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Tom Hanks plays the everyman, but he's no ordinary actor

SAN FRANCISCO — Tom Hanks is all smiles as he strolls into the meeting room at the Four Seasons Hotel. It’s not unusual. Hanks has built a reputation as one of nicest and hardest-working actors in Hollywood.
Tom Hanks.jpg
Tom Hanks plays another everyman role in Captain Phillips, a real-life cargo ship captain whose vessel was taken over by Somali pirates.

SAN FRANCISCO — Tom Hanks is all smiles as he strolls into the meeting room at the Four Seasons Hotel. It’s not unusual. Hanks has built a reputation as one of nicest and hardest-working actors in Hollywood.

This is the first day of a three-week publicity blitz for his latest film, Captain Phillips, which will take him across the U.S. and abroad. Later this year, he will make a similar tour for Saving Mr. Banks, which will keep him so busy that he doesn’t have another acting job on the schedule this year.

Dressed entirely in black, his hair is cut short, with only a few strands of grey along his neck giving away that he’s 57 years old.

It would seem logical that an actor who has won two Oscars would pick his next job at his leisure. That’s not the case for Hanks, who looks at many factors — the writing, interest by the studio, what director or other actors involved — when deciding what he will do next. It’s not that he’s picky, but Hanks doesn’t want to put his time and energy into a project that may never get made.

“You don’t go to the harbour and get on a boat that’s not going out to sea,” Hanks said.

That analogy might have been spawned by all of the water work he did while filming Captain Phillips. The film, opening Friday, is based on the true story of the attack in 2009 on a cargo ship by a group of Somali pirates, the first such assault on an American ship in two centuries.

As Hanks has done in so many films — from Saving Private Ryan to Cast Away — he takes on the role of a man who seems to be living an ordinary life but is pushed to do amazing things because of outside circumstances.

Director Paul Greengrass says no one is better at playing “the ordinary man” than Hanks. That Hanks had been cast to play Phillips was one of the major reasons Greengrass signed on to direct.

“He’s not playing some superhero. He’s not playing some guy with special powers. He’s just a regular guy. Tom Hanks is the greatest actor for playing the everyman. Tom proves yet again — although it really didn’t need proving again — that he’s one of the great, great American actors of all time because he embodies the best of us,” Greengrass said.

Captain Phillips is Hanks’s latest role based on a real character. He had such parts in Apollo 13 and Charlie Wilson’s War. Saving Mr. Banks has him playing Walt Disney.

Hanks sarcastically reacts to the mention of all the reality-based roles, saying: “I’ve got to get out of this line of work and start playing fake people.”

Although both of his upcoming roles are reality based, Hanks’s approach to each was different.

“Phillips is alive and Walt Disney is dead,” Hanks said. “Phillips is a concrete source of everything: what he thought, what he did, what he’s like, what the job is like. With Walt Disney, we are dealing with some degree of iconography. In one, I’m playing a historic figure in a very specific setting in which the scenes are specifically constructed. With Richard Phillips, we are trying to capture the essence of what was going on in his head.”

He calls his portrayal of Disney “a classical rendering” compared to his “emotional rendering” of Phillips.

Hanks sat down with Phillips twice — along with reading his book — to size up the man. What struck him the most was the sense of humour Phillips has. Hanks is convinced that it was the one factor that helped Phillips survive the ordeal.

“He’s a very happy-go-lucky guy. I would describe him as almost jolly. He’s funny, bemused by everything,” Hanks said. “But when he’s on the ship it’s all deadly serious. His wife even told me that she doesn’t visit him anymore when he’s on ship because he’s all business.

“We tend to think merchant mariners are going to be cigar-chomping guys, but Rich is an accomplished professional. He earned this job, which is a bitch of a job.”

Much of the filming was done off the coast of Malta, an experience Hanks found physically challenging. He’s no stranger to uncomfortable shooting environments, having spent hours in an airplane used to replicate zero gravity while filming Apollo 13.

Asked if he ever thought — while studying theatre at Chabot College in Hayward, Calif., or California State University, Sacramento — that having an acting career would mean stomach-churning events, Hanks says he’s never looked at any such requirements as a negative. He recalls how the first time he had an acting scene outdoors — in Splash — that he thought it was the coolest thing to go to work in a Speedo and a T-shirt.

Hanks has played mostly dramatic roles in recent years. During the early part of his career, he leaned toward comedy with movies such as The ’Burbs, Turner & Hooch and Dragnet. Those days, Hanks laments, are sadly over because the majority of full-blown comedies today feature young casts doing outrageous things. He feels like he’s reached an age — unless Woody Allen calls — where comedy is behind him. His main comedy outlet now is the Toy Story movies.

And he’s OK with the dramatic direction.

“Comedies are hard because they have to be funny. And if they aren’t funny, there is no substitute for that,” Hanks said. “Look, I’ve done enough. I’m 57. I don’t sit around thinking, ‘I’d love to make a comedy about coal miners.’ I don’t think that way. I just see what comes down the pike and see if I can figure it out or not.”