Tom Hanks turns author with Uncommon Type

by Emma Brockes
The affable Hollywood actor talks about his three-decade long acting career as he launches his first collection of short stories
  • 25 Nov - 01 Dec, 2017
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"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 Los Angeles, 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 (UT) 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. 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?”

Not So Common

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 UT, 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 $350 million. 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 quiet heroism of Captain Phillips, the integrity of all those romantic leads – most notably as Sam, the widower in Sleepless In Seattle (SIS) – in the 1990s, in which he appeared not only as the good guy, but as the good guy with solid self-awareness. His characters in UT 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.

Childhood Glimpses

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. “We’re searching for that person who’s a magic key for us, makes us feel connected, secure, part of something bigger than ourselves.”

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. 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 learnt as a professional actor. You must. Show up. On time.” He beats his hand in time on the sofa.

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 learnt: 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.”

Changing Track

I wondered whether part of the reason Hanks wrote UT 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.” He added: “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.

The Golden Years

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. 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.”

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.”

Hanks has no qualms about being on the other side of 60. “I actually like getting older. 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.”

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. “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.

Source: Gulf News