Older Articles
South China Morning Post
Cover: Monday Focus
March 6, 2000

Characters played by Tom Hanks are taking on more depth, and as David Cohen learns, the star reinvents himself for each role.
It has taken a lot of work, but Tom Hanks has succeeded in looking a little scary. He has grown a bushy black beard, and he is unnervingly thin. Put him in dirty clothes and he could easily pass for a homeless man.

Of course, this is not 'the real Tom Hanks.' The beard and the lean look are for his next role as a man marooned on a Pacific island. This is not his natural body, but neither is the beefy physique he shows in his current film, The Green Mile. Hanks is deliberately changing his appearance, from his physique to the contours of his face, from role to role.

"What's great is that I have the luxury of trying to do that. If you have enough time you can affect your physical presence." explains Hanks.

This is a rare glimpse of Tom Hanks's hard work. Some hard-core method actors, like Matt Damon and Robert De Niro, are famous for their intense preparation, altering their bodies and even risking their health for the sake of a role. Yet Hanks's name is rarely mentioned amongst them.

Maybe it is the breezy comic roles of his early career, or maybe he just makes it all look too easy, but when people talk about Tom Hanks, they talk about what a decent man he is, as if all he has to do is show up on the set, be decent, and walk home with an Oscar.

"I'm presented as some sort of like nice guy that represents some sort of moral fibre," he says, sounding just a little bit testy on the subject. "I think both of those things don't take into account how hard I work at what I do and the distance that I go in order to tell the truth as it is presented to me by way of the directors or the screenwriters."

Hanks does sometimes seem like a man trapped in the myth of his own decency. Yet there seems to be no escaping it. Those who work with him recite a litany of praise, speaking of him in reverent tones.

"He comes on the set and sets the foundation," says Doug Hutchison, who appears with Hanks in The Green Mile. " The foundation is a generosity of spirit, and we all follow suit. Tom's leadership comes in his humanity. He instructs you unwittingly on how to be a good person, and how to be the consummate professional."

The consummate professional: It is the label that sticks to Hanks wherever he goes. The picture that emerges of Hanks at work is of a supportive, team-oriented man who likes a calm set where everyone's contribution is respected and valued.

It is not unlike the character he plays in The Green Mile. In the Oscar nominated film, adapted by Frank Darabont from Stephen King's serial novel, Hanks plays Paul Edgeccomb, the guard in charge of death row in a 1930's Louisiana prison.

Edgecomb prides himself on maintaining a quiet atmosphere on "the Green Mile," named after the green floor tiles that line the path to the electric chair. But that calm is upset with the arrivals of a sadistic young guard named Percy (Doug Hutchison), a vicious psychopath named "Wild Bill" (Sam Rockwell) and a huge, mysterious black man named John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan).

Coffey is damned for an unspeakable crime, yet this gentle, childlike soul seems to have God-given healing powers. Edgecomb begins to suspect that Coffey may be innocent, and soon he is facing the most terrible moral dilemma of a lifetime.

"It's not just a matter of the professionalism," says Hanks of Edgecomb's approach to his work on 'the mile,' "it's also what is required for him to survive the job. I mean, there is a battle for his sanity, and I think there is also a battle for his safety. So there are some things that just have to be exactly the way they are and I think that Paul takes a perverse kind of pride in them. Not unlike the perverse pride that I have in the way I do my job."

It may not be a coincidence that Hanks, who likes to defuse conflict on the set, does not seem to have much use for onscreen villains. He rarely appears in films with a real antagonist _ The Green Mile is a notable exception _ and becomes uncharacteristically terse when asked about the idea of ever playing a villain.

Question: Are we going to see you as a villain?
Answer: Sure.

Question: When?
Answer: I don't know. Whenever it comes across my desk and I can understand what it's about.

He clearly hates this topic.

"I've heard him say that that's intimidating for him," says Doug Hutchison, who drew the unusual assignment of playing a villain opposite Hanks in The Green Mile. (He said) that he would have to play a certain type of villain, that he could somehow easily plug into." Apparently the nervous, harried car salesman in Fargo is the kind of villain Hanks can imagine playing.

Director Frank Darabont is sure one day Hanks will play a truly hatable bad guy. "He's going to surprise the crap out of everybody. I look forward to that." Unfortunately, says Darabont, Hanks's basic decency tends to shine through. "He has that much integrity and he is that kind as a person. He can't help it."

Hanks legendary decency has come into sharper focus as he has matured. At first, though, most people only knew that he was funny.

He honed that talent to amuse during a rootless childhood. "My parents were divorced a lot," he laughs, and he never lived in one place for very long. It is the kind of thing which some celebrities would milk for sympathy. Not Hanks.

"I liked moving around," he remembers. "I probably liked it probably too much. I liked being the new guy in school. I had no fear about that. One of the ways I could make friends very easily was by making them laugh so I was never too intimidated by it."

"I think it was harder for my brothers and sister, but I liked it, probably so much so that I became used to the idea that as soon as things got boring, chances are you were probably going to move somewhere different. So it was perhaps a little hard to stay in one place and put in the work that really goes into maintaining a home."

His professionalism and work ethic were nurtured during his first acting job, performing small roles in Shakespeare, while the older character actors taught by example.

"You give people respect," he says of those lessons, "and you provide them the things that they need in order to do their job. At the same time you get that back from them. I don't know any other way of doing it."

He made his mark in standup comedy and leapt to fame with roles in movie comedies like Splash and Big, but lately he has been on a run of rich dramatic roles, from a dying AIDS sufferer in Philadelphia to astronaut Jim Lovell in Apollo 13.

"I think that I had done good enough work periodically in movies that they could trust me to do it. Because in all honesty I was not in a position to say okay, I'm going to stop doing comedies. I'm going to do more dramatic roles.' That wasn't within my power."

He did make one decision, though, after starring in A League of Their Own: not to play any more wimps. "I did say, 'okay, I don't want to play these kooky guys who get enmeshed in stuff they have no control over. I want to play men with histories that are dealing with the mistakes they have made and the opportunities they have right now.' It was the only real conscious decision I ever made in my whole career."

At the same time he was making that decision, he was also settling down into life as a father. The rootless class clown turned movie star had to deal with the same fears and responsibilities as any father, an experience that changed his acting for the better.

"Part of just growing older is I think becoming somehow more connected with your feelings and how to regulate them, and how to keep them in a proper perspective."

"And I think having kids, there's nothing more immediate as far as your senses and your talents and your wherewithal than meeting the needs of your kids. Prior to having kids, chances are you'll never wake up at 3 in the morning in a panic. But as soon as you do have kids, and your kid's got whooping cough, you're up at 3 o'clock in the morning and you're in a panic, so it really does alter your life, therefore it alters your life experiences, that's the stuff you're always drawing upon as actors."

Hanks's transition to more mature roles, like astronaut Lovell and Captain John Miller in Saving Private Ryan, has been so successful that his name has even been floated for political office, leaving him to reply with an irritated "I don't get it." In fact, he seems dubious about his new image as a leader.

" It's really only been three movies I've been thrust forward in this regard. Prior to that, I mean in the old days, I was that other cute guy who gets the girl at the end of the thing."

In reality, I'm not qualified to do anything like that. I'm just the actor who's playing the role. But nonetheless the roles are things that are admirable and I'm interested in the dynamics of the men that I have portrayed. I loved all these guys. And I'm perfectly comfortable with whatever place they want to identify me as being."

The Green Mile received mixed notices in the United States but still garnered a nomination for a Best Picture Oscar, though Hanks went with out his seemingly obligatory Best Actor nomination. It is a measure of his recent success that this picture seems like a disappointment by comparison.

Objectively, though, he continues his remarkable run of strong roles in quality films, and counts himself grateful for it.

"Do I feel a sense of pride that the movies have been as good as they are? Yeah! I do, I feel very proud. But I also am very cognizant about how hard I worked and everybody else worked in order to make them."

"And I also am quite positive that one of these days we'll do this and it won't work out. But when that time comes it's not going to diminish the work we've done here and it won't diminish the work we did then."