Over the course of his 35-year career in Hollywood, Tom Hanks has played a cross-dressing twentysomething (Bosom Buddies), an overgrown kid (Big), an attorney with AIDS (Philadelphia), the commander of a spaceship (Apollo 13), an anthropomorphic cowboy (Toy Story), a U.S. Army captain (Saving Private Ryan), a stranded FedEx employee (Cast Away), an FBI bank fraud agent (Catch Me If You Can), Walt Disney (Saving Mr. Banks), and, of course, Forrest Gump himself, to name a few.
And starting Oct. 16, audiences will be able to see Hanks as an ordinary insurance lawyer who’s put in an extraordinary situation in Bridge of Spies, directed by Steven Spielberg. In the week leading up to the release of their latest movie, the longtime friends and collaborators sat down with BuzzFeed News at the Ritz-Carlton in New York for an intimate conversation about the jobs that got them where they are today and the movies they loved making together.
Below, discover the unconventional way Hanks landed his first movie role, the connection between Hanks’s Splash and Spielberg’s E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, the co-stars he often reunited with, and how his father-in-law inspired The Terminal. (And click here for Spielberg’s interview.)
He Knows You're Alone
This 1980 slasher movie was Hanks’s film debut. The movie centers on Amy Jensen (Caitlin O’Heaney), a college student who’s preparing for her wedding and is being chased by a serial killer of brides and brides-to-be, Ray Carlton (Tom Rolfing). Hanks plays Elliot, a psychology student who doesn’t believe Amy when she tells him someone is following her. It was an unconventional foray into moviemaking for the then-24-year-old actor.
Tom Hanks: The very first movie I made, I didn't even know the process of being cast. I was in New York and I was just an actor who was trying to bounce around, and I went to some audition and it was by Lansbury–Beruh — they were the guys that were producing, among other things, Godspell. I went up to their office and they had all these posters for Broadway shows and I thought, Wow. These are really big heavy hitters. The audition was for a low-budget horror movie called He Knows You're Alone — actually, the script I read was called The Uninvited. And I did this kind of general audition and they said, “OK, you'll be in the movie. We don't know who you're going to play, but you'll be in the movie.” And I said, “Is that how it works? Just like that?”
I ended up having two days on it — we shot it out in the wintertime in Staten Island — and we were all in one Winnebago and stuff like that. But I kept looking for the equipment and I didn't realize that that was the camera because it was so small. I was like, Where’s Busby Berkeley sitting on a big massive thing with blimps over it trying to keep it quiet? Instead, it was this very small Aeroflex. And I couldn't believe it. ... I was more confused than anything.
Hanks’s second movie marked his first time playing a leading man on the big screen. This 1984 romantic comedy saw Hanks fall in love with a strange newcomer to New York (Daryl Hannah) who is actually a mermaid he met while on a family vacation years earlier. Splash was a huge success, both financially (made for $8 million, it grossed nearly $70 million at the domestic box office) and critically (the film was nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay). Plus, it was the first time Spielberg heard of Hanks.
Steven Spielberg: The first time I was really aware of you was your film with Ron Howard.
SS: Yeah, Splash!
TH: I had done a TV series for two years and then it got canceled. And then I did nothing for a year. I think I tried to do something for CBS? Anyway, I was invited to be a guest star on Happy Days because Bosom Buddies shot on the Paramount lot and Happy Days and the other Paramount shows would go off on these star-studded celebrity softball games that would raise money for charity, and I did a couple of those so they knew me. And they had some role on Happy Days and I went down and did that — it was just a one-shot thing. But Ron Howard had left Happy Days the year before because he wanted to go off and direct films. And the guys who were the head writers of Happy Days, Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, they wrote Splash.
Splash was Ron and Brian Grazer's second film, and it was this low-budget movie that was shooting on Disney. And at that time, the Disney studios were kind of like this B enterprise. No one was really doing any work over there. Walt Disney was long dead and they were doing things like Gus, the field goal–kicking mule, and The Boatniks and stuff like that. So they had this other role and Lowell and Babaloo said, “You should take a look at this guy who came in and did this one episode for us. He was pretty funny, had a lot of energy.” So I went in, and first I met Brian. It was the first time I met guys who were kind of my own age. They were producers and filmmakers, but they weren't, like, 10 years older than me or real established rich guys or anything like that. They were just guys! And I was excited to meet Ron, of course, because I grew up watching him and he was in American Graffiti and all that. And Ron was very insistent on doing a tape test of me right there in a small room at Disney with furniture that had been around since Old Yeller days. They actually had a poster for Old Yeller up on the wall. And so I did that, and up until that point, the closest I'd ever come to any real job was as the goofy sidekick in any movie.
SS: Well, you had your TV series before that.
TH: I did that, but all I had was kind of like comedy chops. So I thought I was auditioning for the part that John Candy eventually played.
TH: And Ron was directing me in the test and the test scenes were for the guy I ended up playing, the lead. So [laughs] I went home and later that day, Ron called. [imitates Howard's voice] “Hey, hey. It's Ron. I want you to come in. I want you to do a real test that's a little bit more organized. We're going to send the scenes over, but I want you to test for the main guy.” And I was crazed because that had never happened before. So I prepared, went back maybe two days later, and then he called another day later at my house and said, [imitates Howard again] “Hey, Tom. Ron Howard. Um, listen, you got the part, but here's the thing…” So he said that to me off the cuff and then kept going. The thing was he was really concerned because he really wanted Daryl Hannah and he was getting pushback from the studio. They wanted somebody cuter or something like that. And he wanted to do a full-on, full-wit film camera test and he wanted me to come in and work with Daryl and him. And I said, “Look, I have to ask you this question: Is it possible for me to blow this job by doing this camera test with Daryl?”
SS: Right. “By trying to get her the part, could I lose it?”
TH: Yeah! “Am I gonna be so bad in this thing that they're going to go, ‘Well, she's fine. But that guy's gotta go.’” And he said, “No, don't worry about that 'cause you're hardly going to be on camera.” So it was like the back of my head and stuff like that. You know, my life changed in probably about the same amount of days that it took you to shoot Duel.
TH: We had a read-through of it and I was very nervous. I was trying to score with all my lines and trying to get a big reaction or a laugh because that's all I had done on TV is sell a script on Mondays and shoot it on Thursdays. And afterwards, Ron took me to the side and he said, “I know what you're doing. You're trying to get laughs, but your job is not to get laughs. Your job is to love that girl.” So I thought, Oh my god, one day in and I'm already getting a stern talking-to from the boss. I'm doomed with this thing. But that movie turned out good! You know, some of the critics said, “Oh, this is just a low-budget E.T.”
TH: Because, you know, she's from another world, she learned how to speak English by watching TV, she did goofy things with food. “In the MAD magazine parody of Splash, the last panel is E.T.”
TH: Yeah! Saying something like, [affects Southern accent] “Well, I've seen this before,” or something like that.
SS: I remember really well how she got her name. She was in New York and she saw Madison Avenue.
TH: Yeah, yeah. I go back past that corner every now and again, and I say, “Oh, yeah. That's where we shot that thing!”
Nothing in Common
Two years after Splash, Hanks was given another pivotal opportunity: his first serious role in a major movie. He played opposite Jackie Gleason in this father-son drama, which wound up being Gleason’s final film. It was bittersweet for Hanks, especially seeing as Gleason’s character in the film is hiding his illness from his family.
SS: What was your first dramatic role?
TH: It was probably the movie with Jackie Gleason that Garry Marshall directed called Nothing in Common. And it had Eva Marie Saint in it. That was like my fifth or sixth movie and [sighs] they ask you to be in movies and you just say yes, you know? You just kept trying to play to the success you just had, and try to expand it a little bit. And Garry wanted somebody that could be funny when we needed to be funny. He wanted it to be not so much improv, but bring energy to it. But the seriousness of the relationship between the father and son is really flinty. Jackie Gleason, he was older and he was not feeling great. He showed up at 9 a.m. ready to shoot. And we really had to be done at 3 p.m. because he began to fade. He just wasn't feeling great.
SS: But it's interesting. You made a serious movie with a director known for Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley; Jackie Gleason, who was famous for The Honeymooners; and yourself, in comedy. So it was a couple of actors and a director who were completely versed in comedy, making a very serious father-son story.
TH: Yeah, yeah.
SS: And the other thing that I thought was interesting about that movie was I knew that Jackie Gleason had great acting chops from just watching The Hustler with Paul Newman, where he played Minnesota Fats.
TH: He was a Renaissance dude. He did a lot of stuff.
Saving Private Ryan
Hanks did a lot in the 12 years between Nothing in Common and 1998’s Saving Private Ryan — like starring in Big, Sleepless in Seattle, Forrest Gump, and Philadelphia, the latter two for which he won an Academy Award, for example — but this one was special to him because it was the turning point in his relationship with Spielberg, from personal to professional. Set during the Invasion of Normandy in World War II, the movie also started their Spielberg and Hanks’s trend of making historically inspired films. Here, Hanks plays U.S. Army Rangers Capt. John H. Miller who, with his squad (Tom Sizemore, Ed Burns, Barry Pepper, Vin Diesel, Giovanni Ribisi, Adam Goldberg, and Jeremy Davies), searched for the titular paratrooper (Matt Damon), the last living brother of four other servicemen.
TH: On Saving Private Ryan, you empowered us all, but I think you particularly empowered me to be the Army man. And what I mean is...
SS: To be the team leader.
TH: Well, yeah, but there was also...I felt as though we had figured all this stuff out. Other directors would go, “I don't care about that 'cause I just need this for my shot.” But you seemed to give us real credence for all the things that we had discovered in the training and the research that we had done. And you gave us credibility to be the unit. I think we were all quite surprised by that — I was as well. You had said to me, “Look, we're friends” — 'cause we knew each other socially — “Our friendship might not survive the making of this movie.” And that was true. But I said, “Well, let's just agree that you'll say whatever you want and I'll say whatever I want and we'll see how it goes.”
You allowed us all almost an odd free reign in every scene, because it was not like shots on a track and I don't know that anybody ever put down a mark that we had to hit.
SS: I would give a loose construction to Mitch Dubin, the camera operator, and I would just say, “Take this Aeroflex and follow Capt. Miller and here's where all the explosions are. I want you to be aware of that because I don't want you to step on a pod and it goes off. But just take off and see what happens.”
TH: I remember we had shot for a number of days really before we met up with anybody else. They were not yet shooting and I went up at the end of the first day and I just said, “Guys, you better throw away any idea you've had of what it is to play an Army man in movies because they're doing something down there that is just unbelievable.”
And we've all since gone on our different ways, but for about three years, the unit would get together.
SS: Yeah! I love that.
TH: We've had reunions and we’d go out. But then everybody got too busy and they went off. That’s just what happens.
Catch Me If You Can
Four years later, Hanks and Spielberg teamed up again, this time for a crime drama, based on the life of con artist Frank Abagnale (Leonardo DiCaprio), who stole a total of $6 million by posing as a Pan Am pilot, a doctor in Georgia, and a parish prosecutor in Louisiana. The man who eventually caught him — and hired him to catch other check forgers — was FBI bank fraud agent Carl Hanratty (Hanks). But it was a happy accident that Hanks found his way to the 2002 project.
SS: It was interesting how you came to the movie.
TH: I read it just as an example of Jeff Nathanson's work and I knew you guys were gonna make it and I knew it was Leo's movie. But I think I asked my agent. I said, "Has the FBI guy been cast?" "No. It's early stages." And what I saw in it was, first of all, I get to play somebody my own age, which was great. But there has to be a pursuer. The title Catch Me If You Can doesn't make any sense unless someone is chasing him.
SS: In the game of cat and mouse, you need a cat.
TH: Exactly. Selfishly I thought, They can shoot scenes with Leo that will get cut just because of time and story. You can't cut the pursuer. Every scene he's in, I think is gonna be in the movie.
This 2004 film was a personal one for Hanks. About a man trapped at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport after being denied entry into the U.S., The Terminal was partially inspired by Mehran Karimi Nasseri, who stayed in Terminal 1 of Charles de Gaulle International Airport in Paris for 18 years. But it was also inspired by someone near and dear to Hanks’s heart.
TH: I was my father-in-law in that movie.
SS: And you know, I love your father-in-law and your mother-in-law, Yaya.
TH: Hassan Ibrahimoff was his name, but he changed it to Alan Wilson.
SS: That's right! That's right. So that movie was great to watch you really become your father-in-law.
TH: You know, that didn't really happen for me until I tried on the wardrobe at the very first test. Because we had to make up the country that he was from...
TH: Krakozhia. We made it like the still impoverished former Eastern Bloc nation that didn't have a thing. And what's interesting, Americans, I think they just view airports differently. When I go to Europe and work there for a long time, I can't tell you how often The Terminal is the first movie people mention, because, [affects Eastern European accent] "You were me. That was me. You make my story." And it wasn't about a guy who was stuck in the terminal and can't get into the United States; it was about the intimidation process of going to America and having to get through all the hoops in order to be allowed the freedom of being outside the airport.
SS: That's right.
TH: Americans, we come home to America and we have to go through Homeland Security and then we're done. We go home. The folks who are coming to America in order to see it for the first time, they have a whole different take on those boundaries between the plane and the street.
SS: That's no man's land. No person with a foreign passport's land.
BuzzFeed News: I’m very sorry to stop you, but unfortunately, that’s all the time we have.
SS: Aw, but we didn’t even talk about Philadelphia!
This interview has been edited and condensed.