Feature by: Jack Foley
FOR Oscar-winning actor, Tom Hanks, the decision to appear in
a remake of a classic Ealing comedy may seem like an odd choice,
particularly as he hasn’t even seen the original.
But The Ladykillers marked the realisation of a long-held ambition
to work with Joel and Ethan Coen, as well as to appear as the
gloriously named criminal mastermind, Goldthwait Higginson Dorr.
"That’s exactly how it came to me. It was ‘the
Coens are interested in doing the Ladykillers..’ ‘The
Coens? Oh, OK, say that I’m dropping by...." he revealed,
during his appearance at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.
"The Coen Brothers have been these guys, like John Cassavetes
or Woody Allen, that every time a movie comes out, you want to
see the latest Coen brothers movie, whether you understand it
or not," he laughs.
"They are responsible for movies where I cannot predict
what is going to happen next, and I don’t know how they
"I watched O Brother Where Art Thou? and it felt like I
was on fire there, it just went so many different places, and
Fargo is one of the best movies ever made. So is Blood Simple,
and so is Raising Arizona, so these guys are capable of putting
together a narrative that is a complete surprise, that is totally
unpredictable. They are part of the radar but they are under the
Needless to say, Hanks threw himself into the role of Goldthwait
Higginson Dorr, the college professor turned thief, who plans
to steal the takings from a riverboat casino by tunnelling into
its counting office from the root cellar of an unsuspecting old
lady (Irma P Hall), who thinks his crew are practising church
The challenge, for Hanks, proved both physical and verbal, and
was tremendously good fun.
"If I’d read it, and three weeks later we were shooting,
it would have been a disaster, but they [the Coens] were busy
doing Intolerable Cruelty
at the time, so I had as much as a year, I can’t remember
exactly, for it to sit there and simmer in the pot.
"They wrote him as this kind of petrified southern gentleman,
kind of thing, you know - without a doubt, a guy with only two
suits and a watch that probably doesn’t even work,"
"And there’s the verbosity of this Edgar Allan Poe-like
dialogue which required going to some place that was almost old
"Actually, I think everything he says is a lie. There’s
a grain of truth, but when he says he’s on sabbatical from
the university where he teaches, I think he’s been on sabbatical
for about 17 years, ever since he got stuck in an inappropriate
sexual situation with one of his students!
"So you have to start building
on that, and it had to be from Mississippi and that just dictates
a lot of work you have to do. And the way he talks, he never hesitates,
he is never lost for words, and the thing has to be like gas from
a pump; once it starts going, it just has to just roll along."
Hanks also maintains that the fact he had not seen the original
version of The Ladykillers, which starred Alec Guinness in the
lead role, actually worked to his advantage, making it feel less
of a remake to him.
"Being completely oblivious to the original made it possible
for me to see it as simply a Coen brothers movie. I knew it existed,
of course. But kind of like the way that you know that certain
Charlie Chaplin films existed," he explained.
"I don’t know the particulars of it, I’ve seen
a couple of stills from it, and that’s it. Like, for example,
when the brothers came, and said ‘what would you think about
having some teeth?’ If I’d seen the original, I would
have said ‘no, no you can’t, because Alec Guinness
did teeth..’ But I had no concept of teeth or no teeth."
The Ladykillers marks the first time Hanks has returned to laugh-out-loud
comedy in almost a decade and it is clear that he is having a
blast. Yet, he maintains that his career is not following any
pre-planned path, and dismissed suggestions that he liked to sit
at home and decide it was time to do something different.
"I don’t understand how to work that way. It would
be artificial, trying to steer your career in a certain way, and
that would be very inorganic, and would probably make for a crappy
"I don’t know how to do it other than believing 100
per cent in what we are talking," he maintained.
"Even in Road
to Perdition, or something like that, it can’t be ‘hey,
it’s time to go off and completely change the image...’
If you try to go off, and completely change the image, then you
could do anything - play a woman, play Superman, do stuff like
that. There’s just nothing to be had from it."
So what does Hanks find easier - playing nice guys or villains?
"It’s easier to play knuckle heads and that’s
what this guy is - he’s just a knuckle head," he laughs.
"But really, there is no difference, every role requires
the same amount of make believe and faith in the process, and
I don’t say yes to something unless I have an instinctive
knowledge of what it is I am going to have to do in order to get
"In this case, there was a huge amount of verbiage that
went on, and massive amounts of check list stuff - you know, he’s
going to have to have a dialect, he’s going to have to be
able to rattle this stuff off.
"But nice guys, bad guys? I try to play somebody who just
believes in what they are saying more than anything else. I play
people with confidence, whether they are trying to kill an old
lady or not, they still are convinced they are doing the right
thing, and this is the only way to get things done."