generation had to a living saint, Tom Hanks is the closest thing the US to Mister Rogers: an uncomplicated-seeming, scandal-free man with a long career

Performance aside, it’s not hard to see why the film’s director, Marielle Heller, wanted him so badly for the role. He bears a somewhat passing physical resemblance to Rogers, which was a good start. He is most often cast in roles that need what Robert Zemeckis, who directed Forrest Gump, among other Hanks movies) calls “that classic Everyman quality”. Many, many people tell me what an Everyman he is.

But Mister Rogers wasn’t an Everyman. It didn’t hurt that whereas Mister Rogers was the closest thing my generation had to a living saint (even Mother Teresa got cancelled, eventually), Tom Hanks is the closest thing the United States has to Mister Rogers: an uncomplicated-seeming, scandal-free man with a long career who has never had to issue a public statement that includes the phrase “It was a different time.” In other words, having Hanks as Mister Rogers removes a layer of suspension of disbelief that is the burden of a movie depicting a real-life person.

Hanks had read the script years before, but while Mister Rogers is the hero of the story, he’s not necessarily the protagonist of it, and so it felt like just another midlife crisis movie about a man dealing with a fraught relationship with his father. But by the time a revised script got to him, circumstances had changed. Back in 2015, Hanks read a story on women directors in the New York Times Magazine and had decided he wanted to make an effort to work with some of them. That week, at his granddaughter’s birthday party, he met Heller, who had been featured in the story. He went home and watched her debut, The Diary of a Teenage Girl, and told her that he wanted to try to make something work. A few years later, now attached to Beautiful Day, she sent the script over to him and here we are.

It’s a long time since a magazine article about a celebrity could sell tickets to a movie. But Hanks doesn’t mind doing interviews – “I hate doing disingenuous press. The stuff that you have to essentially perform through the whole damn thing” – although he can now smell the ones that are just trying to get something incendiary into a headline. Ones where the writer says, “Tell me about that divorce.”

In 1985 he and his first wife, Samantha Lewes, the mother of his son Colin and his daughter, Elizabeth, split. Hanks then married Rita Wilson, who was his costar in Volunteers. They’ve been married since 1988 and have two sons together, Chester and Truman. There has not been much drama in this marriage department. So he’ll say, “What? We got divorced!”

What happens next confuses him more. “Then they’ll say, ‘Why won’t this guy let me really get to know him?’ It’s because we’re going to be spending altogether about two hours of my 63 years on planet Earth getting to know each other.”

I commit something akin to this line of atrocity when I ask him if he has a dark side. He says, “Yes, and finally, finally I’ll get to tell it to the New York Times.”

He doesn’t appear to have a need to be known by his public, but he also doesn’t have the same strains of contempt for journalists that I’ve seen from other movie stars

In our interviews, he doesn’t evade any questions, but he doesn’t spill either. He doesn’t appear to have a need to be known by his public, but he also doesn’t have the same strains of contempt for journalists that I’ve seen from other movie stars. Maybe that’s because he’s never been truly screwed by one, but just as likely it’s because he believes in the truth. “The best articles I’ve ever read that have come out have been an accurate reflection of the time I spent with that journalist,” he said.

That night in my hotel room I watch the Kennedy Center Honors from 2014. There’s a moment when the a cappella group Pentatonix sing That Thing You Do!, the title track from the movie Hanks directed and starred in about a boy band that is filled with the kind of wholesome, debonair, charming and witty characters that he tends to favour.

At the ceremony, as the group sing, Hanks sits in the balcony with Wilson right behind him, waving his head in joyous, uncomplicated beat. For maybe two seconds, a second camera goes to the grown Hanks children in the audience, each of them singing along and bobbing their heads, too. Colin is an actor and owns a handkerchief company called, uh, Hanks Kerchiefs. Elizabeth is a writer. Chester has been chasing a rap career (with attendant rap controversy) and now plays a rapper on Empire. And Truman is working on film sets and, his father says, has a degree in mathematics from Stanford. I watch those two seconds at the Kennedy Center maybe 10 or 12 times.

Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan
Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan

Tom Hanks got his first typewriter when he was 19. He tells me this at our second meeting, which is in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he’s shooting News of the World. It is a Sunday, and he has just come from seeing Ad Astra with his youngest son, Truman.

Hanks grew up in northern California, in the era of the Zodiac Killer and Patty Hearst and the Black Panthers and the People’s Park riots. He was five when his parents divorced and he and his older brother and sister went to live with his father, while another brother lived with their mother. Both parents were in rough shape, just trying to survive. His father worked in a variety of small restaurants, remarrying again and again and moving every few months.

He and his siblings had the run of the house while their father worked long hours. They didn’t eat the frozen vegetables he brought home, and they mostly knew what time it was because of what was on television. “No one told me how to brush my teeth,” he says. “I never flossed until I was out of high school, because dental hygiene was handled by a filmstrip that we saw in second grade that said, really, try to eat an apple, and that cleans your teeth. So, hey, I had an apple last week, so my teeth are kind of clean.”

He was never angry at his parents; he’s still not. He saw how hard it was for them to function. They never explained things to him. Now he knows “it’s because they didn’t have the verbiage. They didn’t have the vocabulary. And they were so racked with self-loathing and guilt and et cetera, all that stuff that went along, and there were four of us, for God’s sake, and they just, you know, couldn’t do it. Now, I’ve got four kids myself, and as soon as you start having your own kids, you go, like, oh, I get it.”

I had nothing, actually, that stayed with me all through my life. I don’t have anything from when I was five years old. I don’t have anything from when I was three

He remembers Oprah Winfrey once asked him on her show about his dysfunctional family growing up, and he thought, What’s that? – oh, that’s us. He’d never thought of himself that way. But somewhere underneath he must have known that something was off, because he had started accumulating a lot of typewriters. Hundreds of them. It was something about how he never got to keep the things he loved through all of his family’s moves.

Now that he’s 63 and he’s thought a lot about it, he realises that when he was young he’d often have to move on a moment’s notice and was not in charge of packing, so he often lost things that were important to him. “I had nothing, actually, that stayed with me all through my life. I don’t have anything from when I was five years old. I don’t have anything from when I was three.”

Like I said, he was 19 when he got his first typewriter. A friend gave it to him – “it was a hunk of junk, a toy,” he said. He went to get it serviced, and the repairman said to him, “This is a toy. Why are you using a toy?” The man sold him a Hermes 2000, which is now lost. So he invested in another. “I said, oh yeah, this is going to stay with me for a while, and I am soothed by it. I’m soothed by having it. I’m soothed by knowing that I can take it anywhere with me.”

Everyone I speak with about Hanks tells a story about notes they received from one of his typewriters. Sally Field recently received a note from Hanks that conveyed how moved he was by her 2018 memoir, In Pieces. She was kicking herself because she has yet to convey to him how much she enjoyed his book of short stories, Uncommon Type, which she had read a year earlier. (She also tells me about the weekly newsletter he wrote, on a laptop, on the set of Forrest Gump, about happenings among the cast and crew. A weekly newsletter.)

He loves typewriters because “they’re brilliant combinations of art and engineering. But art, engineering and purpose,” he says. “Every machine is as individual as a set of fingerprints. So, every time you type something on a typewriter, it is a one-of-a-kind work of art.” He even created a sweet little app called Hanx Writer that allows you to type and send a message rendered in typewriter style.

Tom Hanks with Meg Ryan and Ross Malinger in Sleepless in Seattle
Tom Hanks with Meg Ryan and Ross Malinger in Sleepless in Seattle

When he started collecting them he was married, but he was just as transient as he’d been as a child. He was getting gigs on The Love Boat and at the Great Lakes Theater, outside Cleveland. He began to collect typewriters maybe because he finally had control over his belongings, even though he still moved a lot.

When he thinks about that time, he says, “I start thinking about mistakes I made with my own kids and not explaining things or not being there for them. Or being so preoccupied with other things that are going on in our adult world. My son Colin was born when I was very young. As well as my daughter, but that means we have this gestalt understanding because they remember when their dad was just a guy trying to, you know, make the rent. My other kids, they were born after I had established a beachhead in every way. And so their lives were just different.”

I tell him that I watched his Kennedy Center Honors ceremony probably more times than is appropriate. His older children have weathered divorce and uncertainty. His younger sons have weathered a life of wealth and privilege. And I want to know how you could be a transient person trying to make a name for yourself in the world and also end up with children who sing along to your songs with great affection when you’re done raising them.

I recognised in myself a long time ago that I don’t instil fear in anybody. Now, that’s different than being nice, you know? I think I have a cache of mystery. But it’s not one of malevolence

My children are getting older, the oldest about to turn 12, I tell him, and I feel like, lately, everything I say is misunderstood – everything is seen as criticism or nagging – and now I can see how a child who used to want to lie in bed with you and watch movies on his birthday can drift towards someone who can barely look at you.

It isn’t easy being a parent, not for any of us, Hanks says. “Somewhere along the line, I figured out, the only thing really, I think, eventually a parent can do is say I love you, there’s nothing you can do wrong, you cannot hurt my feelings, I hope you will forgive me on occasion, and what do you need me to do? You offer up that to them. I will do anything I can possibly do in order to keep you safe. That’s it. Offer that up and then just love them.”

He looks at me for my next question, and when he sees my face he says, “Okay. Go ahead. I’m right here for you, Taffy. It’s good to cry. It’s good to talk.” Somewhere in the last 40 years Hanks concluded that he doesn’t scare anyone. “I recognised in myself a long time ago that I don’t instil fear in anybody,” he says. “Now, that’s different than being nice, you know? I think I have a cache of mystery. But it’s not one of malevolence.”

So when people ask why he rarely plays a bad guy, that’s what he says: “It’s because I never get them, because bad guys, by and large, require some degree of malevolence that I don’t think I can fake.”

Tom Hanks. Photograph: Daniel Dorsa/New York Times
Tom Hanks. Photograph: Daniel Dorsa/New York Times

Not that all of his characters are saints. He played an assassin in Road to Perdition, and a terrible villain was one of the several characters he played in Cloud Atlas. (“But that was under an awful lot of make-up,” he says.) But he can’t play a villain who wants to destroy for no reason, because he can’t bring himself to understand what that motivation might be. That’s one of the reasons his production company, Playtone, options and develops so much nonfiction material – it’s why he ends up playing so many real people. Real people have real motivations. They are complicated in realistic ways.

But it’s more than that. He favours stories of extraordinary acts that are based on reality – proof that extraordinary things exist, that they don’t just have to be imagined. It’s a movie with optimism. It’s a role where you get to wear a uniform and a hat. It’s a debonair man with good values who has the perfect comeback. It’s war heroes and the promise that science will make us better and how history should be memorised. It’s a belief in humankind, that we can’t all be that bad.

I laugh out loud. He looks at me again and waits. It has just all been so dark lately, I tell him. It feels like the world has been engulfed in a chronic-seeming grimness, and it is beginning to feel like it is no longer an aberration but the new reality. I tell him I remember that in 2015 we’d make jokes on social media about what a cursed year it was. But it got worse and so on until now, here we were, a journalist crying in a conference room in Santa Fe.

He tells me about these speculative fiction books he reads by Kim Stanley Robinson. In one of them, about New York 2140, it says, “history is a record of humanity trying to get a grip.” “It’s completely relative,” he says, “and if you had gone back not very far, this level of vitriol and excitement and worry was just as huge back in the Monica Lewinsky era. And we thought, Oh, that’s about as big and as insane as it’s going to get.” And then along comes something equally big and insane.

Then he tells me about a trip he and Truman took on the Los Angeles light rail. So many people complain about public transportation, and most people as recognisable as Hanks wouldn’t dream of using it. But while he was on the train, he couldn’t think of a thing you’d complain about. He couldn’t stop marvelling about how well it worked – what a miracle it was. Meaning: things were always this bad. But they were also always this good.

Tom Hanks with Sally Field in Forrest Gump
Tom Hanks with Sally Field in Forrest Gump

Lately, he has been giving away his typewriters. Now that he’s had a home all these years, and stability, and a wife who sings to him and children who bring his three granddaughters to visit him regularly, he wants to get a little leaner on stuff again. He’s down to about 120. One day he’ll just have one. The one he’ll keep is the Olivetti Lettera 22, the same model they keep at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. I tell him I make too many mistakes to work on a typewriter. But Hanks is more optimistic than I am.

It was this optimism I’d been hoping to capture when I took on this story; it was this optimism I was hoping to marinate in so that I’d feel a little better about the world for a couple of hours a day for a few weeks. I’d been depressed lately, and the amount of time you have to spend researching a profile – reading the old articles, rewatching the movies – would help me avoid any kind of subversiveness. In exchange, my story would be boring. It’s okay, I tell him. Some stories are boring.

I am not malevolent. I’m not mysterious. You’re not going to get a huge amount of anger out of me or anything like that. I’m not coming in to dominate a room, but I am coming in to seduce it somehow

And maybe it is because this paragon of professionalism has spent half of the interview crying, or maybe because Hanks feels bad about my altitude sickness, or maybe this is just what it means to be nice, but this is what he says: “Let’s not call this a dark side, but: I realise, and I used over and over again, the ability to seduce a room, seduce a group of people, and that it started off when I was very young as a self-defence mechanism but then turned into a manipulative kind of thing, because I didn’t realise that I was as good at it as I was. And part of that is I am not malevolent. I’m not mysterious. You’re not going to get a huge amount of anger out of me or anything like that. I’m not coming in to dominate a room, but I am coming in to seduce it somehow.”

The niceness is the seduction; it’s the thing he can do better than anyone. But it also helped him hide, he said. “I thought the thing to do was to win the moment more than carry through with an idea. I’d come to a meeting, and they’d say, ‘I understand you have problems with the rewrite.’ I’d say, ‘No, no, no, hell, we can make it work.’ That’s a cowardice there. And that’s me being willing to seduce whoever that person is on the other side of the room. In which what do I come off as, ‘Oh, he’s got no problem, he can make it work, he’s a good guy to work with,’ et cetera, et cetera.”

Which is not much by way of darkness, and all it really proves is that Tom Hanks is even nicer than I thought: he wants to save my story from being boring. Which I could do on my own. I could make a convincing argument that performance art as a nice person – from your public actions to your choice of roles as altruistic, heroic types – is a way to hide from expanding your range. I could ask questions about that weird one-sided feud with Henry Winkler, who was fired from directing Turner & Hooch after 13 days and who recently said that he “got along great – great – with that dog.” I could call old assistants to try to find out what he was really like back then, as the most recent ones I speak with are warmly talking about how wonderful he is.

Tom Hanks in the 1980s sitcom Bosom Buddies with Peter Scolari
Tom Hanks in the 1980s sitcom Bosom Buddies with Peter Scolari

But over the next few weeks, as I spend hours on the phone with people who knew him well, the things they say about him are both remarkable and unremarkable: Marielle Heller calls him “a human” who “treats everyone like people”. Meg Ryan, who starred with him in Sleepless in Seattle and other movies, says he has an “astronomical” curiosity. Peter Scolari, who starred with him on the sitcom Bosom Buddies and then Lucky Guy on Broadway, calls him “this very special man who is touched by God”. Sally Field tells me that Hanks is so good that it actually makes her feel bad. She calls him “Once in a lifetime Tom”.

Hearing that makes me think of something Tom Junod said to me in Toronto, how he went into the Mister Rogers story looking for who Fred was but came out knowing only what he did. He stared at all his reporting for a long time before he realised that the doing is actually the thing we should be paying attention to. “I don’t know if Fred was the mask or the mask was Fred,” he said. “But in the end does it even matter?”

I’m not sure where we got the concept of an Everyman, but Tom Hanks isn’t really it. I don’t know people with hundreds of typewriters. He is the Platonic ideal of a man, a projection of what we wish we were. – New York Times

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is released on January 31st