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Last year, when Tom Hanks was just gearing up to play Walt Disney for the new film "Saving Mr. Banks," I sat down to talk to him about "Cloud Atlas," which was just coming out. He did a ton of press for that film, no doubt because he knew just how hard it was going to be to sell to anyone, and he seemed enormously proud of the picture in every conversation about it.
That's not to say he's any less proud of "Saving Mr. Banks" or "Captain Phillips," the two films he has in release this fall, and I have no doubt he will be nominated for one or the other for a whole shelf-full of new awards to go with all the other awards he's already racked up over the years. His publicity schedule has been a lot less demanding this year, though, as part of a very specific strategy. Hanks didn't do any online interviews for either of the movies on-camera, and at the very last moment, I got a call saying that he was willing to sit down with a group of five reporters for a half-hour to talk about "Banks" and I was one of the five that he had approved.
Over the years, I've had many opportunities to meet Hanks and to watch him work. By far, the most unfettered access I had to him was during the production of "The Green Mile." Frank Darabont was enormously generous during that film, allowing me to hang out and watch that incredible ensemble work together on many occasions. It was there that I got a chance to know Michael Clarke Duncan a bit, and it was there that I got to observe Tom Hanks at work every day for weeks.
One of the things that was impossible to miss was just how much Hanks would go out of his way to make sure that anyone who approached him as a fan walked away feeling like they'd been treated better than they could have expected. I saw someone introduce a young girl to him who only seemed to have "Bosom Buddies" questions for him, and Hanks didn't flinch. He told her some very sweet and funny stories about Peter Scolari, he talked about the hassles of wearing drag, and he never once treated her or "Bosom Buddies" with anything less than the utmost respect. At that point, he was a multiple Academy Award winner and one of the biggest movie stars on the planet, and there wasn't even a hint of attitude in the way he treated anyone I saw interact with him.
Likewise, when we sat down to talk to him a little under two weeks ago, he breezed in, all smiles, shaking hands, settling into the chair that had been set up so that all of us could chat with him. When he noticed that Steve Weintraub from Collider offered a fist-bump instead of a hand shake, Hanks immediately got why and talked about how he thinks we should all just graduate to the Japanese bow anyway and stop passing diseases back and forth by hand. Instead of making Steve feel weird about the gesture, Hanks made him feel at ease, and then jumped right in, saying with a big smile on his face, "Let's talk about movies."
Asked what his first thoughts were when he was offered the part as Walt Disney, Hanks sighed. "I thought, 'Oh, hell.' The burden, you know. Honestly, the responsibility. I heard about it first from Tony To. Tony is now head of physical production at Disney, but he and I executive produced and worked on and created 'From The Earth to the Moon,' 'Band of Brothers,' and 'The Pacific.' We had done a lot of stuff. We have lunch every now and again. He says, 'You’ve got to play Walt Disney in this movie we have.' And I said, 'Jeez, who needs that pressure?'"
The great thing about Hanks is that he's a natural born storyteller, so one question can be enough to get him loosened up, and as he starts telling a story, he'll really relax into it. "Then [Disney CEO] Bob Iger called me, which… you know, he even said, 'Look, this is not usually the way this works. I call you and say will you do it?' And I said, 'I haven’t read the screenplay.' So right off the bat it’s like… I know I’ve turned playing real people into a bit of a cottage industry. It’s like, 'Please can I just play a fake guy one of these days?' So I know the work that goes into it. And so the question really was, 'What Walt Disney are we gonna see here?' I was vaguely aware that it was about the making of 'Mary Poppins'. I had read a biography of Walt Disney years and years ago that was very vibrant, and I knew enough of the history of the man to say, 'What’s gonna go down?' Then reading the screenplay… honestly, you can tell if you want to do a movie 12 pages in just because the DNA of the whole story and the whole philosophy of the movie’s all right there. And because it was about this odd creative process and Walt was at the top of his game, when Walt was already the Disneyland guy and, you know, Walt was actually busy building Disney World at the same time, it was a different Walt Disney than I had ever seen."
He continued, "And because it was really Emma’s movie, I just said, 'Okay. All right. I understand what this is.' So now I’ve gotta do the construction work in order to figure out all this other stuff that goes on. They kept saying, 'Well, we want somebody recognizable like you to play somebody recognizable like Walt Disney.' And I said, 'Is that a good thing? I’m not so sure that’s a good thing.' And then when I heard that Paul Giamatti was in it, I was like 'Paul should play Walt. Why not him?' But once I got to page 12, I just said yes and I didn’t even have to have a conversation with John Lee Hancock. I said, 'Come on over. We’ll talk about how we’re gonna do it.' So we just did."
One of the most remarkable parts of "Saving Mr. Banks" is the idea of any movie producers chasing the same book for twenty years, and Hanks was asked if he could imagine staying that focused on that same goal for that long. "There are a lot of people out there that see no reason at all to have their hard work, you know, literature turned into movies. And she hated movies. She hated Walt Disney. She thought it was a low class art form. She had this very specific idea who Mary Poppins was. And the truth is she needed the money, you know? I get that. But how Walt Disney gave up script approval to somebody is astounding to me. As you can see, I think it plays out in the movie realistically. He said once you get script approval we’ll just turn on the charm and we’ll bring her out here and everybody will be fabulous. We’ll show her what a homey atmosphere we have and how we’re all just one big happy family. And, of course, you know it carried no weight."
There's a key sequence near the end of the film that Hanks felt brought the entire film together. "I would love to have been truly privy to whatever that last meeting was, which did happen. I mean, he flew to London instantaneously and what they said to each other is amazing. He might have just said, 'Honey, you’re gonna make a shitload of money.” And that might have been enough to turn it around. But, yeah, it’s hard. It’s hard to get that kind of stuff, particularly if the person doesn’t think it’ll be the coolest thing. You know, I met Elmore Leonard, who writes very different movies than her, and I said, 'Hey now, what do you think about these movies that are made of your books?' And he said just what you said. 'It’s just so hard to make any movie. God bless them just for trying.' That’s a really good attitude to have."