This is odd,” Tom Hanks says with a shake of his shoulders, the international sign of limbering up. We are in a photographer’s studio in LA, a setting that is as familiar to Hanks as the reason for our meeting is strange. He has written a collection of short stories called Uncommon Type and, balanced on the edge of the sofa, is exploring the novelty of giving an interview without “talking points from the studio”. Hanks-the-actor is cushioned; Hanks-the-author is not, and after humbly asking what other writers I’ve interviewed recently (Salman Rushdie, Martin Amis) barks with incredulous laughter. “Oh, shit,” he says.
For those of us who came of age in the late 1980s, Hanks has been around as long as we’ve been going to movies, and at 61 he is bizarrely unchanged: hair marginally greyer, face slightly fuller, but otherwise still Hanks, the boyish energy and cheerful cadences recognisable from three decades on screen. He often starts sentences with “Look, I get it”, or rather, “I-I-I get it”, the mild stutter synonymous with his brand of almost cartoonish affability. “Look, I get it,” he says, pushing his black spectacles up the bridge of his nose, hippy beads slack at his wrist. “I’m a famous guy and I wrote a book and all that, but the reality is, how much does a collection of short stories really warrant attention?”
This is classic Hanks, appearing to break the fourth wall of his celebrity to let us all in; and if he has survived these years in the spotlight relatively intact, it is through a combination of good luck and this kind of strategy. Hanks gives every impression of being sincere, but I get the feeling he is also rather wily about his famous good humour. As he must know by now, it can make it hard to see anything else.
All of which makes Uncommon Type, a set of 17 stories written over many years in the downtime between movies, a more interesting production than it might otherwise have been. There are some good lines and some ambitious themes, but it is mainly of interest as an extension of Hanks the actor; a way of decoding the appeal that has made him worth an estimated $350m. His success as an actor relies less on any of the showier A-list attributes than on what one thinks of as a peculiarly American decency: the urbanity of his Walt Disney in Saving Mr Banks, the quiet heroism of Captain Phillips, the integrity of all those romantic leads – most notably as Sam, the widower in Sleepless In Seattle – in the 1990s, in which he appeared not only as the good guy, but as the good guy with solid self-awareness. He might exude large measures of “aw, shucks” bashfulness, but Hanks has just the right amount of ironic reserve – the suggestion of some darker humour in check – to make the shine on his performance that much brighter.
And, of course, the warmth. On the page, as on screen, Hanks is, simply, a lovely person to be around. His characters in Uncommon Type are families disintegrating or coming together, mismatched couples, immigrants looking for a first foothold in New York, people at the point of crisis who tack more towards humour than gloom. In the story Go See Costas, which he based on the real-life tale of his father-in-law Al Wilson’s arrival in the US from Greece, a penniless immigrant tries to score work at a diner. In the opening story, Three Exhausting Weeks, a dating couple size each other up via a lot of perky dialogue. In Who’s Who, an aspiring actor who once gazed dumbfounded at the crowds in New York and asked herself “Where is everyone going?” comes to the realisation that “Everyone was going everywhere”, one of the best open-ended lines of the book.
“I just kept asking questions,” Hanks says. “Like, ‘Well, how long should they be?’ My editor would say, ‘Well, however long they are.’ ‘OK, how many do you want?’ ‘Well, you know, 15 would be good.’” It turns out Hanks has almost no vanity as a writer. “Look,” he says, “in my day job I provide the raw material and someone else makes all the decisions; the order, the editing, the lighting. So I don’t have any problems with someone coming in saying, ‘I think it should be like this.’ About six stories in, my editor said, ‘You’re always writing about people who are stumbling upon somebody, that becomes part of their world.’ I thought, I guess I am. Son of a gun.”
The best story by a mile is A Special Weekend, which chronicles 48 hours in the life of a boy called Kenny, shuttling between divorced parents. Hanks’ own parents split up when he was very young and he was raised mainly by his father, a jobbing cook, and a series of stepmothers. In the story, Hanks captures the child’s-eye view of the world with pitch-perfect accuracy, integrating the slow external movement of time with the vast internal journeys children make at that age, and as a writing project it nails perhaps the hardest thing of all: a story in which nothing and everything happens.
“I think it ends up being the need for connectedness,” he says of his thematic interests. “Not just humankind, but also the human condition. Again and again, we’re searching for that person who’s a magic key for us, makes us feel connected, secure, part of something bigger than ourselves. Without it, the world ain’t any fun.”
For Hanks, that person has, for the past 30 years, been the actor Rita Wilson, his wife and the mother of his two youngest children, Chet and Truman, now in their 20s. (Colin and Elizabeth, Hanks’ children by his first wife, Samantha Lewes, are in their 30s.) Hanks is famously uxorious, and his reliability as an actor is something that, from his first marriage at the age of 21, he has pegged to the stability of his home life. He likes to be regular in his habits, moderate in his passions and, it turns out, modest in his assessment of what it is he does. “As an actor, I think your job is to show up on time. Crazy important to show up on time.”
That’s really right up there? “Huge. It’s the first lesson I learned as a professional actor. You must. Show up. On time.” He beats his hand in time on the sofa. (In fact, today Hanks startled everyone by arriving at the studio 30 minutes early. “A fluke of traffic,” he says, but it’s an indication, perhaps, of a certain uptight underlay to the “hey, man” buoyancy of his style.) “Because, if you don’t, you don’t have the time. It’s as simple as that. Before the sun goes down, or just to get it right; to get everybody on the same page, momentum-wise. If you’re late, momentum can be lost.”
He can’t bear to look back on his work. I mention that Saving Private Ryan, the 1998 movie directed by Steven Spielberg in which Hanks plays a noble squad leader on a mission to save a mother’s last surviving son, was on TV the night before.
“OK, well, I can walk you through that [scene by scene]: horrible, terrible, should’ve done something else. That worked out. I don’t even remember doing that, so that’s a good sign. But they [his films] all end up just being these lingering examples of individual failures, somehow. Here’s what I’ve learned: the only thing you can do is to make it different. OK, you’re going to shoot something and it’s going to take 47 takes? In the course of those 47 takes, you’ll be able to do it different, and somewhere in the course of those 47 takes is the way it needs to be.”
Goofballs don’t age the way other leading men do. Bruce Willis looks craggy and ancient these days. John Travolta is stretched tight as a drum. Hanks, on the other hand, an actor for whom funny was always more important than buff, is still recognisable as the guy we love – although, of course, ageing is less of an issue for all of these men than it is for their female counterparts. What’s the male equivalent of the Hollywood actress considered too old for a lead?
“Unfairly, I don’t think there is one.”
You don’t age out of some genres?
“No. But here’s what you can do: you can fat yourself out. If you’re fat, you can’t play an astronaut. Take a look at the guys who are still working; they’re in really good shape. Otherwise, they become character guys. So that’s possible. But it’s not the same as with women. With women, the biggest problem is that there’s usually a fraction of women in a movie compared with the number of men. There’s only ever one girl in an action movie, and it’s like, ‘Hi, I’m mysterious, but hot.’ That is literally the template for an awful lot of women in film. Television is not the same – it’s quite diverse – but in the commerce of motion pictures, it’s just not fair.”
We are speaking a few weeks before the Harvey Weinstein allegations emerge. Hanks has never worked with Weinstein, but this week told the New York Times: “It all just sort of fits, doesn’t it?… You can’t buy, ‘Oh, well, I grew up in the 60s and 70s and so therefore…’ I did, too.”
Hanks cites Nora Ephron as an exception in the film business: “She refused to buy into that shit.” The late writer and director worked with Hanks on Sleepless In Seattle and You’ve Got Mail, and was rehearsing her Broadway play Lucky Guy when she died in 2012. They were great pals, and Hanks dedicates Uncommon Type to her.
“Nora was not a soft woman,” he says, smiling. “You did not want to cross her. Nora said, ‘Never turn down a front row seat for human folly.’ And I have turned down a lot of those front row seats, but human behaviour is constantly entertaining. Watching humans behave in one way results in a comedy, and in another way a tragedy, but it ends up being a constant fascination. Why in the world do we do what we do, and how does someone get to that place where they think that’s important? The people that are dicks in showbiz, I always say to them: ‘Why are you in this?’ I’m in it because there’s nothing more fun than doing this. This is like going to high school and finding out you can take a drama class instead of calculus. Sign me up!”
Well, they’re in it for the money, no?
“The money can be good. But after that, man, you just want more money. There’s always another level of mammon that you require in order to keep yourself happy. Are you in it for power? To do what? To have a parking place right next to your trailer? If those are the talismans, after a while none of it’s going to be enough.”
The business of handling obnoxious people on set is one about which, along with everything else, Hanks appears to be sanguine. “I learned a long time ago that you don’t have to like the people you work with,” he says. “But you have to respect their process. If someone wants to be a dick, it’s OK. Unless that dickishness is power play, because it’s fun to beat up on underlings. Then you got to take them off to the side and have a conversation.”
The idea of being set straight by Hanks is vaguely terrifying, like being told off by a judge. “If it’s a dickishness that means everybody else doesn’t get to work at their best level – if you being a dick means you’re going to encroach upon my process, there’ll be a slug fest in the parking lot. There will be words exchanged. And I’ve worked with men and women where I’m like, ‘Are we going to have to go through this again?’ And, well, yes, because that’s what’s called for. On rare occasions, people are insane – but those are really rare.”
His own sanity is something he puts down to good decision-making and good luck. Certainly he didn’t come by it during childhood. Hanks talks about his early years with a kind of bleak whimsy, the constant moving around from town to town in California, the disruption of his parents’ new partners. When I ask if his baseline cheerfulness is something he might have learned from either of his parents, he bursts into laughter.
“No. Dear lord. My parents were so busy with all their own problems, I don’t think they were even aware of the fact that sometimes we were in the house.” His father was a cook who hated cooking. His mother was someone who for many years he saw somewhat infrequently. In Pollyanna-ish style, Hanks has tried to salvage good things from this experience, for example, “the few times I’ve been afraid of a new environment, I got over it. And once you learn that it might be bad for a while, then you’re OK.” You’re an optimist, I suggest, and while Hanks allows this to be the case, he looks vaguely as if I have accused him of something. “I think the kneejerk reaction is that because you’re optimistic, you’re naive. Or that, because you’re essentially cheerful, you’re ignoring the pain of the real things that are going on. And that’s just not the case. I weigh everything. But I can’t help it that I wake up in the morning and think: what good thing is going to come around?”
I wondered whether part of the reason Hanks wrote Uncommon Type was that, after 30 solid years of success at the box office – the combined receipts of his movies is around $8bn, and he has won two Oscars (for Forrest Gump and Philadelphia), multiple Golden Globes and a Tony nomination for Lucky Guy – he needed a new challenge. “Not at all,” he says. “If you’re looking back, yeah, shoot. I got it. That’s all fine. But that’s not the reason I did this.”
It’s not a question of getting sucked into the competitive horse race, either. If he hadn’t married and had kids early, Hanks says, he might have had a tougher time handling his fame. These days, 21 seems very young to have a family, and I ask him if, when he looks at his own 21-year-old son and imagines him becoming a father, his mind boggles. “Yeah,” he says. “I had to stop telling them, ‘You know what I had when I was your age? I had your older brother!’ It was young. Other than moments of total terror, what it provided me with was a nut that I had to provide: there’s three of us, now, and I need x numbers of dollars in order for us, literally, to survive.”
It was a limitation he found freeing. “I need to make enough to be able to go to the dentist and fix my car, and as soon as I can get on a decent dental plan, then the rest is the high country. And that’s what life was like. I avoided all the parties, the pitfalls. I mean, I did the same degree of social influencing drugs that anybody else did, but it didn’t become a habit, and it didn’t become a reason to live.”
He wasn’t resentful about having to stay in and provide? “No. I always had more fun just sitting around talking to people than going out. Look, I was ridiculously fortunate, but there was never a plethora of riches and luxury. What I was was a working guy. I made my nut. Then you rethink what that nut is. Slowly, you move along. I was the most naive and inexperienced and stupid 35-year-old that ever was, but at the time, the kids’ mom and I had restrictions upon us that meant we could not spin out of control.” He thinks for a moment. “If we did, shame on us.”
The year that Hanks and Lewes divorced, 1987, was also the beginning of his great run of success. A year later, he made Big, still the movie for which many of us love him best, and after that the hits came so thick and fast that, after marrying Wilson in 1988, his second family had a very different experience from his first. “I talk about this with my [older] kids all the time,” he says. “They remember when life was normal. When we lived in standard houses and I sometimes had work or not. And there was not the ballyhoo that goes along with everything. My younger kids have always had this other guy who was their dad.”
The other guy is Hanks from his mid-30s onwards, and he tries hard to own his privilege. “Look, I’m rich.” He laughs. “I’m rich.” He is also careful with money. “I read a long time ago that you can’t have debt. If you’re in debt, you can’t say no. You have to have what David Niven called fuck-you money. So, the nut is what do you need in order to live right now, and that’s finite. My money’s in the bank, man. My money’s safe. I have all the groovy accoutrements that go along with being a celebrity, and it’s really great, but the nut stays where it is. Our nut is: if it stops tomorrow, we’ll be fine.”
He and Wilson tried to raise their kids in as normal an environment as possible. “I would say we lived in a relatively modest home until all the kids were grown up. I say relatively; if you saw the house, you would – relatively modest for somebody who does what I do for a living, and that still takes in the same security concerns. We didn’t move until they were older, and that was a conscious decision. You don’t want to fuck up the kids because, hey, guess what, we have a new boat in the driveway. The money was great, but both Rita and I have communicated to our kids that we really love what we do. We’re doing it for the sheer-ass pleasure.”
What about the movies that failed? “Oh, I’d go through horrible doldrums. I’ve made an awful lot of movies that didn’t make any sense, and didn’t make any money, but that doesn’t alter the work that goes into it, or even what your opinion of it is.”
Such as? “Like, I made a movie that altered my entire consciousness – Cloud Atlas – I thought, jeez, this thing is so fab; it’s the only movie I’ve been in that I’ve seen more than twice. And it didn’t do any business. And there’s nothing you can do about it. And you must allow yourself a week of thinking, jeez, I’m so bummed out. But that’s not the only reason to do it. It’s lovely when it all works and you get ballyhooed. But if it’s 50/50, you’re way ahead of the game. In reality, I think it’s more like 80/20; 80% of what you do doesn’t work.”
Hanks has no qualms about being on the other side of 60. “I actually like getting older. I always felt like I had a big ass and a squeaky voice when I was growing up.” There were other hard things. “I will tell you, type 2 diabetes was a thing. I just wasn’t eating right, I wasn’t putting good stuff into the machine. And my doctor said, congratulations, you idiot, you now have type 2 diabetes. It’s not like you automatically change your behaviours, but that was a major signpost that said ‘This is optional, man. These are choices. And if you want to, go ahead. But: consequences. Dig it?’”
He and Wilson have always been relatively abstemious. “In the former firmament of Hollywood, everyone got shitfaced at 5pm. Everybody drank. We just didn’t do that.” And he doesn’t consider the longevity of their marriage strange. Everyone they know is married, Hanks says; that’s just how they hang out, with other married couples who’ve been together as long as they have. The biggest risk to their equilibrium right now isn’t marital strife, but Trump. “Every dinner party you have falls into this black hole of conversation. How long can we hold off? It’s such a huge, magnificent mess right now. Had Hillary Clinton been elected, and I voted for her, I think we’d be in some other form of hideous mess. The nature of discourse has been ‘us’ versus ‘them’ for some time and I think there was a massive amount of fatigue from the Bush-Clinton continuum.”
Was his faith in the American people damaged by the election of Trump?
“Faith in the American people?” He gives me a very Hanksian look, amused in a wry, senatorial way. “We still have this thing called the constitution. Even though it seems as though there are people hellbent on altering it, or bending it, or not living up to the oaths of protecting and defending the constitution, there are an equal number who are strapping on their brass knuckles.”
In different circumstances, I suggest, he might have been a Trump voter; what if he’d been a 61-year-old unemployed actor who’d never had a good part in his life? “Yeah, and if I’d been earlier, I could’ve died in Vietnam. I grew up thinking, hey, it’ll work out; hey, who cares? Don’t plan too much, just go ahead and do it. But look, I’m white. So, right then and there, I can drive across the country by myself in 1977 without any difficulties. I can walk into any store. The ongoing test is one of empathy. You always have to take into account how shitty a deal a person has had, along with how many opportunities they have squandered.”
Hanks is so measured, so committed to the process of rationalisation that it is impossible to imagine him losing his temper. How does he fight?
“Well,” he says, and thinks for a moment. “When I get pissed off, it’s emotional. I can get pretty complainy. And then syntax is of major importance. If you write this story and I call you on the phone and the first thing I say is, ‘Let me get this straight.’” He raises his eyebrows. “That’s bad news,” he says, and dispenses the broadest of smiles.