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Tom Hanks' ROAD Less Traveled

The actor reveals a darker side in ROAD TO PERDITION

By Pamela Harland     July 12, 2002

Tom Hanks stars in ROAD TO PERDITION.
© 2002 Dreamworks
Mr. Nice Guy does some naughty things in the new Sam Mendes thriller ROAD TO PERDITION. But when Tom Hanks does them they don't seem so bad for some reason. Which just proves the theory, some guys can get away with anything... even murder.

Hanks plays hitman Michael Sullivan, who is accidentally observed doing his job by his son Michael Sullivan Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin). Eye-witnessing a hit puts his son and Sullivan at great risk with his colleagues. Through harsh tragedies, Sullivan and son are forced to hit the road and in doing so begin to rely heavily upon one another during their life and death run.

Not a usual role for Hanks and yet his likeability still cannot be masked even while doing some very unscrupulous activities. But the 46-year-old Hanks admits that some things you can never escape, even an affable persona of the last 25 years.

Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg at the 2002 Golden Globes

"I am no mystery to anybody," says Hanks. "I have to create the mystery in the course of the confines of the movie. But who I am and what I look like and the shape of my head hatless or with a hat, it's still going to be trying to translate it. You know who I am, people know who I am and I can't escape it no matter how I try."

Try as he may, the public's perception of him is what it is and even he cannot hide behind his roles. And yet he is able to compel audiences and make us believe that he is in this dilemma or fantastical world. Not many actors can have it both ways. Hanks is even able to understand why his character, on a personal level, makes the choices that he does. It's a matter of basic human needs.

"He has this rationale for what he does for a living," says Hanks. "It's to support and to protect and provide for his family. And yet that house is a dark oppressive place. It's not a joyful home in any way, shape or form. It's a house of denial that anything is odd or out of the way. It's when all this happens in that moment when all of his rationale fails him. The house of cards he's constructed falls apart and that also impacts everything else that happens in the movie."

This time out, Hanks worked under the mindful eye of AMERICAN BEAUTY director Sam Mendes. Although PERDITION was only the filmmaker's second film, Hanks felt assured the Academy Award winning director had had an abundance of experience telling good stories and that he was the right man for the complex task of interpreting PERDITION.

"Sam has been the architect of countless stories by way of the theater," says Hanks. "His idea of pacing and spacing relationships is completely intact. Not only has he told dozens and dozens of stories in the theater but he has also combined countless people to get up on stage and do it no matter how drunk they were or how hungover they were. Or how much of a fight they had with their spouses the night before. His diplomatic skills are off the scale. It was an incredibly comfortable place to make a movie."


More nerve wracking for Hanks was teaming up for the first time with legendary actor Paul Newman, whom Hanks had never met. Newman portrays father figure, and boss, to Hanks, John Rooney. Hanks was more than a little intimidated by his presence.

"I had a moment [during filming] of transcendence because I realized I was looking in Paul Newman's eyes and we are getting into a car," explains Hanks. "He would hate it if he even heard me saying that because he is a very regular guy, extremely down to earth and at times preoccupied with salad dressing or auto racing but that actually adds to the experience of working with him on such a concentrated level."

Working symbiotically, all three Oscar winners came to terms with a very constructive way of shooting. Instead of rehearsing they went over the script quite a bit and talked endlessly about what was needed from each scene. In most cases, says Hanks, this is a better way of performing since sometimes the restrictions of a room can limit how far you can go with a scene as opposed to dealing with a life size set and with a crew.

"You can't be in a small room and pretend you are flying," says Hanks. "It just doesn't work. You have to wait for the time. But there is a way of everybody getting on the same page and understanding what the scenes mean and what the relationships have to be so that when you are there on the day and the crew is getting paid for it and the sun is going down everybody knows what they are going to do so you don't show up that day and say, 'Well, why am I saying this?' That can be a disaster in the course of making a movie."

In fact, says Hanks, sometimes it's not about what you are saying on screen at all. Sometimes it's about what you show the audiences as opposed to what you tell them.

Tom Hanks stars in ROAD TO PERDITION.

"That happened with Steven Spielberg [on SAVING PRIVATE RYAN] all the time," says Hanks. "There would be pages and pages and pages and he would say, 'Ah no, you guys are just going to walk across the field in silhouette and that tells me everything we need to know.' And I was like, 'You are absolutely right.' That's the great thing that happens in making movies. You don't have to say all this verbiage about your motivations or the plot device or this or that. On CAST AWAY [director] Bob [Zemeckis] was always going on about this, rather than have dialogue between two people in which they say, 'I love you,' it's all done in a look. You just look at them. And Sam does that in spades here in ROAD TO PERDITION."

Calling his experience working on SAVING PRIVATE RYAN as "the most affecting film for me," Hanks says he bonded with the filmmaker and his costars in a way he hadn't before or since.

"It was a group of guys and we ended up sharing a substantial life experience together," says Hanks, "that was not just a part of making a movie but also getting to know each other."

Though Hanks has great admiration for Spielberg and the directors he's worked with, he has very little desire to step back into the role of director himself. Back in 1996 Hanks make a commendable directorial debut with the one hit wonder film THAT THING YOU DO and since he has directed episodes of two HBO miniseries which he also co-produced, FROM THE EARTH TO THE MOON and BAND OF BROTHERS. But the devotion, the time and the amount of work it takes to do another feature film just isn't desirable to the actor.

"It takes a substantial amount out of you," says Hanks. "I am still in my child rearing years (his youngest is 6 years old) and I'd like to be around a little bit more not only physically but also mentally for my family. If you are directing a movie you are never there. You are always thinking about what you are going to have to do."

Tom Hanks and Paul Newman star in ROAD TO PERDITION

Though Hanks still may direct more episodic cable miniseries, he says it's no way near the commitment you have to give to feature films.

"It's not the same amount of risk," says Hanks. "As soon as you say you are going to direct a motion picture the risks just keep piling up. It just goes on and on and on and it never lets up until the movie comes out. I am enjoying being an actor right now."

Relishing the great effect acting has had on his life, Hanks notes, "It's the most wonderful life if you can make it stick." He looks forward to working with new actors and directors every time a new movie season rolls by, with each film he works on giving him something that he admits he will never forget. He is reminded of each of those adventures even when he is not working.

"I got pictures all around my house," reveals Hanks. "And I can remember the movies that I was making when we took the pictures more than the occasion that we took the picture."

Hanks, a strong advocate of the industry, is quick to mention how easy it is to underestimate the importance of movies. They have been and continue to be an important part of our culture and many have shared life-altering experiences because of the films they've seen, says Hanks.

"Movies have more influence now probably than ever before," explains Hanks. "I have seen movies that have moved me and enlightened me to a whole other way of thinking or some other aspect of the human condition. And you cannot discount that. ROAD TO PERDITION will land in the consciousness of somebody who sees it whether in Davenport, Iowa or Bangkok, Thailand. It's as powerful a medium now as going to church was for people in the 1500s. It has the consequence of affecting people's lives for the good and sometimes for the negative."

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