Charlie Wilson's War - Tom Hanks interview
Interview by Rob Carnevale
TOM Hanks talks about the appeal of Charlie Wilson’s War, meeting the Texas congressman in real-life and having a little bit of fun with his on-screen image. He also discusses why the film should be a fascinating piece for years to come.
He also talks about his favourite political films, the actors he used to look up to, and working with his son, Colin, on The Great Buck Howard.
Q. As both producer and star of Charlie Wilson’s War, what was it that you responded to about the character?
Tom Hanks: I responded to it because I couldn’t believe that this had ever happened. In reading the book, I thought that this was a serious piece of journalism that describes something that’s almost surrealistic hilarious, as well as historically accurate. I like stories but I like real stories even better. I think you can make a fascinating movie about building a bridge across the Mississippi river if you do it right. And to have this be about something as vivid as it was… I remember very well President Carter just as serious as a heart attack coming onto TV and saying: “The Soviet Union has just invaded Afghanistan.” It was like [gasps]. Everybody said: “Well, something’s going to happen now.” And then nothing seemed to happen for a long time until about six or seven years later when they all went away. As far as being a producer goes, or an actor in something, I’m in a very luxurious position of only doing stuff that I think is fascinating. I thought this was fascinating.
Q. What was it like meeting Charlie Wilson for the first time?
Tom Hanks: Intimidating off the bat. He’s much taller than I am – than anybody is. He’s like 6ft 4ins and he’s got this incredibly deep voice and this incredibly square jaw, although he does wear braces and he does wear purple cowboy boots. So, it’s an odd kind of mixture. But he was so thoroughly charming that every one of the women in the office said: “Oh, oh, he’s got something…” I said: “Well, can you please explain to me what it is so I can have a little bit of it..” And they looked back at me and said: “Oh Tom, you’re never going to have this…” [Laughs] So, I said I’d fake it when the time comes.
The thing that is instantly attractive about Charlie – and I’d say about Gust [Avrakotos] as well, even though Gust isn’t with us anymore – is that he’s not hypocritical about who he is or what he did. When it camr to that scene in the hot tub I said: “Well, did you do the drugs Charlie, when you were in Vegas?” And he replied: “Well, here’s how it is Tom. I saw white powder on red fingernails passing in front of my face but I don’t recall ever breathing in.” So his willingness to let us assume the worst of it as well as depict the worst of him is the least of his concerns. He feels as though he and Gust and [Joanna] Herring did something really great.
George Crile started work on his book long before 9/11 happened. In which case it’s almost like an anecdotal story of look how curious things can happen in the political world when no one is paying attention to what you are doing, which is probably the best way politica works. I think the worst thing you can do is have a microphone and say: “Here’s what I’m going to try and do with my programme.” Then everyone is going to tear you to pieces. The expos-fact of 9/11 in which guys trained in Miami, Florida, in how to crash planes into buildings definitely puts a perspective on it that I think is going to… if you waited another 10 years you’d be able to add probably another coda onto it from Charlie about what went wrong and what went right. It seems as though about every 10 years the place is turned re-upside down again and something else is going to be happening.
Charlie is no fool in wanting to talk about only the massive great heroic thing that we did and how we changed the world for the better. I mean, the quote at the end of the movie is Charlie’s quote: “We changed the world, we did these great things but when we f**ked up the end game.”
Alas, movies have this kind of [tendency] to have this kind of “and they lived happily ever after” structure to them, whether you’re Charlie Wilson or the last man on Earth evidently [in reference to I Am Legend]. What’s great about non-fiction films even though we make a fake movie about it is that it gives the audience the knowledge of the fourth and the fifth act that goes on afterwards. It means that in an odd way, if we’ve done it right – both Mike [Nichols] and myself – we’ve made a movie that’s going to be fascinating to watch for the next 40 years because much like Gone With The Wind it happened in this very specific, narrow piece of time of about 10 years that will always be the same, even though it’s still open to interpretation. But what they did is always going to be this odd but fascinating piece of huxterism and patriotism.
Q. Did you take Charlie’s slightly euphamistic explanation of drug taking as the way to play it yourself as an actor? Because I think audiences might have been uncomfortable with Tom Hanks snorting cocaine…
Tom Hanks: If Charlie had snorted coke in the first act of our movie, the final act would have had him shooting a machine gun saying [mimics Al Pacino in Scarface]: “Say hello to my little friend!” That’s the law of doing coke in movies. But Charlie himself said: “I drank Chivas Regal [whisky] like it was water all day long.” That meant he didn’t take little sips, he took chugs of it throughout the course of the day and then would get on with work. And he never went to bed sober, and that included when he was staying up til 3am reading history. For some reason, that kind of life is kind of quirky [to audiences], that’s a salty little character. If you’d shown him doing all the other things, which he even says, “Tom, if you could smoke it, snort it, drink it…”, he did everything but shoot it. And he’s quite open about that. He just made sure he did it out of the jurisdiction of the federal American criminal justice system.
Q. He also didn’t go to bed alone… Having unbanked the sexier side of Tom Hanks in this, will we ever be able to damn you up again?
Tom Hanks: Well, you know, every job requires a certain riding of a horse [laughs]. You know what’s interesting is that we don’t really show anything. It’s not a horror movie, you don’t need to see me frolicking in bed – although the crew wouldn’t have minded that during the Emily Blunt scene! It’s a bit like the Fonzy rule: “If you say he’s the toughest guy in Milwaukee…” then everybody is afraid of him. We just say that Charlie is a womaniser and we put him on the balcony trying to make his moves on Emily Blunt and, boom, womaniser, just like that. It’s a quality of Mr Sorkin’s screenwriting that the womanising aspects of Charlie come off as strong as they do without really seeing much of anything.
Q. Would Charlie Wilson survive today as a politician starting out?
Tom Hanks: I think he would win in a landslide because he would tell the truth about his behaviour. It would make a nice change. People would react to him in a way that, “yep, it’s true, I drink a lot and I’m a womaniser but let me tell you what I’m going to do, for healthcare, for the veterans, for the road bills…” I think it would be very, very attractive as opposed to the people that [mimics an over-earnest voice] get up and talk about the issues that are facing the American family today: “The American family knows that the family is more important to the American family than any other family issue…”
Q. But would journalists cut him any slack?
Tom Hanks: I don’t know. No, but I don’t think it would matter. I think that there’s such a cacophony out there about the way it all comes down that all becomes so much bullshit. I don’t think that anybody really talks about things anymore from a non-editorial point of view.
Q. What’s your favourite political film and why?
Tom Hanks: I’d say All The President’s Men. It just seemed like it was a documentary about what went on. It was also about guys on the phone asking questions. Usually they’re crusading reporters or kicking down doors at slums, or something like that, when in reality crusading reporters sit at their desks and make a lot of phone calls [laughs]. I loved in that movie that you never saw the person on the other end of the phone. You just heard this disembodied voice of John Mitchell or whoever it was. They didn’t even get to the end of it. At the end of the movie they were still continuing to write the story that eventually brought down the President of the United States. When you combine that with Dustin Hoffman, Robert Redford and Jason Robards, I felt as though that’s how it really was. Now, if you show a reporter in a movie he almost always has to have a red suit with a cape underneath his outfit and go save the world.
Q. You said that you’re in the luxurious position of just being able to take projects that fascinate you. Do you find there are still as many projects out there that do?
Tom Hanks: Yeah. As a producer, I can actually pursue more things because I don’t actually have to be in them. I am 51-years-old and everyone knows that. I’ve been around long enough so that people can say: “Oh, I’ve watched Big many times because mum and dad would be going out and they’d say, we’ve got Big and you can order pizza!” I was the nation’s babysitter for a while. But there’s still great things out there and in a lot of ways they’re low budget movies now. If you make a movie that’s about sitting in a room or driving in a car talking, you can do that a little bit easier than taking on an army of robots. So, I’m completely thrilled with the amount of stuff that comes down the pipe that I think would make a good story.
Q. Were you ever discouraged from acting when you started out?
Tom Hanks: No. When you begin, you can’t believe you have the job so you throw yourself wholeheartedly into it thinking there’s all kinds of great stuff you can do with the role. But then it turns out it’s not that good a movie, or it’s not really what you thought it was… I just couldn’t believe I was getting the opportunity to have the gig in the first place and tried to expand my horizon. I think the only smart thing I did was say no to some things that just would have been repeating. Although, if you look at some films in my chequered career I’ve probably repeated myself for the better part of seven years. But you just learn how to only do things that you really want to, and that you actually can bring something to.
Q. Was there anyone that you modelled yourself on, or thought you might like to emulate in their career?
Tom Hanks: Well, I’ve previously mentioned Jason Robards and he was one of the guys. I used to go into the library in college and listen to the recordings of Jason Robard’s O’Neill monologues on CBS Records. He’d have a monologue from The Iceman Cometh or A Long Day’s Journey Into Night. So, when I made a movie with Jason [Philadelphia] I said: “I’ve got to tell you, you got me through a lot of hours in college…” And he said: “What are you talking about kid?” So I explained about the CBS records and he replied: “Oh those things! We recorded them at about 10am on a Monday!” [laughs] If you’re an actor you realise you’re not at your peak then.
So, he and Robert Duvall were my favourite actors. I mean I’d come to all the big movie stars: I loved James Bond films and Steve McQueen and all that kind of stuff, but the guys who were up there doing things that I couldn’t quite recognise stayed with me. I thought: “I’d like to try and sound like him or be as mysterious as him.” It was movies like Joe Kidd or Hang Em High, or A Thousand Clowns with Robards. I thought these weren’t things like Hollywood movies; these were things that you sit down and watch.
Q. How did you enjoy working with Philip Seymour Hoffman?
Tom Hanks: He’s actually got a thing like Jason Robards. When I met Jason Robards I thought he might be a cranky guy, like: “Get out of my way, kid!” And I thought Phil was going to be the same thing: “Oh yeah, hi Tom…” But he wasn’t anything like that [laughs]. He was just a guy getting a cup of coffee and saying: “Hey, how you doing?”
Q. You’ve worked with your son, Colin, again on The Great Buck Howard and you’re playing a father and son. Can you tell us about that?
Tom Hanks: Yeah, Colin found a Sean McGinly script called The Great Buck Howard, which Sean directed, and it’s going to premiere at Sundance. John Malkovich plays the great Buck Howard. I read it and said: “Oh, there’s a role for a cranky father in this! I’ll do it.” And Colin said: “Dad just wants to do this so that Dad can yell at me over a breakfast table.” That’s basically what we do. John is phenomenal in it; it’s a great, delightful little movie.
Q. Can you see yourself in him when you’re watching him?
Tom Hanks: No I don’t’ I see this professional that I know and this friend of mine that’s in a movie. But I’ve felt that ever since I saw him do the High School plays. He went to a school where he was doing plays like The Dining Room and Hitchhikers’ Guide To The Galaxy. He played Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing. He was 14, 15, 16-years-old and he was just a guy in a school play but I was sitting there and saying: “Jeez, he can do this if he wants to. Oh my, holy cow.” And now he’s doing it and he’s more successful at his age than I was at the age of 30. He’s a good guy and a good friend.