When we think of Tom Hanks, we think of that affable hero who is either saving the world from Nazis, trying to stay sane on a deserted island by talking to a volleyball, or making us remember what it means to fall in love.
We rarely think of him as a cold-blooded killer.
Yet in his newest film, Road to Perdition, directed by Sam Mendes (American Beauty) and also starring the incomparable Paul Newman, Hanks takes on the character of Michael Sullivan, a hit man also known as the Angel of Death.
Taken from a graphic novel by Max Allen Collins, the story is set in the 1930s and revolves around Sullivan, who works for an Irish mob boss named John Rooney (Newman). Sullivan is a loyal surrogate son to Rooney until Rooney’s real-life son Connor (Daniel Craig) brings tragedy to Sullivan’s family. Sullivan can’t let it lie, and therefore takes his own 12-year-old son, Michael Jr. (newcomer Tyler Hoechlin), on a journey of revenge–and redemption–and finds out the true meaning of fatherhood.
We sat down with Hanks to discuss how this gangster-style movie goes beyond the bloodletting to expose a heartfelt father-and-son story–and managed to get a look at what a master actor thinks about his craft.
What interested you in Road to Perdition?
Tom Hanks: Well, it was time to go to work. The Love Boat wasn’t on the air anymore. Seriously, first it was the pedigree of everyone involved. You knew, obviously, that it was going to be great. On the one hand, it’s a pure genre movie and has all those cinematic elements of the genre movie–the cars, the hats, the weather, the topography–and that was obviously very attractive. But what the movie was about was a much more universal and timeless thing. I had never seen it before. I read a lot of stuff that’s out there that purports to be about something other than what it is. And this really was. When that happens, you need to jump upon it.
Producer Richard Zanuck said you walked off with [executive producer] Walter Parkes’ script. Care to elaborate?
Hanks: Here’s how it happened. Mr. Spielberg gave me a copy of the graphic novel during the first half of making Cast Away. [It] kind of sat around; I gave it a cursory look. Then I was in London working on Band of Brothers and they asked if I was interested in reading the script. I said yeah, sure, send it along. And I read it. Then I went on a sort of vacation with Walter and I had read the script before I got there. On the first day, I asked if he was serious about making this because I thought it was fabulous. And if it comes to pass, would they think of me for the part. Yada yada yada. But it didn’t have a director attached to it, so it took awhile to figure it out. Because you could take a look at it and think, “Wow, this would be hard to do for any number of directors.” The first draft was very faithful to the graphic novel and there was a lot of bloodletting in it. This could have been a very quick-cut action movie. But when Sam [Mendes] got involved, it became a whole different thing. Nothing happens in the movie that the director isn’t involved in. That’s where the true process begins. And in Sam’s case, it just got more and more fascinating.
How was it working with a director whose background is in theater?
Hanks: It’s quite luxurious because in Sam’s case he is very astute as far as the cinematic aesthetic that he is going for. But we would joke around with him, “Uh, Sam, based on the one film you’ve done…Paul was mentioning a film he did in the ’60s and something I did awhile ago, but Sam, the one film you’ve done.…” The moviemaking process–the story, the shots–does not intimidate Sam at all. What he has because of the theater is a sense of the masters, the way it plays, the staging. He plays the film wide much more often than he plays it tight. That’s part of his visionary process and a great luxury. He [also] has phenomenal diplomatic skills because as a theater director, he has had to deal with every sort of human condition: of trying to get someone out of the chair and up on stage to do the show or to show up for rehearsal. He has had drunks, people whose love lives are shattered. He’s the most wonderful man to knock on your door and say, “How’s it going?”–all to get you to rehearsal on time. I hope I make 19 more films with him.
What was it about the Michael Sullivan character that inspired you?
Hanks: The key to this whole thing is the father and son relationships in the various permutations of the fathers and the sons that go on in the movie. I’ve got a father and I have sons. That alone helped. But there’s a whole ocean of emotions to explore here and a million ways to find the universe of what these relationships are going to be. The most fascinating and strongest bond in this movie happens between non-blood. Mr. Rooney [Newman’s character] and myself are actually the perfect father and son combination. We emulate each other. We answer each other’s questions. We are very comfortable with each other. And we end up gunning each other down. It’s not a big surprise, either. Who are the biggest strangers in the movie? Well, the biggest strangers in the movie are the actual blood father and son who travel in this car together. Each scene goes beyond how your hat looks. But I’m never looking to play a guy who does this or that. Once you do that, you end up taking any inorganic opportunity when it comes along and the next thing you know you’re in a movie you don’t really want to be in.
How did you feel about the violence? I think this was the first time you’ve actually killed someone on screen…
Hanks: Well, I killed an awful lot of Nazis! No, it’s true. In the graphic novel for Road, they describe my character as the Angel of Death and it was just loaded with bloodletting–razor blades, decapitations, I believe they even threw bombs. It was extremely violent. But Sam [Mendes] wasn’t interested in making that kind of movie. And quite frankly, neither was I. When [the violence] of this appropriately R-rated movie goes down, it’s a very personal thing. It’s loud. It’s very messy and it’s very uncomfortable. And this alters the level of that pure cinematic choice that you make. It’s got less bullets than your average James Bond movie, but the mayhem that’s caused is much more tactile and frightening.
There was a perception prior to this about you taking on the part of a bad guy.
Hanks: Well, you can’t stop that. Every time you say yes to a job, everyone is trying to figure out, “What’s his strategy behind taking this job, that diabolical genius? What’s he up to?” And then the movie comes out and everyone says, “Oh, right, he’s just making a movie.”
What was challenging about playing someone who kills for a living?
Hanks: There was a specific moment in the film to me that laid claim to all that stuff. When I go downstairs at the pool hall, and the guy is there asking if he can help me. I tell him I want to see the owner and then I tell him my name is Michael Sullivan, the guy immediately knows and becomes afraid. That provided everything that I needed to understand who I am and what I do for a living.
Couldn’t have been any more challenging than Cast Away.
Hanks: Well, yeah! At least I had someone to talk to in this.
Revenge has been around forever. But do you think we have a more visceral reaction to cheering your character on since Sept. 11?
Hanks: I don’t think there’s a moment in this movie where you are going “YEAH! He got ’em!” And yet, I think there is a visceral understanding about the concept. Is it revenge? Or is it retribution? Or is it justice? Which one is it? It’s an odd amalgam of those things. And what’s really weird is they don’t produce any joy, which I think is a very mature undertaking. Did anyone cheer when Timothy McVeigh was executed? It would be nice to go back to those innocent days when something like that would give some sort of closure. But I think we are a long way from that.
Were you a father figure to the young actor Tyler Hochelin, who plays your son?
Hanks: Well, yes and no. There’s a part of it where I’m spending more time with my fake kids than my real kids. And I ask myself, “Is that right? Should I be doing this?” But at the same time, here’s this young actor and he’s got a tough day ahead of him. And I want to be able to not get in his way. We developed a very individual, kind of personal relationship. Tyler is a great guy and he had either one of his parents and his brother around. It was very much like summer camp and I wanted to be part of that for him.
How was it working with Paul Newman?
Hanks: He is a very calm man. Honestly, it could just be part of his “thing,” but you get the sense he’d rather be off racing cars. He’d watch the Speed Channel. Yes, there is something called The Speed Channel. “What’s this Paul?” “It’s the Speed Channel, a replay of the Taladega 500.” Playing badminton and racing cars, I swear that’s what he loves to do.
And making peanut butter…
Hanks: Making peanut butter, too. He was doodling one day during rehearsals and I asked him what he was doing. He shows me his pad, “I’m trying to come up with a new label. Whattya think?” It’s just Paul. He’d eat corned beef and cabbage on St. Patrick’s Day.
Did you talk about the acting process at all? Pick his brain about it?
Hanks: We never really talked about “acting.” Paul certainly understands that you have it in your head, you concentrate and when the time comes you do it. And all the rest of the stuff is blah, blah, blah, blah. But we did talk about the ways movies are made. How different it was back when he and Joanne [Woodward, Newman’s real-life wife] were making their movies like The Three Faces of Eve and Cool Hand Luke. The whole set shut down at 6:00 p.m. and you could go home and have dinner on the table at 7:00. You always knew where you were going to be. Of course, this conversation is taking place at 3 a.m., after the 14th hour of doing something. And I said, “That would really be nice.”
Are you ready to do another comedy?
In your AFI Lifetime Achievement speech, you said that every acting moment is a story. How did that apply to working in the freezing cold of a Chicago winter?
Hanks: You have to look at it like this: for most acting moments, you are basically in a glorified airplane hanger. In fake clothes, pretending you are in a courtroom or a space craft or sharing your bed with the woman you love. It’s hard to get past the artificiality of that sometimes and get into a moment. At least with this film, everything was real. Thank goodness the clothes were relatively warm. But you are still being paid to do this. OK, I drive up to the house, jump out of the car and run into the house. And they are paying me to do this?
What do you think about your image with the public, being the nice guy? Is it just about staying out of trouble?
Hanks: I think it comes from this [indicating the interviewer] to a great extent. I’ll go on the talk shows and that’s where people see me. I don’t know how to do it any other way than this. It’s not rocket science, folks. I mean, who really cares? Let’s talk about movies, if you liked it or didn’t like it. I’ll never be able to explain to anybody how I do this. I don’t know what the process is–I’ll never be able to explain it. But there it is and here we are. Honestly, what’s the big deal?
Road to Perdition opens July 12.