MEETING OF THE MINDS
John Oliver Interrogates Tom Hanks: ‘I Peaked in the ‘90s’
The host of ‘Last Week Tonight’ moderated a discussion with the two-time Oscar-winning actor as part of the ‘Tribeca Talks’ series during the Tribeca Film Festival.
Tom Hanks’s chat with John Oliver Friday night at New York City’s Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC)—part of the Tribeca Film Festival’s “Tribeca Talks – Storytellers” series—was merely the latest stop on a “promotional blitz” for Hologram for the King, his new film based on the book by Dave Eggers and helmed by his Cloud Atlas director Tom Tykwer.
And yet during their nearly hour-long conversation, Hanks’s latest effort wasn’t discussed, or even mentioned, once. Instead, the duo treated audiences to a more wide-ranging discussion that involved the actor describing his professional philosophies, mimicking more than one illustrious former collaborator, and delivering an all-time great anecdote involving a famous co-star.
From the outset, effusive respect could be felt between interviewer and interviewee, with Hanks praising Oliver for being “the only voice left in the public forum [telling us] what we need to know, what we should know. Our lives would be void of outrage, John. And for those people who don’t get HBO, they are void of outrage because they don’t get to see you.” That admiration was reciprocated shortly thereafter, when Oliver opined, “You started your career, obviously, as an actor. Since then you’ve expanded into writing, producing, directing, and being an American treasure.”
Even for such a cozy event, the duo seemed positively thrilled to be in each other’s company, and that excitement set the tone for an ensuing exchange that touched upon a number of Hanks’s finest moments.
The first of those was Turner and Hooch, the 1989 weepie that paired the actor with a large, drooling dog, and whose specific plot Hanks claimed to have forgotten. After subsequently clarifying that his habit of posting Twitter photos of lost items—in particular gloves, shoes and other things separated from their paired partner—involved a desire to anthropomorphize such objects, Hanks took a self-deprecating scalpel to himself, confessing, “I was raised on Disney, and I peaked in the ‘90s.”
That kickstarted a stream-of-consciousness dialogue in which the star acknowledged that he wasn’t fond of the Mouse House’s animated talking-gargoyle redo of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (“Boy, that’s really scraping the bottom of the cartoon barrel”). However, he expressed esteem for Broadway’s Hamilton, which like the HBO miniseries John Adams that he produced, impressed him as a piece of historical fiction that educed stirring drama from genuine events—and in a way that allowed for more than one figure’s opinions and attitudes to be correct (or incorrect) at the same time. As he put it, “We don’t need to editorialize who’s more right out of the Founding Fathers.”
Throughout, Oliver largely confined himself to making witty repostes to Hanks’s declarations—as when the actor revealed that the first movie he ever saw in a theater was 1961’s Scream of Fear (because the film he was supposed to see, 101 Dalmatians, had stopped playing, much to his parents’ ignorance), and Oliver immediately asked, in semi-sarcastic astonishment, “How the fuck did you become an actor?”
The answer, it turned out, was by discovering the joys of the theater—initially at California Community College, and then in numerous productions. The attendant per diem wage he earned was apparently enough to have a young Hanks ecstatically thinking “Come to Papa! Gimme that money!”—a recollection that was aptly accompanied by Oliver making “making it rain” hand gestures.
Still, Hanks said that while saying “yes” to everything in his thirties resulted in great income and even greater trips around the world, he didn’t begin making the sorts of movies he wanted to make—and wanted to see—until he learned to say “no.”
And as he talked about the various projects he’d worked on as a star (Apollo 13), producer (From the Earth to the Moon), and director (That Thing You Do, which remains his all-time favorite because “all we did was laugh”), it was clear that such shrewdness, coupled with a dedication to finding material about which he’s passionate, was the unremarkable key to his continuing success. Or as he explained, when questioned about his role-selecting method: “You just have to love them.”
Perhaps his most perceptive insight came when an audience member raised the issue of nostalgia. After saying “documentaries kick movies’ ass when it comes down to the stuff that’s really going on,” Hanks explicated that his own reason for repeatedly returning to WWII was because of cell phones—or, rather, the 1940s’ lack of those ubiquitous online-connected devices.
While conceding that great movies about the here-and-now are regularly produced, Hanks stated that the existence of cell phones “makes it impossible for you to keep characters apart. Anybody can talk to anybody they want to. These make it impossible for someone to outwardly lie to you, because you can immediately find out whether they’re lying or not. And also, these make it possible for you to know any obscure fact that exists in the world. So therefore what disappears? Distance. Communication becomes instantaneous. And the search for a secret, the search for an answer, becomes...[feigns typing].”
Nonetheless, with Oliver as his jovial guide, Hanks mostly kept his BMCC appearance breezy, replete with impressions of Ron Howard and Robert Zemeckis (the latter, when asked if a Forrest Gump scene was going to work: “I don’t know, Tom. It’s a minefield!”).
And the highlight came early, when Hanks, disclosing that the quality he most prized in a fellow filmmaker was their understanding of a story’s internal logic (“I’m a logic policeman”), recounted a time on Apollo 13 when co-star Kevin Bacon demanded that his logic for a scene be followed by director Howard—namely, by shooting it with a “BFCKB.”
What’s that stand for? “A Big Fucking Close-Up of Kevin Bacon.”
As Hanks said, it’s now foolproof logic he promotes with all his directors.
“God bless Kevin Bacon.”