tribeca film festival 2016

Tom Hanks and John Oliver Talk Hamilton Villains, Fan Encounters, and the Lessons of Turner & Hooch

Photo: Getty Images

There’s no arguing with John Oliver when he describes Tom Hanks as “an American treasure.” Hanks, whose decades-long career has given us Sheriff Woody, Forrest Gump, Captain Miller, a heartbreaking volleyball, and a romantic rendezvous atop the Empire State Building, sat down to discuss his career with the host of Last Week Tonight as part of the Tribeca Film Festival’s “Storytellers Series” last Friday night. Over the course of the hourlong talk, the two brainstormed epitaphs for Hanks’s headstone, discussed the first time they each went to the movies, and the necessity of perseverance when trying to hack it as a working actor. Hanks also blessed us with the gem of an acronym “BFCUKB,” or “Just a big fucking close-up of Kevin Bacon.”

Then Vulture, a signature sponsor of TFF, typed it all up for you.

John Oliver: We’re going to talk for a little bit and then we’ll open questions to the floor.
Tom Hanks: I’m in the middle of a publicity blitz right now.

So you’re dead behind the eyes. That’s what you’re saying.
No. What it is, I find myself getting incensed for no reason. When we go to the audience questions, I’d be happy to answer, but please keep them from … the laziest journalistic questions are, What was it like to blah, blah, blah?

Shit. [Looks down at his notes, starts crossing things off.]
The other one is, What was your favorite blah, blah, blah? When somebody from Argentina is on the international line at the Academy Awards or the Golden Globes or the People’s Choice or the San Antonio Chevy Dealerships Convention, and they say, “Please, please, please! Just one question from Argentina! Just one question!” “All right, all right.” “What was it like to make … ” It’s like, “Oh, dear.”

It’s especially hard to take from Argentina, because if they have one question, it should be: “Mr. Hanks have you got any ideas to get us out of this desperate economic trouble that we’re in?” Not, “What was Turner & Hooch like?” But you know, you can’t be the fountain of every good answer.
Well, actually, there are some important economic lessons to be found in Turner & Hooch.

It was an allegory in many ways, wasn’t it?
I think I shot a shotgun blast at a block of ice that contained thousands of dollars in packaged drug money. Anybody? Turner & Hooch experts out there? [Audience applause and cheers] Not a one. They’re all lying. God bless you all, I still don’t understand social media. You know why? Because I peaked in the ‘90s.

You do understand social media. You photograph lost items and people find those items. That’s a more productive use of social media than social media is.
I must say it is. And I try not to use numbers or hashtags to communicate my thoughts.

You’ve really distilled it down to something tangibly useful: That’s a glove. Whose glove is it? The end.
That’s right. I view it as kind of like a lost-and-found haiku. It’s like, “Sad. Winter is over. Hanks.” And there’s a little glove that’s sitting there on the sidewalk. I always think of the story that goes along with the other glove. I assign anthropomorphic qualities to the gloves. [Silly voice] “Jeez, I’m so sad to be crushed here on the sidewalk. If only I could get back to my mate. But my ex is here with his new wife.”

That just shows you have a cheerier disposition, because I was thinking of that Hemingway [six]-word story. “For sale … “
… Baby shoes. Never used.

Not [silly voice], “Oh, look where’s the baby?”
What can I say? I was raised on Disney and I peaked in the ‘90s. I was sitting at home. At the time, my kids were young. So you just say, “Please, God, send us something to do this weekend. Something that I can take these kids to, because the hockey playoffs are over and I don’t have baseball tickets.” And it was a Disney movie. I think it was The Hunchback of Notre Dame. “So join Quasimodo and his wild-cap team of talking gargoyles!” So what they did was they anthropomorphized — if I’m using the word correctly — the stone gargoyles on Notre Dame cathedral. Boy, that is really scraping the bottom of the cartoon barrel. I can understand dogs and even articles of clothing, but stone gargoyles?

They realized that they were running into a very, very bleak French novel there. That thing needed some gargoyles with funny voices in it.
Had to pep it up. I understand that. “Sacré bleu!”

Also, there’s nothing I would like more on your headstone than: “Raised on Disney. Peaked in the ‘90s.” And then a single lost glove on top.
You’ve just cemented it in stone. That will be my fate. Note to self: cremation.

So let’s break this down.
All right, okay.

You started your career obviously as an actor. Since then you’ve expanded into writing, producing, directing, and being an American treasure. You’ve got to pick one. What’s a comfortable role for T.H.?
At the office, as I call the Playtone world headquarters, which has now shrunk to 12 part-time employees, we do truly love sitting around for sometimes weeks at a time with a massive piece of literature or a historical record and ponder[ing] what the story is inside that and how to bring it to life, in usually a long-form piece of television that will not make stuff up. This is the hardest thing, to accept that. Because it really happened, our job as filmmakers is to make exciting what really happened.

That’s what’s so amazing when you watch Hamilton, isn’t it? It’s knowing how incredible he has been, line by line, at not lying.
The great thing about Hamilton, too, is there’s really only one bad guy, or two bad guys, in Hamilton. One is Aaron Burr. “I’m the fool who shot him.” That guy. And then there’s kind of like Hamilton himself when he starts getting the hanky-panky.

Thank you for not saying the king was a bad guy there.
Well that just goes without saying.

You’re right though.
But here’s the thing about Hamilton: Everybody’s right. His nemesis is Thomas Jefferson. And you’re sitting there watching it and everything Thomas Jefferson says makes total, complete, absolute sense. Of course Thomas Jefferson is right. But then Hamilton starts going at it and you go, Well, now, wait a minute. He’s right too. We experience the non-hit-musical version of that with John Adams, written by David McCullough, and we found it to be the same thing. Look, everybody ends up having great ideas. We don’t need to editorialize who’s more right out of the Founding Fathers.

So how the fuck do you distill that down? When you’re going through a big tome like that? On our TV end of this, when we’re taking on big stories, we’re trying to constantly distill it down into cards, so that you can look at them. You can at least visualize the mess that you’re creating. Is that what you do?
Yes, we do. We literally cherry-pick everything that we think is fantastic and must make it to the final story and any number of things, start editing it out in a very organic manner. If you saw John Adams, one of the things I definitely wanted to get in was the implementation of the vaccine that they actually used and which they would— . What was the disease in John Adams? [Audience member: Smallpox?] It wasn’t necessarily smallpox. It was something else, though. It was like rheumatic fever. [Audience members shouting out diseases.]

It’s an auction of diseases.
[Mimicking auctioneer] Can I have rheumatoid arthritis? Can I have Haitian dengue fever? Do I have Haitian dengue fever? All the cats in Philadelphia — no lie — died one summer. And the only thing that people could do, if they could escape the dreaded heat of Philadelphia, was go out into the country. But anyway, people got sick, a lot of people died. And in fact, the doctor in John Adams pulled up to the Adams farm with a bunch of people who were not yet dead of Haitian dengue fever or whatever it was called and they were laying there and they were still alive. And he took a quill pen — a quill, feather quill — and scooped up some of the pus off their face and gave it to a little cut on each one on the Adams kid and Abigail and Adams himself. So that doctor figured out if you get a liiiitle bit of dengue fever, you’ll survive. Now, when you found out that they were doing that at a time of goofy three-cornered hats, “The British are coming, the British are coming … “

We were.
Then it becomes something I think we can recognize and relate to much more than just, “I fear that the gentleman from South Carolina must be ignored!” That kind of stuff.

Is that a different eye that is attracted to a story like that? That’s why I love Sarah Vowell’s books, because she writes great books about history that focus just on little human moments like that that are the background to important things happening.
Well, it ends up leveling the field because it puts it under human terms, as opposed to mythic terms. I drive everybody nuts down at the office because I’ve said: Break the myths. Take the myths and the tropes and the things that everybody assumes they know about the period, blow it out of the water, and find those things that will level the playing field. You know, the Revolutionary War was a very scary thing. And it went on for a very long time. And it was a guerrilla war. It was the equal of sort of what we faced on the other side in Vietnam. That’s how they did it. Farmers would come up, butcher as many guys in red uniforms as they possibly could, and then disappear into the mountains and the woods.

But look what it did. And look what lesson it gives to us even today. What the Americans realized is that we lived here, and those guys in the red uniforms and the kooky cats that went rum-bum-dee-dee-dee-da [drum noise] …

Um, it’s okay when I do that. It’s not okay when you do that.
Eventually, if you really fucked those guys up enough, they would wake up one day and say, “Excuse me, but can I go home? They don’t like us here. They kill us all the time. There’s bugs, and I’ve been here for 15 bloody years. I’ve bombed Boston, I’ve killed farmers … “

That bit was fun.
“That was nice. But I would really, really like to go home. You know why? Because someone just slit Nigel’s throat. And could we please go to our home? Our sad little gin-infested ghetto in Manchester or Birmingham or someplace else like that. Can I go back to me mum?” And that was how we won the American Revolution! When I said we, I mean we (gestures to self, audience, excludes Oliver). We, John Oliver!

We were distracted. We were distracted elsewhere. If we focused on this, this would be a very different evening. You’d be getting less questions from me and more instructions as to what I expect you to do tonight. So, what was the first movie you ever saw when you were a kid? I’m talking little Tommy Hanks.
Like, literally dropped off at the movie theater?

I’m talking about the first time you saw a story on a big thing.
The reason I could tell this story is because it haunts me to this day. My sister, my brother, and myself were dropped off at the theater to see 101 Dalmatians.

What age?
I was 4. Perhaps 5. My parents at the time so loathed the sight of each other and were so hell-bent on figuring out how to become an ex-wife, get another wife, and marry someone … they were so dysfunctional every single moment of their lives, they said, “These kids are going to the movies today. Take them down. 101 Dalmatians is playing.” They dropped us off at the theater. We went inside. 101 Dalmatians closed on Wednesday. On Saturday afternoon a movie called Shriek of Fear was playing. So little Tommy Hanks was [sits frozen in chair, eyes wide, screams] “Aaaaah!” All I can remember was there were all these people running around in this black-and-white scary mansion and there was a swimming pool filled with weeds and choking grass. And at the bottom of that pool an old lady sat in a rocking chair. And some guy swam down and saw the old lady sitting in the rocking chair at the bottom of the weed-choked pool. Not exactly 101 Dalmatians. And that was the first movie that I ever remember going to in a movie theater.

How the fuck did you become an actor? A 4-year-old: “I’m terrified, but I want to do that.”
It was mostly just survival instinct. I was just so delighted that we got to go to the movies.

I saw E.T.
That was your first? How old are you? Thirteen?

But that was the first time you went to a movie theater?

Well, it’s England, isn’t it? Gin-soaked. I’d already joined a pickpocket gang, cleaned some chimneys. I’d got money, watch me flick. I was carried screaming from the end of that movie because I couldn’t believe Elliott didn’t leave with him. So I had suspended full disbelief.
My parents were divorced, so I lived with my dad. Just with my dad. And so we sort of called our own shots. When I started going to the movies regularly at the age of 8, 9, 10, 11, I always went to movies that none of them were aimed at kids. They were all adult movies about adults going through adult things. I went by myself to the Alameda Theater in Alameda, California, to see Ship of Fools with Michael Dunn. I saw Sean Connery in The Hill. You know that? That little British movie? I belief it’s about a prison camp for AWOL soldiers. I would see things like Dennis Weaver in 40 Guns to Apache Pass. I just saw the culture of the mid-to-late 1960s. Not hit movies but B movies. But it always about grown-ups. I didn’t understand them, but I knew they were important, so I was involved in stuff that wasn’t just another production of Peter and the Wolf or something like that.

And what were the breakthrough formative experiences in entertainment? Not just movies, but I guess TV that made you think, I want to tell some form of long-form stories?
Well, that didn’t come until later on. I didn’t know you could make a living as an actor. I didn’t know that that happened. San Francisco was a pretty ripe theater town — there’s American Conservatory Theater, Berkley Repertory Theater, Berkley Stage Company — and in college I started taking classes in which going to the theater, if it wasn’t actually required, you got extra credit for it. And when I realized, Wait a minute. Okay. I thought theater was just stuff you did for the Parks Department. Or every now and again a group would come buy and perform The Little Match Girl for you in public school. But there were people and they were walking around the stage and this was obviously a job. And I thought, Well, how do you get this gig? So then I began to study theater at the only avenue that was open to me, which was junior college and state college.

Now you’re so involved in producing. When was the tipping point in your career when you thought, I can start to tell the stories that I want to tell more than anyone else.
I would say that it was probably after we did Apollo 13, which was really a labor of great, great passion for my anyway. I had done so much research and ended up talking to so many people that did things like either went to the moon or were so deeply involved in the people who did that I thought, We’ve barely scratched the surface with Apollo 13. So I went to our friends at HBO and said, “I think we could do this. I think we could tell 12 stories on TV about the Apollo space program, about all the humans that did it.” And that was the first time I kind of threw down deep and said, “I don’t know exactly how to do it, but we’ll figure out how to do it.”

Was space something that little Tommy Hanks was playing with rockets?
No. I did not play with rockets. But we studied it, because at the time it was a front of the Cold War. I had one teacher … Mrs. Castle was my teacher for second, third, and fourth grade. So I had her for three full years. And she had really strict opinions about communism and World War II. And she was a great taskmaster. And if Mrs. Castle said, “All kids should be in bed at 7:30,” I went to bed at 7:30. If Mrs. Castle said, “All kids should take summer-school classes for three weeks,” I took summer school. She was a taskmaster, but she was also funny and smart. And she could tell a story over the course of the day. And at that time the Gemini space program was three things. It was science, which we studied. It was adventure, because the concept of two men in this little spacecraft all by themselves behind visors, there was a fantastic element of almost Star Wars–y excitement to it. But it was also economics, technology, and it was supremely political. “The Russians might get there to the moon before us. And if that happens, dear God in heaven … THEY WOULD GET THERE BEFORE US! We can’t let that happen!”

It makes it so quintessentially American that you do one of the greatest things humanity’s ever done, basically out of spite.

You hear Buzz Aldrin talk about it now. He wants to get to Mars just because he thinks China’s gonna get there. It’s the same thing that’s motivating him.
I’m not sure Buzz came back. The other thing about all of the Apollo guys: They are fabulous, fascinating human beings. They are the most competitive people — with each other — that I have ever met. We were in Washington, D.C., being vetted for Apollo 13 and an astronaut who will go nameless comes up and he says, “Hey, Tom, I’ve got to tell you, man, I love the movie. I love what you did for Jim [Lovell]. Jim’s a great guy. Jim’s a good guy. Good astronaut. But you know I got a question about your movie, Tom. Jim didn’t make it to the moon, and he got a movie? You know I landed on the moon, Tom. I made a pinpoint landing. The first pinpoint landing on the moon. I don’t get no movie for that.”

But Lovell’s the same. I spoke to him once, and it’s great. Apollo 13 becomes a story of human survival, but to hear him talk about it with that competitiveness, you realize he still sees it as a failure in his head. Fuck, that was my shot. I should have landed on the moon.
Yeah. And if a couple of things had just slid around, he would have been the backup crew on Apollo 10, which means he would have landed. There’s so many cards that were dealt, you know. “If I would’ve won that hand, man, I would have taken the whole fuckin’ pot.” I just dropped the F-bomb, sorry.

That makes it better, the human flaws in all of those guys. The kind of jealousy, the sniping, the backbiting, the fact that Lovell’s quick to say, “Yeah but I was the first one ‘round the dark side of the moon.” They squabble over who took the photo.
You cannot get those guys to admit who took the photo. I met Bill Anders. He said, “Oh, I probably took the photo, Tom, because I was handling the color film. I had the color camera.” Then you talk to Jim: “No I think it was me who took the film, because my window was the only one that wasn’t obscured. I had the center window.” And Frank Borman has said, “Screw those guys. I took the photo.” But the thing is, they were in this little place where they could turn off all the “listen to us” switches and say whatever they wanted. And that is an exclusive club, and they keep those secrets to themselves, thank you very much. And you know, I can’t get enough of that stuff from those guys.

It’s the best. So, as a general question, what do you think you’ve learned the most from: good experiences or bad experiences?
Bad experience kicks good experience’s ass every time. First of all, it’s very hard to watch a movie more than once that you’re in. Because it doesn’t change. The timing is the same. The music comes in at the same point. If you’ve got a bad haircut it’s a bad haircut for two hours. It goes on and on and on. This is what goes into every movie you’ve ever made: hard work, blind luck, serendipity, bitter compromise, frustration, crazy blessings from the goddess Pelicula who smiles on you at some point, and this great X-factor of Is anybody gonna care at all? Probably the most heralded movie that I’ve been in was Forrest Gump. Bob [Zemeckis] and I were sitting on the park bench in Savannah, Georgia, and I had already said to Bob, “Bob, we’re shooting like 20 pages of dialogue. There’s no way I can have this down for the day and a half this stuff needs to get [done].” He said, “We’ll put the lines on cue cards because we have the cameras moving around like it’s I Love Lucy, for God’s sake.” That’s what we did. And eventually two rehearsals in, I could have a dialogue. But we were sitting there trying to figure out what we were gonna do next. “Well, what if the lady sits down and she’s not there?” Because we kept switching on the rest of the cast. And one day I said, “Bob, is anybody gonna care about this guy sitting on a park bench?” “I tell you, I don’t know, Tom. It’s a minefield, Tom. It’s a fuckin’ minefield.” So when it works you just say, “Hey, we dodged all the mines. We didn’t step on a single mine. That’s great.” And when it doesn’t work, you can go back and say, “All right, we stepped on a mine there. That blew a leg off.” You can go back and examine every decision you made or were a part of in the movie that sent it off down the wrong tributary of the river. So studying your failures — which is hard to do because they’re so utterly painful — once you can inure yourself to the fact that the movie disappeared without a trace, you can see not the secret for success, but just how gossamer that brand of success is, and how lucky you are when the alliances all work, the stories all work, and enough of the people in the audience say, “Yeah I wondered what was gonna happen in that.” Because when they don’t, man, it’s tough.

And is the onus then just to try, if you feel like you’ve done something, to not make the same mistake twice?
Well, that’s the thing. Here’s what never works when you’re in a meeting on a movie: To say things like, “Well, you know, what we discovered making Captain Phillips is you must have bad guys with really bad teeth.” Because then you can’t have every bad guy with bad teeth. Those guys had to have bad teeth. So you can’t codify any of the lessons that you learned. What you can only do is look at it and begin to question yourself enough so you are never going into something like, Without a doubt this is what must happen in the scene. You have to go in with this almost ecumenical process in which hopefully you are trusting the alliances that you’ve made and the material that is constantly malleable. When you don’t have that trust, man, you’re doomed.

When you start looking for collaborators— . You’ve worked with Zemeckis …
I’ve worked with really good people.

Spielberg. Tykwer.
And they all work totally different.

So what are you looking for other than them not being a gigantic asshole?
Well, sometimes that works. Sometimes you do want to work with somebody that you just can’t stand, because they’ll get good work out of you somehow. I find myself — and this is where I can fall down sometimes — is I’m looking for their understanding of the logic. I’m a logic policeman when it comes down to the script. Not necessarily know[ing] what should happen in the script, but if it’s illogical, if it betrays the logic of the piece that has been established, you’re doomed. For example, the logic of The Green Mile is in fact incredibly unrealistic. But it establishes its own logic and so adheres to it. And this was the main thing. Somebody said, “Well, how much research did you do about death-row prison guards in Louisiana in the 1930s?” I said, “I didn’t do a single moment of [researching] prison guards in Louisiana in the 1930s,” because we had established a logic that was completely contrary to what they were really like. And that logic was they had sidearms. They had loaded weapons on their hips. No prison guard walks into death row with a loaded sidearm on his hip, because a prisoner could get it and kill everybody there, including you. So that was such part and parcel to the logic of Steven King and his story that I just said, “Okay, if that’s the logic, a bunch of other stuff has to go right out the window.” But it’s the logic. So let’s adhere to what they’re like. I will always say, “Hey, can I ask you a quick question? I don’t want to bug you. You’re the boss and you can fire me. But I think the logic of this scene really does call for a big fuckin’ banger of me. I think you’re gonna want just a big close-up of my eyes going from there to there. I think it will explain all the logic that you need to know about this scene.”

“Close-up.” That’s not good directing. “Big fuckin’ banger.” Now I know what I’m looking for.
On Apollo 13 Ron Howard’s walking around: “What do we need? What should be the shot? I don’t know. Okay. Okay. Okay. Bring it down here, and we’ll go from the gimbal. We’ll be on the gimbal. And we’ll come over here. We’ll go with the abort handle. I don’t know. What should the shot be?” Kevin Bacon says, “You know, I don’t mean to say … I don’t want to boss you around, Ron, but I think really the shot be a BFCUKB right here.” “What does BFCUKB mean?” “Just a big fucking close-up of Kevin Bacon.” Bill Paxton and I went berserk. We were talking in that same acronym for the remainder of the film. God bless Kevin Bacon, man. I use it now all the time. “Hey, boss! Steven, Steven. BFCUTH. Yes? No? Maybe? I think it could come all the way from back in, into [frames face].”

You’ve got grandchildren now.
Yes, I do.

So at some point down the line when they say, “What were the things that you were really proud of?” Not necessarily that you liked the best, but that you’re proud of because the experience was hard, or that you felt like you learned a lot from it. Are there a few things that you could say, “Look at this,” or “Watch [From the Earth the Moon], because that is something I’ve sunk my heart and soul into”?
They’re all hard to watch. If they’re on HBO or something like that and I’m blowing through the grid, I get off them as fast as I can. Because all I can remember is what happened that day. “Oh, we shot that. Something happened. Blah.” But there are moments that I think of which I don’t expect and are mysterious to me, even when they turn up, that I have to say, “Boy, something special was happening that day.” And there’s some in almost every movie that you make. But as far as one movie from beginning to end, the best I could do because it was so family-oriented and all my family was in it was a movie I made called That Thing You Do!, which was really close to my heart, filled with joy. It was a great hang. All we did was laugh. And I was the guy in charge. In that entire movie I think there’s only two sequences that I was going for something specific and it actually transcended what I was going for. One of them being when the band hears their record on the radio for the first time. I don’t want to drop a name, but … ready for this name I’m gonna drop? Forgive me. Bruce Springsteen. Bruce Springsteen said, “I liked that moment when they heard their record on the radio. The same thing happened to us. We were all in cars. We pulled over to the side of the road to listen to it.” So that moment, that actually lit up perfectly for us.

It’s weird that there are sometimes … if you can nail those moments when they’re so important they stay with you forever. There’s an English movie called Fever Pitch. I remember there’s this one moment. I remember nothing about it other than the way that they shot the first time he went to a football camp. Not “football” camp. Fuck you.
You don’t call it soccer?

Every time Americans use that word, somewhere in the world a British person dies.
If you want, we Americans can start referring to it as “the game of hooligans.”

That would not be inaccurate. But there’s a moment when he sees the sea of floodlit green in front of him. And I remember nothing else from that movie but that one moment; they nailed that.
It’s funny. For all of us, most movies have those incredibly personal moments that just hit us all like a ball-peen hammer right in the middle of the forehead, and you never forget. I hope some of mine have them. Did anybody see the goofy-titled Clint Eastwood rugby movie? The South African rugby movie?

Invictus. Yes. When I saw that, I thought, Okay, Clint Eastwood is a genius. Because he never explained rugby to us. He didn’t have an announcer say, “All right, now he’s gonna have to score a try, otherwise they’re not gonna win.” Nothing was explained. There’s no shots to a scoreboard. It was just Matt Damon running around playing rugby with a bunch of guys. And I was on the edge of my seat, and I don’t know shit about rugby. I know that really big guys run around and sort of tackle each other.

You basically know everything about rugby. What is the most obscure reference that someone has shouted at you in the street?
“Little boat!”

Really? “Little boat”?
Yeah. “LITTLE BOAT,” as they’re going by. There’s some I’m used to. “Wilson.” “Houston, we have a problem.” And I’m going, “Little boat? OH!” In Splash, I was in Fat Jack’s rented boat and he was taking me to the island, and fat Jack was a huge guy. We were in this teeny-tiny little [boat]. And the engine broke down. And this day player, I don’t even know his name, guy was hired for the movie for one day. He said, “Don’t worry, I can fix it. I’m mechanical.” And he pulls out a hammer and bangs on the motor and tries to start it. He says, “Well, it must be broken. Don’t worry, I’ll just swim back to the dock and get the little boat.” And he jumped in the water and swam away. And I’m in the boat this big and I’m sitting there and I go, “Little boat?!” I’m on the highway. You know L.A.? I’m all the way from Slauson to getting off at Normandy before figuring it out. “Splash! Oh! That’s what it was.” Boy, talk about a test, man. I think it’s a contest among some of you folks. “Oh, there’s Hanks. I’m gonna stump him with a reference.”

Good luck beating that one. That’s a pretty high bar.
I was sweating bullets, man. I almost had to go to IMDb.

That does go deep. I remember Jon Stewart told me just before he hosted the Oscars he was really nervous. And he was outside walking. I think he’d gone into a restaurant to get a sandwich or something. And he was thinking, This feels like the center of the world, the Oscars. And some guys came up to him and were looking at him. He was thinking, Here we go. I know what this is for. And these guys came up and said, “I’m sorry to bother you. Are you in Half Baked?” That’s the only thing they knew him from. Not what he was doing the next day. And I think it really helped.
These guys had a connection with Half Baked. It was undeniable. We all have it for some fluke-y movie that came out of nowhere.

Yeah. An underrated — or an appropriately rated — movie. In 2012 you produced Game Change, right?
My company did. I honestly did not have that much to do with it. I was working at the time. HBO had the project, and HBO says, “Hey guys, we want you to do this.” And so the office did it, and we had good people. Danny Strong wrote it. Jay Roach directed it. And I visited the set and saw some of the cuts, but I really had very little to do with it. I can’t take credit.

So which are the ones that you are driving? Or is there a project right now? Have you got a white whale, like everyone, that you’ve been trying to do forever?
Oh Lord, yeah. There are a couple of things that I tried to do. Right now we’re pursuing … I don’t know what it would be called, but it will be a multipart mini-series about the Eighth Air Force. Going back and revisiting another aspect of World War II again. We have a number of things. They’re all labors of love in the office. There was one saga of a gentleman by the name of Dean Reed that I really tried to make into a movie and we just ran into some solid business walls over and over again. Dean Reed, in the 1960s, he was without a doubt a third-rate if not fourth-rate version of Elvis meets Ricky Nelson. He wasn’t a very good actor. He wasn’t a very good singer. He was drop-dead gorgeous. But in his mind he viewed himself as an intellectual socialist kind of thing. And he was meeting no success in Hollywood whatsoever, despite his great good looks. And then he found out that he had the No. 1 record in Chile. He got on a plane and flew down to Chile, and when he landed in Santiago, there were thousands of people at the airport. And he asked the stewardess, “Who’s on the plane? Why are all these people at the airport?” And they said, “You are. You are el gringo.” And he walked from obscurity into the most wild success you could possibly have, in the wink of an eye. And along with that, brought along a socialist sensibility. And disenfranchising himself by going to the Soviet Union as a socialist. The Soviet Union said, “This man is one of the biggest rock-and-roll stars in America, and he is one of us.” And he made the critical mistake of [not] saying, “I’m not a big rock-and-roll star.” He actually kind of said, “Well, yes. Yes, I am.” And from that came a life that was absolutely fascinating and ultimately tragic, which turned out to be a movie that absolutely nobody wanted to pay to see. So that’s one of those things. We have a few others that are like that, that I just think are fascinating but you can’t get to.

I have to throw it to the floor. Let’s just repeat those caveats. It’s easy to fuck this up.

Audience member: Hi, my name is Johann. First of all, no actor has given me more emotion. I love you. My question is, you have done so many different films, so many different roles. So my question is, how do you choose which roles you want to take as an actor?

Well, you just have to kind of love them and you want to see the movie. When you read a screenplay, you really are seeing a movie in your head. And you just judge whether or not that’s something that you think is fascinating. I will say that at one point in my mid-30s I was making an awful lot of movies about the goofy-headed guy who can’t get laid but wants to get laid and finally gets laid and life is good but then he stops getting laid. By that time I’d been married. I had kids. I had experienced a life of difficulties and bitter compromises. I must say that I realized then that I had to start saying a very, very difficult word to people, which was no. The money’s great, the people are talented, you’ll get to shoot it in France, the kids will get to come. But if there’s not anything there that stirs some sort of bona fide fire, you had to say no. The odd lesson of that is that’s how you end up making the ephemeral as well as aesthetic questions about the work you’re doing. Saying yes, then you’ll just work. But saying no means you’ve made the choice of the type of story you want to tell and the type of character you want to play. That’s how I do it. Now, I actually probably worked too much. That goes back. When I was in repertory theater when I was 20, 21 years old, I just thought it was the greatest gig in the world because you worked for a summer and you were in four plays, four or five shows. I thought, Okay, that’s the pace that you’ve got to do, right? So for a while, as you know, I just banged out a lot of movies, one after another.

Oliver: That makes sense. If you’ve got an itch, you’ve got to scratch it. Any good heroin addict knows that.
That’s not unlike what it was. This is a glamorous play. The hang is great. They give you per diem, man. You know what per diem is? Per diem is $800 a week in cash. They give it to you in a little envelope. “Mr. Hanks. I have your per diem here.” “Come to papa! Give me that money!” You know, you make half the movie in New York or Toronto or Atlanta or something. I would just lay the 20s out on my bed. Look at it. Look at it! This is free money! Then of course you’re like, I have to pay for the hotel room. Not so free after all.

Audience member: Of all the characters you’ve played in your career, if you could go out for a beer with just one of them, which character would you choose?
I’d go out with Charlie Wilson from Charlie Wilson’s War. Charlie Wilson was the most fabulous party animal that there was. Charlie passed away. Charlie is a sitting congressman for the United States of America. He is naked in a hot tub with strippers in Las Vegas. True story. And I said, “Charlie, tell the truth now. Were you drunk?” “Oh, Tom, I just love my Scotch.” “Yeah, of course.” “I’d probably been drinking all day. Probably drinkin’ all day. How else do you think I ended up naked in a hot tub with a bunch of strippers on a congressional fact-finding trip?” And I said, “Okay, question No. 2, Charlie: Did you partake of the cocaine?” He said, “Tom, let me tell you my stock answer. I saw cocaine. It passed before my nose on the fingernails of a lovely young lady. But I do not recall inhaling.” Charlie Wilson, man. He was a great guy. An Annapolis graduate, by the way. Went to Annapolis.

Audience member: So clearly nostalgia leads entertainment. So for you being focused with Band of Brothers and Apollo, what time frame are you looking for developing next?
Okay, this is interesting, because the stuff that is going on, I think, of the same ilk that is present-day, I do not believe can be properly serviced by fictionalized versions of what’s going on. Documentaries kick movies’ ass when it comes down to the stuff that’s really going on in this world. So movies that you pay to go see have to develop their own sort of value system for the process of cinema, in order to actually communicate it to the audience. Because I think if you see documentaries like Restrepo about the war, any number of things that are on HBO, or just your average Frontline episode, you cannot make a movie about that subject matter even come close to it.

So yeah, I go back to the past quite a bit. But there’s another reason that I think a lot of people gravitate towards that. And I will tell you, they did not have these back then [holds up iPhone]. This makes it impossible for you to keep characters apart. Anybody can talk any time they want to. These make it impossible for someone to outwardly lie to you, because you can immediately find out whether they’re lying or not. And also, these make it possible for you to know any obscure fact that exists in the world. So, therefore, what disappears? Distance. Communication becomes instantaneous. And the search for a secret, the search for an answer, becomes [types into phone] “Fact check. Little boat. Splash.” Boom. You’re missing out on something really specific. So it’s not that I’m enamored with the past. It’s just that the logic of those times, if you do it right, if they don’t become movies that just celebrate their own nostalgia — those movies are a waste of time — but if you actually recognize yourself in that and understand the codified laws of communication and knowledge and whatnot, well, then it becomes something that everybody can participate in.

Not all movies that take place currently fall under that rubric. There’s certainly a lot of really great movies that are ripped right out of today’s headlines that work really fine. But they incorporate these things. And sometimes you don’t want to incorporate this. You want to tell the story that you want to. We’re not really looking for any specific time or period. But I will say that I go back to World War II a lot because the times were so vibrant and the people alive did not know whether they were going to live or die. And up until the fall of Stalingrad, there was absolutely no concept whether or not the Nazis were going to take over the world or not. Actually, they probably were going to, up until Stalingrad, which wasn’t until late 1942. So you can go back and put yourself in those positions over and over and over again without ever repeating yourself. That’s what I think, anyways.

Audience member: First of all, thank you for Woody the cowboy. He’s my personal favorite.
The most exhausting work anybody will ever do. It’s hideous. It’s hideous making those movies! It’s haaaaard.

Audience member: I’m an actor, but this is probably relevant for any dreamer. Are there days, or maybe there used to be days, when you wanted to give up? It was really hard? What kept you going?
This is the thing. The world is divided into two very distinctive groups: people that will always be self-conscious and will never be actors, and the people who have defeated their own self-consciousness and can be actors. So that’s half the world. Now you take that half, and that group is divided into two distinctive halves as well. Those that can persevere and artificially create the wherewithal to continue for another day, and those that have had so much rejection that they can’t take it anymore and they walk away. So you got this other half that can hang on. If you can, you can just hang on. Because someone you know has gotten a job. And you know what? They need somebody just like you. And they will call you, and say, “Listen, I know it’s only dinner theater. I know it’s out in Chatsworth, California. But you are perfect for this. For $75 a week will you come out and play one of the Pigeon sisters in The Odd Couple?”

And when you do finally go out, lose money on the deal, and play one of the Pigeon sisters in The Odd Couple, somebody who works for Steven Spielberg got dragged off to see a production of The Odd Couple in Chatsworth, comes back and tells Steven, “There is a girl playing one of the Pigeon sisters right now that will be so perfect for Zorro’s mom.” And you know what you’ve done? You wanted to give up countless times since you got out of college. You want to drive a truck for Coca-Cola and have steady employment. You didn’t take the job, and next week you’re going in for a costume fitting because you’re playing Zorro’s mom.

It’s tricky. It’s hard. The odds are stacked against you in every conceivable way. But if you could somehow manage to keep creative somehow — and these things [holds up iPhone] help you do that — you can post anything you want to anywhere in the world, and if it’s good, someone is going to be looking for Zorro’s mom and say, “I saw this website of a girl screaming, ‘little boat, little boat,’ and I think you should hire her as Zorro’s mom.” You just gotta have that degree of perseverance and faith. And honestly, on occasion, understand you might not be able to pay to get your car fixed.

Tom Hanks and John Oliver in Conversation