Compiled by: Martyn Palmer
BEFORE the Coen Brothers started rolling the cameras to capture
Tom Hanks latest screen creation, as the wonderfully named Goldthwait
Higginson Dorr, in The Ladykillers, the actor had a full year
to let the character ‘simmer in the pot’, as he describes
It’s a phrase which Dorr, a southern gentleman, a lover
of the English language and a criminal, would have been proud
of himself. And what’s more, it obviously paid off - Hanks
serves up a feast of a performance, one which, if you’ll
pardon the pun, he obviously enjoyed tucking into.
"Oh he was fun to play," he says.. "He’s
so wordy, so verbose and it’s the kind of language that
you don’t hear too often, but it’s great to be able
to speak those words."
Based on the 1955 Ealing classic, which starred Alec Guinnness
and a young Peter Sellers in one of his first film roles, Hanks
wasn’t interested in doing a re-make, but he was very keen
to fulfil a long-held ambition of working with Joel and Ethan
"It was ‘the Coens are interested in doing the Ladykillers..’,"
recalls Hanks. "‘The Coens? Oh, OK, say that I’m
dropping by....’ That’s what intrigued me."
This interview was conducted during the recent Cannes Film Festival,
where The Ladykillers featured in competition.
Q Is it true that this is your first time in Cannes at
A. Yes it is. I’ve never been here to the festival
Q And what it’s like?
A It’s everything it’s supposed to be. It’s
ridiculously glamorous and sunny..If there is a quintessential
film festival, this is it. I wish I could go see movies, I wish
I didn’t have to sit around and talk about my own. I wish
I could go out there and have a coffee on the beach and then try
and get in and see three movies a day, I think that would be a
be a blast.
Unfortunately, I just get to see one, and I’ve already seen
it (laughs) Not a surprise to be had in it except how they translate
some of the words.
Q Did the Coen Brothers surprise you at all?
A. I thought they would be much more kind of animated
than they were, they are actually these quiet, retiring guys.
I must say they are no different now than the first time I met
them, I just had lunch with Joel.
They don’t erupt, they don’t sink, they don’t
do anything, they are straight as a highway. And it was like that
from the first time we met to talk about Ladykillers. It was like
‘so how do you want to do this?’ and we just started
talking and got on with it. I mean, you think they are bizarre,
you know? (laughs). You think they wear capes, you know, they
have obtuse taste, but they are not like that at all. Ethan always
paces around and says ‘hey man, let’s try this..’
and Joel is always saying ‘well, what we are trying to do
is...’ and that’s it, it never changes.
Q. Have you seen the original Ladykillers yet?
A. No. I haven’t seen it. In fact out of all of
that (Ealing) school, I’ve only seen Kind Hearts and Coronets,
and if someone had come and said ‘would you like to do an
updated version of Kind Hearts and Coronets?’ I wouldn’t
have done it. Just because I would have had no organic way of
approaching it. What am I going to do, do it exactly the same?
Make some strange obtuse changes?
Q. So it was a conscious decision not to see the original?
A. Yeah. And 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. 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 Boys
came - The Boys, I love calling them the Boys - 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.
Q. He uses some remarkably flowery language. Where did
the accent come from?
A. Well, they wrote him as this kind of petrified southern
gentleman kind of thing, but you know, without a doubt, a guy
with only two suits and a watch that probably doesn’t even
work (laughs). And there’s this verbosity of this Edgar
Allan Poe-like dialogue which required going to some place that
was almost old school.
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, if there was one thing that I said it was ‘OK,
I have to do this because it will be demanding of me..’
because of the way he talks, in that he never hesitates, he is
never lost for words, and you just riff so much here, the thing
has to be like gas from a pump, once it starts going it just has
to just roll along. And the Brothers agreed, they were ‘oh
yeah, that’s the way that we saw it too..’
Q. Is it fun, building a
character like that - physically as well as emotionally?
A. Yeah, it was fun because we had a lot of time. If
I’d read it, and three weeks later we were shooting, it
would have been a disaster but they were busy doing Intolerable
Cruelty at the time, so I had as much as a year, I can’t
remember exactly. So it sat there and simmered in the pot. But
yeah, that’s the reason I’m an actor, this is the
great fun of doing this and that in particular.
Q. It’s all very detailed too, the way he talks,
the way he looks, and rather old-fashioned clothes he wears, with
the bow tie, and the cane he carries..
A. Mary Zophres, who did the costumes, slowly layered
this up and I remember we were talking and I just loved everything,
the hand-made suits and hand-made shoes, and we were going to
go with a string tie kind of thing. And I was like ‘no,
I don’t think that’s right..’
A string tie is too much out of it’s time, if he is just
wearing a bow tie, that’s an odd choice. With a string tie,
he’s trying to pretend too hard...But you know, things like
that, it’s all wonderful, that kind of
Q. Is it fair to compare your The Ladykillers to the
A. I think it’s fair in the same way every season
somebody does a Hamlet, and it’s compared to the Hamlet
of the last season and sometimes it’s better and sometimes
it’s just different. And you can’t deny that it’s
based on an original and a lot of movies are like that.
Q. But with the Coen Brothers doing it, you know it’s
going to be a very different film...
A. That’s right. And 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
Q. Were they on your list of directors to work with?
A. The Coen Brothers have been these guys, like John
Cassavetes or Woody Allen, every time a movie comes out you want
to see the latest Coen Brothers movie, whether you understand
it or not (laughs).
Q. You were joking the other day that sometimes you found
their films a little hard to understand...
A. There have been some movies, yeah (laughs). Look,
I was with Barton Fink right up to him standing in that flaming
hallway, and then I wasn’t sure what was going on anymore.
But they are responsible for movies where I cannot predict what
is going to happen next. I don’t know how they did it.
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,
and also they exist in completely...they are part of the radar
but they are under the radar.
Q. It’s it easier to play nice guys or villains?
A. It’s easier to play knuckle heads and that’s
what this guy is - he’s just a knuckle head. 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 there. 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.
Q. But do you sometimes sit at home and think ‘OK,
next time I have to do something different?’
A. No, I don’t understand how to work that way.
It would be an artificial, trying to steer your career in a certain
way, and that would be very inorganic and it would probably make
for a crappy movie. I don’t know how to do it other than
believing 100 per cent in what we are talking.
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...’ Well
if you try to go off, and completely change the image, well then
you could do anything - play a woman, play Superman, do stuff
like that. There’s just nothing to be had from it.