No More Wussies

Or, why Tom Hanks isn't Steve Guttenberg

Mar 24, 2004 at 4:00 am
Tom Hanks is who Tom Hanks is today because of something he did about 14 years ago. One afternoon, Hanks walked into his agent's office and told the man who takes 10 percent, "I don't want to play pussies anymore." He had spent the better part of the 1980s being a pussy: the pussy with a mermaid fetish, the pussy set up by the CIA, the pussy married to Shelley Long, the pussy with the dying father, the pussy Israeli soldier, the pussy cop with the dog partner. Every role required of Tom Hanks only that he whine and, occasionally, bitch a little bit; it was hard to tell if Hanks, even in his mid-30s, had gone through puberty yet, so high-pitched were the roles he had been given until he decided enough was enough.

Today, as Hanks sits in a Dallas hotel conference room with his cell phone and Blackberry and reading glasses and hot tea spread out before him like a man prepping for a sales pitch, it's hard to recall there was ever a time when this guy was one movie away from being Steve Guttenberg, Judge Reinhold or Michael O'Keefe. It was all right there waiting for him: the wacky dad roles, the befuddled boyfriend parts, the Police Academy sequels, Three Men and Another Little Lady. Hanks has become such an institution, audiences have all but misplaced his pre-Big filmography, with the notable exception of Splash (a newly released special-edition DVD of which sits next to Hanks throughout this interview). We've forgiven the bad and forgotten even the good, and the rest airs on TBS.

"And notice I didn't say, 'I want to play this other kind of part,'" says Hanks, clad in a gray sweater and blue jeans. "I said, 'Here's what I don't want to do anymore: I don't want to play pussies.' Look, I had a stack of pussy-guy scripts, and I was doing it well. I was making great money, I had a couple of nominations, I had all that kind of stuff. There was a kind of thing saying, 'Oh, no, all you can do is play that guy who tries to buy a house and the house falls down.' You can do that for a period of time, but I got to a point where the idea of playing a guy who didn't understand that there's bitter compromise in this world just wasn't interesting."

So the roles came, and Hanks went from actor to icon, star to symbol--Jimmy Stewart, the American flag, apple pie, the boy next door and Santa Freaking Claus all rolled into the body of a guy who starred in The Bonfire of the Vanities. Read enough stories written about Hanks in the past 12 years and they all begin to ring the same note: Tom Hanks, they will remind us, plays the best part of ourselves; Tom Hanks is our national conscience; Tom Hanks is "the elder statesman whose core of commonsense decency can be seen in everything he does," wrote critic Elvis Mitchell in 2000; Tom Hanks is "Mt. Rushmore for people," as Jim Carrey once said; Tom Hanks is "a kind of hero...iconic," as Steve Martin has said. It's enough to make you believe he starred in The 'burbs for our sins.

Then there's this other line of thinking about Hanks: that he went from pussies to princes, that there's no range to his game, that he's a straight-laced guy in straitjacketed roles. Even his executioner in The Green Mile is just about the nicest guy you'd ever want to know; he and The Passion of the Christ's Pontius Pilate would probably fight over a dinner check for an hour. Then there's his hit man in The Road to Perdition, who was a mass murderer in the original comic book but ends up just being a good dad protecting his family in Sam Mendes' big-screen version.

This week, he shows up playing another affable criminal: Professor Goldthwait Higginson Dorr III in Joel and Ethan Coen's remake of the 1955 Ealing Studios comedy The Ladykillers. Dorr, swaddled in white cape and sporting Colonel Sanders' facial hair, is the broadest character Hanks has ever played--Forrest Gump as a used-car salesman, a sleazy charmer using an old woman's basement to drill into the vault of a riverboat casino. He's no more villainous than a bad guy in the 1960s Batman TV series.

"The only time I'll do [The Ladykillers] is because I get it and it's different," Hanks says when asked where or how it fits into his body of work, if he even thinks about those things. "But it doesn't matter if I have nine dramas in a row or six comedies in a row--they're all just telling the truth in some way or another. The filmmaker makes the film; you just want to be a part of what they're doing. So the idea of a good guy or a bad guy--shit, man, if I was just, 'Oh, I have to play a bad guy,' the next thing you know, you're playing the guy that has to say things like, 'Well, before we kill you, Mr. Bond, perhaps you'd like a tour of our installation.'"

When Hanks started acting, as part of a community theater troupe in Cleveland, he felt lucky for any role he got. He took the crappy stuff because it was fun, because it would lead to better stuff, because it paid enough to eat and make rent. Acting was fun, and it was hell, and then it became hard work, Hanks says, once he realized that to get better you actually had to put something back into it. It was one thing to breeze through on a crooked grin and a cocked eyebrow, but it was something entirely different to play a guy with AIDS or an astronaut who got this close to his dreams or a bitter and washed-up ballplayer or a commanding officer who could never let on how freaking scared he was.

"When you start, it's like you get involved in the fever," Hanks says of his early days. "It's like a fever pitch. Suddenly the opportunity is dangled in front of you, and you can actually clarify that you're the guy they actually want, and then your eyes roll up in the back of your head and you just pursue and pursue and pursue in your own individual work process. You're not aware of it--I think that if you're actually aware of it, you end up outside of yourself looking on and saying, 'Oh, that's a good career move.' You can't construct a career or a body of work. Well, you can, but you'll not be following through on the reasons you do this in the first place.

"I've gotten my ass kicked, I've had some good times, some things haven't worked out, the world operates in a real different, better and more scary way, depending on how you look at it, and I just want to explore other things. I'm now 47, and slowly there have been times when I say, 'I can't believe they're giving me this job.' In earlier days, I was never the guy who got to play the astronaut who goes to the moon or the captain on Omaha Beach. So the only plan, the only philosophy, the only strategy involved is I read stuff and say, 'I can't believe they're giving me a chance to play this.' The only philosophy is that, 'Man, I haven't done this. I can't believe they're giving me a chance.'"