Tom Hanks and John Oliver on Keeping the Faith, Learning From Mistakes, and “Peaking in the ’90s”


Here’s one of those #hottakes the Internet likes so much: Tom Hanks is incredibly charismatic and likable. Or at least that’s the impression left by his hour-long chat with John Oliver at the Tribeca Film Festival Friday, a talk that caught him at the end of the publicity tour for his new film A Hologram For the King (which premiered here Wednesday). “So you’re dead behind the eyes,” Oliver supposed, but Hanks merely requested, of the audience, a reprieve from “the laziest journalistic questions”: “What was it like to blah blah blah blah” and “What was your favorite blah blah blah blah blah.”

“Shit,” Oliver fumed, tossing his questions, though they ultimately agreed that they could find a middle ground, as there are, as Hanks put it, “important economic lessons to be found in Turner & Hooch,.” He then thanked Oliver for getting the “peaked in the ’90s segment” out of the way early.

That said, instead of simply marching through Hanks’ career and rehashing his many successes, Oliver adopted a free-form approach, with more general inquiries and thoughts about creativity and the craft of moviemaking. In fact, when Oliver asked if any specific project best represented his work and his passions, Hanks demurred. “They’re all hard to watch,” he explained. “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, when we shot that.” But he does have a few favorite stories.

“On Apollo 13, Ron Howard, he’s walking around like (cue the spot-on Ron Howard impression) ‘What do we need… Okay, okay, okay, we’ll bring it down here, we’ll go to the a gimbal, we’ll get it on a gimbal, we’ll go over here, and then what should the shot be?’ Kevin Bacon said, ‘Y’know, I was gonna say, the shot should really be a BFCKB right here.’ ‘BFCKB, what’s that?’ “Uh, that’s a Big Fuckin’ Close-up of Kevin Bacon.’

“God bless Kevin Bacon, because I use it now all the time,” Hanks laughed. “‘Hey, hey, Steven? BFCTH?'”

Apollo 13 also fell during a turning point for the actor, who had spent his 30s doing what he animatedly describes as “an awful lot of movies about the goofy-headed guy who can’t get laid, but wants to get laid, and can’t get laid, and finally gets laid, and it’s good, but then he stops getting laid… But by that time in my life I got married, I had kids, and I had experienced a life of, y’know, difficulties and bitter compromise, and I must say that realized then that I had to start saying a very, very difficult word to people, which was no. The money is great, the people are talented, you’ll get to shoot it in France, the kids’ll get to come over, but if there’s not anything there that stirs some kind of bona fide fire, you have to say no… Saying yes, then you’ll just work. But saying no means you made the choice of the type of story you wanna tell and the type of character you wanna play.”

“What do you think you’ve learned the most from,” Oliver asked. “Good experiences or bad experiences?”

“Bad experience kicks good experience’s ass every time,” Hanks immediately replied. “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, a bad haircut is a bad haircut for two hours, it goes on and on, and it never changes. So if it works – look, this is what goes into every movie ever made: Hard work, blind luck, serendipity, bitter compromise, frustration, crazy blessings from the goddess Kalika who smiles on you, and this great X-factor of well, is anybody gonna care at all?

“Probably the most heralded movie I ever did was Forrest Gump. Bob [Zemekis] and I were sitting on the park bench in Savannah, Georgia, and I said to Bob, ‘Look, we’re shooting like twenty pages of dialogue, there’s no way I can have this down in the day in a half we’ll be here,’ and Bob said, ‘Oh, we’ll just put the lines on cue cards, we’ll have cameras moving around like it’s I Love Lucy for God’s sake,’ and that’s what we did, and eventually, two rehearsals in I had the dialogue. But we were sitting there, trying to figure out what we’re gonna do next, and one day I said, ‘Bob, is anybody gonna care about this guy sitting on the park bench?’ And he said, ‘I don’t know Tom, it’s a minefield, 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.’ And when it doesn’t work, you can go back and say, ‘Okay, 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 – but studying them, once you’ve inured yourself to the fact that the movie disappears 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.”

When you’ve got an all-star moderator like Oliver (who chose primarily to kibitz, asking solid questions and occasionally throwing in a funny reaction, but mostly deferring to the man of the hour), it’s always a bummer to go to the obligatory audience questions, and though Hanks got no “what was it like”s or “what are your favorite”s, he did get one of the most reliable film fest Q&A questions: what is your advice for young actors, and how did you keep going when it got rough? And here’s what a champ Tom Hanks is: he took even that chestnut and made his answer inspiring.

There are two types of young actors, Hanks explained: “Those who can persevere and artificially produce 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’ve got this other half that can hang on. All you have to do, if you can, you can just hang. On. Because you know what? Somebody has got a job, for maybe somebody just like you. And they will call you, and they’ll 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 you do finally go out, lose money on the deal, 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 be so perfect for Zorro’s mom.’

“And you know what? You’ve wanted to give up countless times since you’ve got out of college, you wanna drive a truck for Coca-Cola and have steady employment, you didn’t, 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 can somehow manage to keep creative… you’ve just gotta have that degree of perseverance and faith.”

The Tribeca Film Festival runs through Sunday.