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The Ladykillers - It’s easier to play knuckle heads and that’s what this guy is - he’s just a knuckle head

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 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. They are part of the radar but they are under the radar."

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 music players.

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," he laughs.

"And there’s the 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, 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 movie.

"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 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."

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