Tom Hanks reveals the secret of his billion-dollar box-office success

His recent star turn in Captain Phillips is the latest in a long line of iconic performances that have made Tom Hanks one of the world’s most bankable – and watchable – movie stars


You can hear Tom Hanks jollying – and that is the right word – down the hallway for a good long while before he veers into view. Cheery attendants trail his wake as he sweeps into the room where I’m waiting.

“Well, gee, could it be more gloomy in here?” he says as London’s greyest shade of sky starts to spit and drizzle against the window pane. “We’ll just have keep the atmosphere light. Or do something bright with our personalities, right?”

He smiles: “You know me.”

It’s not the only time I hear him use that phrase this afternoon. And he’s right. I kind of do know him. Or at least I think I do. His folksy good manners and easy way of speaking make you think of a lifelong neighbour calling in to borrow some sugar: “Oh, you bet,” he says more than once.

Just to reinforce this idea, he talks about his kids like he’s a distant cousin I’ve bumped into at a wedding: “My daughter is a writer and journalist now. She’s always turning me on to stuff. She studied the Romantics and Byron and all that. That’s her thing.”

Or: “I drive my kids nuts at dinner parties talking about this stuff.”

He can afford to be familiar. Tom Hanks has been a big, looming part of the Hollywood landscape since the mid-1980s. He doesn’t need to contextualise when he talks about Bob “trying to convey all those changes in one movie” – I know he’s talking about Robert Zemeckis and the screenplay for Forrest Gump.

He doesn’t need to tell me who he means when he says “Rita’s always saying . . .”. As I haven’t lived under a rock at the bottom of the ocean for the past 30 or so years, I know he’s referring to Rita Wilson, the actor, singer and producer who has been Mrs Tom Hanks since 1988.

Phew. I’m so glad Tom Hanks has turned out to be like, well, just what you think Tom Hanks is going to be like. A decent-minded fellow, he has invested heavily in electric transport and was a vocal opponent of the 2008 Proposition 8, an amendment to the California constitution that defined marriage as a union only between a man and a woman.

A grandfather to two girls, Tom Hanks looks younger and slimmer now than he has done in recent years. Partly, it’s a response to diabetes Type 2; he announced he had the condition earlier this month on Letterman. He (lightly) shrugs off tabloid speculation that the diabetes is linked to fattening up or slimming down for various roles.

Otherwise, he hardly strikes you as a man who is overly concerned with the ageing process: “I’m older now,” he tells me. “I don’t worry about how long my hair is.”

In recent years, he’s more inclined to wear different hats: as a writer, as a director, as a producer.

Captain Phillips

“But I don’t wear all those hats at once,” he winks.

Does acting still excite him, I wonder?

“Oh sure. You just keep learning that you don’t know anything. I’ve had three jobs in a row that have completely blown as my expectations and ideas about technique out of the water. The completely immersive method we had doing Cloud Atlas, in which we all played six characters and where every take was impacted by what had just happened before. And then I did a play on Broadway in New York. Every night, we started the story at the beginning and played it through eight times a week. And every night we did it, something new and mysterious came up. Acting is the easiest one of my jobs. All I have to do is pay attention. Well. You’ve still got to show up on time. And you’ve still got to know what your lines are going to b2e.”

He has always been a guy who twinkles on screen, a guy who is approached by an adorable ragamuffin in The Simpsons Movie with the request: “Tussle my hair, Mr Hanks!”

As a young actor, despite an off-Broadway Shakespearean background, audiences loved the twinkling Hanks of Splash and Turner & Hooch, but not the serious Hanks in Bonfire of the Vanities. It wasn’t until Philadelphia – when his performance as a gay lawyer with Aids earned him an Oscar – that multiplexes warmed to the idea of Tom Hanks as a heavyweight thespian.

“It doesn’t always work,” he says. “Everybody who ever makes a film thinks that if it goes right, there might be Oscars. But it’s a crapshoot. I’ve had that experience of thinking: ‘Wow, I nailed it today. That was magnificent. That’s is the key scene in the movie.’ And then I see it and think ‘Oh this is horrible. I don’t even know why they left that scene in there’. And there’s times when you honestly stumble around and the camera somehow prisms the information into this whole other pattern that you knew nothing about. It’s like a sprinkle of fairy dust.”

Never mind the dust. His latest role in Paul Greengrass’ pirate thriller, Captain Phillips, requires Hanks to suppress his charm entirely. Phillips is already a straightworld authority figure when roughhewn skiffs carrying Somali pirates board his container ship off the east coast of Africa. The American mariner’s subsequent ordeal – the film is based on the 2010 memoir A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea – requires focus, diplomacy and the steeliest of resolves.

“There’s a very specific crux to the character,” nods Hanks. “He’s one guy right until he sees those skiffs with pirates, and from then on, he has to take on a completely different mode of thinking. And that’s about as straightforward and exciting a task as can be for an actor. I was in as soon as I read it. Provided there was going to be a film-maker who wanted to make the movie that I wanted to make. I wanted to make something that felt real.”

No better man than Paul Greengrass. The journalist turned film director behind The Bourne Supremacy, The Bourne Ultimatum and United 93 can be relied upon to invest any motion picture with a thrilling verité.

“I’ve wanted to work with Paul Greengrass for so long,” says Hanks. “I saw Bloody Sunday when it came out. And I thought: ‘Who is this guy? This is a whole new way of making a movie. And it’s important and exciting’. It’s how we can capture real behaviour instead of just setting up a plot and standard building blocks of telling a story. Same thing with United 93. Not long after that, I made his acquaintance and we’ve been hoping to work together since.”

Is it true that, in the interests of preserving a documentary sheen, Greengrass kept Hanks’s American crew and the Somali pirates apart until they boarded the container ship?

“Yes. It was a bona-fide shock. We did not meet or know each other before. We didn’t have those cocktail parties that you sometimes have before principal photography commences. It was a very smart thing to do. Because the first time we met them was when they stormed onto the bridge. That was very confusing. And they were very scary. They didn’t look like anything we supposed they were going to look like. I mean these guys are so skinny. It was so intimidating. They were shouting in Somali, and it wasn’t until I read the subtitles much later on that I realised that Barkhad [Abdi], Barkhad [Abdirahman], Faysal [Ahmed] and Mahat [M. Ali] were using the same vernacular as we were: ‘My foot hurts’, ‘this isn’t working’, ‘shut up’ and all that.”

I’m not surprised he can recite all his Somali co-stars’ names or when he relates an anecdote about Barkhad Abdi’s memorable improvised line “I’m the captain now”. “He made us think he made it up on the spot,” laughs Hanks. “But knowing that Barkhad, he was working on that material for six weeks. He’s a diabolical one.”

At 57, I note, Captain Phillips it’s the closest Hanks has ever come to playing an action hero.

“I know. And even then, all the stuff we do is very clumsy and real and within the confines of a ship. Without a doubt, it’s action-filled. But I’ve never done those action movies where somebody is always dangling by one hand. I don’t get those. You know they’re not going to fall or die because they’re the star of the movie.

“We did not spend a vast amount of time trying to figure all that action stuff out. Because at the end of the day it can’t be choreographed. It’s an awful lot of messy wrestling. It’s not glorious. A lot of times violence in movies is glorious. It’s glamorous. It looks cool. The violence in this film is not cool. And I’m interested in that more so than the other kind.”

Hanks, you won’t be shocked to learn, is extremely personable. He maintains eye contact and a smile when he speaks. He pays a keen attention to folks around him and can tell you almost as much about the US Navy corpsman who appears in Captain Phillips as he can about Steven Spielberg, with whom Hanks has worked on Saving Private Ryan, Catch Me If You Can, The Terminal and the TV series Band of Brothers

“The thing about working with Steven is that you work very fast and you’re inside a production system that will go to the nth degree to get every detail perfect. Doesn’t matter if it’s the beaches of Normandy or the terminal in Terminal. But Steven is willing to say ‘hey, this is just a movie, let’s get on with the story, whereas I come in armed with as much knowledge about procedure and facts as I can manage. And translate it as best as I can.”

Many of Hanks’s best-loved turns – A League of Their Own, Charlie Wilson’s War, Apollo 13 – are either rooted in history or current affairs. That’s no accident, he says.

“I don’t know why but I’ve always read non-fiction for pleasure more so than fiction. I loved the novels, of Leon Uris but that was because they were as much about historical fact as they were about the story. Even back in fourth grade, there was this fabulous book called The Illustrated History of the Civil War. And I must have looked at that thing a million times. It had these big broad cartoons of the battles where you could see all these little men doing all kinds of things. All these little individual stories about the people and the setting and the way life actually worked.

“And that has stayed with me. I’ve read William Manchester’s A World Lit Only By Fire about the Dark Ages three times. And every time I read it I get a little more something out of it. For me, individual lives and how those lives are led is far more compelling than fiction.”

He laughs: “Rita will roll over in bed and say ‘What are you reading now?’ And I’ll say ‘Just my book about the Dark Ages’. And . . .”

And off he goes. Gee, you’re awful friendly, mister.