Six Degrees of Tom Hanks in ‘Cloud Atlas’

(L-r) HALLE BERRY as Meronym and TOM HANKS as Zachry in the epic drama “€œCLOUD ATLAS.” ©Warner Bros. Entertainment.


Front Row Features

HOLLYWOOD—Tom Hanks arrives for an interview looking a little bulkier than usual. The two-time Oscar winner also is sporting a thin mustache. One almost expects him to pull out a pocket watch and speak in a southern accent as he waits for a publicist to give him the OK to sit and start talking.

The heftier look, he reveals, is for a role he is about to play. The man who has depicted characters as diverse as an AIDS patient (“Philadelphia”) to an endearing simpleton (“Forrest Gump”) to a toy cowboy (the voice of Woody in the “Toy Story” trilogy) is now portraying a Hollywood icon—Walt Disney—in “Saving Mr. Banks,” about the behind-the-scenes drama that went on in making the 1964 movie musical “Mary Poppins.” While that film won’t be out until 2014, his fans won’t have to wait to see him play a myriad of characters in the sci-fi epic “Cloud Atlas,” which contemplates the question of reincarnation and redemption of the soul.

The 56-year-old plays six characters in six interwoven plots that span five centuries. The three-hour drama co-stars Halle Berry and Hugo Weaving, and is directed and adapted for the screen by “The Matrix” sibling team of Andy and Lana Wachowski and “Run Lola Run’s” Tom Tykwer. It’s not the first time Hanks has played multiple characters in a single film. Remember “The Polar Express?” Of course, that was animated. In the live-action “Cloud Atlas,” Hanks is almost unrecognizable under layers of makeup and prosthetics for some of his characters, and that’s just fine by him.

Q:  The last time we saw you, you had a beard. When did you get rid of it?

Hanks:  I shaved that beard off as soon as we wrapped “Captain Phillips.” But now I’m torturing my wife and family with yet another version of facial hair.

Q: You’ve been acting for three decades now. Do you still enjoy your job as much as you did when you started?

Hanks: I would say it hasn’t changed a whit. It’s still about the fun and the joy of doing it. It’s the greatest job in the world, and it’s in the creative process. Sometimes, you are going on pure instinct and other times your instincts are wrong and you are convinced that you stank up the place. But somehow it works. All of these jobs are alliances with other artists, other cast members, the people who wrote it, the people who direct it and the people who apply latex to your face for hours and hours. I can’t imagine a better way to spend your waking hours than putting on people’s clothes and pretending to be somebody that you’re not.

Q: In playing the different characters in “Cloud Atlas,” how does it impact you when you look in the mirror and can’t see yourself through the makeup?

Hanks:  It’s magical. The way this works is every one of our characters had probably three days of makeup and wardrobe tests. Sometimes they were one right after another. But you would walk in and you would see six or seven versions of the character and you and the director and the makeup artists start picking and choosing, and slowly you slowly build it with their help. At the end of it, you’re looking at a different person and what a treat that is.

Q:  I’m going to guess that you’ve never seen a script like this before. Do you recall your initial reaction to it and finding out who the directors were?

Hanks: I got a call saying, “The Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer would like to speak to you on the phone.” So the first thing was one of those horrible conference calls in which you’re in L.A. and two people are in Chicago on a speaker phone, and then Tom’s in Berlin and he’s like two second slower. (Imitating Tykwer’s German accent, muffled) “Hi this is Tom from Berlin, can you hear me? Can you hear me?” It was like that. And they just said, “We would like to send you this screenplay that we’ve worked on.” I hadn’t read the (David Mitchell) book, so I wasn’t familiar with that. It’s an impossible screenplay to describe, but they said, “Here’s what we’re trying to do.” And they talked about the multiple time periods, and the multiple characters, and would I just entertain it. By the time we met in person, I’d read the book, and much like seeing the movie, I went through trying to figure it out, “What’s going on here? Why are we jumping around so much? What era are we in? Where are we?” but then a light goes off, and you realize there is a sort of, “Oh, I get it.”

Q: Your co-star, Halle Berry, broke her foot just a couple days into shooting. How did her injury affect your performance?

Hanks:  (Deadpans) I refused to leave my trailer until I was told that Halle was being carried to the set.

Q:  You and Halle’s characters, throughout each lifetime, are constantly trying to find each other. Essentially, you are each other’s soul mates. What is your opinion on soul mates? Do they exist?

Hanks: I knew it from the get-go when I met Rita (Wilson), I said, “It’s all over. Something really is different now.” What I think is really beautiful about it (in the movie) is my favorite role is Isaac Sachs because he is literally a version of myself where he writes down these equations (and creates) the atlas, but he comes across the cloud. He’s on the plane and he says I’ve fallen in love with Luisa Rey, and now things are profoundly different for me. I related to that because that’s what I went through with my wife, without a doubt. You’ve got to be lucky enough in order to stumble across (your soul mate). I was lucky.

Q: Do you have any thoughts about the theme of the film: the regeneration of the soul and reincarnation?

Hanks:  I had always had sort of layman’s point of view of history that we are all connected. But what David Mitchell did and what Andy, Lana and Tom divined out of his book, is verbalized by (actress) Doona Bae as Sonmi-451 (in the movie) when she says, “Truth is singular. Versions of truths are mistruths.” I think that is so profound and deep that it literally succumbs every aspect of the human condition via the written word and the record of it.

Q: So you’re headed to Broadway, starring in the late Nora Ephron’s “Lucky Guy.” What can you say about that?

Hanks:  Yeah. Nora, God bless her, who I miss very much, she had been (writing) this for a while, and I read an incarnation of it a very long time ago. It had progressed to the point where she had done a lot of work on it. I just said, “Well, can I take a look at it?” And she said, “We’re going to try to do a 29-hour workshop of it on Broadway,” which is a very specific thing. And I said, “Can I do that?” After that, it was all just about the tantalizing possibility of it working out, the time. So it should be exciting.

Q:  What can you say about portraying Walt Disney in “Saving Mr. Banks?”

Hanks: The script is really delightful, and what it’s talking about is how difficult it was to make “Mary Poppins,” which is a pretty neat kind of let’s-go-back-and-revisit-that. So it’s like another version of “Mary Poppins” by way of the relationship between P.L. Travers, who wrote it, and everybody that made the movie, because it was a very contentious experience.

Q:  You seem to suddenly have this recharged career thing where you’re busier than you’ve been in years.

Hanks:  The kids are out of the house. It’s the greatest thing that has ever happened to Mr. and Mrs. Tom Hanks, I’m going to tell you right now. Holy smoke, it’s like you’re dating again. It’s fantastic. It seems as though we weren’t working but at (our production company) Playtone, we were doing an awful lot of producing and writing and things like that.

Q:  You’re a celebrity we don’t see much on the gossip pages. How have you avoided that?

Hanks:  First of all, I’m not pretty. I’m not a world-class beauty. I’m just a guy. I was slow going and stuff like that. I was just never that brand of news.

Q:  What do you know now that you didn’t know at 18?

Hanks:  I didn’t realize at 18 that girls want to have sex too. I thought it was a total one-way street.