Tom Hanks strides into the room, hand outstretched. “You look like a journalist!” he exclaims – not the greatest compliment, but one delivered with a grin.
At 57, he is discreetly tanned, suavely suited, a bolt of energy. I met him once before, back in 2000 when he was promoting the movie Cast Away. Then, jetlagged and sporting a small moustache, he looked middle-aged and weary. Now, despite recently being diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, he is the model of spruce, slimline movie stardom.
The small talk turns to Doctor Who – of which he has somehow acquired a name as a fan. “Well, I sort of know who Doctor Who is,” he says. “We got our first colour TV in 1968, and in California that meant all these extra channels nobody watched, filled with trippy Japanese cartoons – and Doctor Who! And we always watched because the English video just looked so weird, and you had the guy with the big red hair and the bow tie.”
Jon Pertwee? “Yeah, I think so. And everyone talked in English accents and there were these big salt and pepper shaker robots and we’d look at each other and say ‘Can you make any sense out of this?’ But it was… intriguing. And that’s the root of my affection.”
This is typical Hanks conversation, his answers brisk, animated nuggets. And about now you realise that for all his fame, the roles in the likes of Forrest Gump and Saving Private Ryan, and his status as the closest thing modern Hollywood has to James Stewart, it’s been a while since Hanks was so visible.
Earlier this autumn came his most high-profile part in years, the eponymous character in piracy drama Captain Phillips. Now he’s here to discuss another role, as the fabled character of Walt Disney. The film is Saving Mr Banks, a glimpse into the making of Mary Poppins, in which Hanks’s Disney does battle with the ferocious PL Travers (played by Emma Thompson), the literary creator of the original super nanny.
The film itself was made by the modern Disney – Hanks admits that the studio bought the script in part to stop anyone else doing it. And the request that Hanks play the part of Walt came from the very top of Disney’s corporate tree. “Listen, I knew why they wanted me,” he says. “I get it. I’m a recognisable commodity. I don’t strike fear into many people’s hearts.”
His clout allows him a certain candour. Put it to him that Disney have a name in showbusiness for control freakery and he agrees: “Oh sure, they’re savvy about their bajillion-dollar brand.”
Yet he bats away the idea of interference from on high while making the film, and his eyes narrow at the suggestion that while his Walt Disney isn’t quite a saint, neither is he the tyrant some allege. “It’s not warts and all – but there are warts. Look, we know Walt had a temper – and if you’re asking, ‘Did this guy pay people as little as possible?’ Then, yes.
“But he was also a fabulous artist and a brilliant industrialist, and I’ve seen home movies, I’ve heard hours of interviews with people who knew him, and this is really not far from the guy. If it had simply been happy Uncle Walt, I wouldn’t have done it – but it had just enough of his bona fide behaviour.”
He says that for the American kids of his generation, “there was no one more ubiquitous in our lives than Walt Disney”. His jovial presence was a fixture on TV; a trip to Disneyland every child’s dream holiday.
Hanks, the son of a cook and a hospital worker from California, has called his family “fractured”. For him, his two brothers and sister, it’s not hard to imagine the regular viewings of Disney cartoons (and Doctor Who) as a refuge of sorts. At 12, he finally got to go to Disneyland: “It was… well, have you ever had an experience that is just in no way any kind of disappointment?”
Hanks is a particularly American icon, of course – and for many viewers, a selling point of Saving Mr Banks will be the clash between his apple-pie good cheer and the arch-Britishness of Poppins (despite the deeply proper Travers having grown up in Australia).
Hanks himself concedes that over the years he’s developed a subtle Anglophilia. Doctor Who aside, there’s a fondness for Aston Villa – he says at first he simply liked the name – and it had a hand in an unexpectedly influential moment in British cinema.
It comes up as we’re discussing Saving Mr Banks’s portrait of the eternal tension between writers and movie-makers. Hanks has been involved with several adaptations – including producing the British film Starter for Ten, adapted from novelist David Nicholls’s tale of young love and University Challenge. At the mention of it, his eyes light up. “With every British actor who has since become a huge star! We had James McAvoy, Benedict Cumberbatch in his first or second movie, Rebecca Hall – it was definitely her first movie. We even had that guy – James Corden? Right. It was like a Murderers’ Row of British up-and- comers. Unfortunately, they hadn’t quite upped and come because we didn’t do much business, but there were scenes in there that were just, dare I say it, perfect. You know, in America they wanted to call it ‘Brian Knows Everything’?”
But Nicholls’s novel wasn’t Hanks’s first experience of University Challenge. “Oh no, I was a fan of it before then. Whenever I came to Britain I always tried to catch it. Mastermind too.”
Despite his everyman persona, Hanks took to acting young, a student of theatre who moved into films as soon as he was able. His life in front of the camera has long co-existed with a second career as a producer of movies and TV. Yet Saving Mr Banks is the first time he’s made a film about making films – a genre audiences are fascinated by, but which leaves him cold. “They’re all fake. But this is about the meetings in the rooms, which is often where the real excitement is.”
Which of his own films would have provided the best material for a “making of ”? “Well, Forrest Gump was a monster. We never, ever felt we were on top of it. We had huge problems with the philosophy of the story, and then we’d be shooting for 27 days straight, spending our days off on planes so that Forrest could run somewhere. And at one point I said to Bob [director Robert Zemeckis], ‘Do you honestly think anyone is going to give a s**t?’”
Gump proved one of Hanks’s defining roles through a period when he was America’s favour- ite leading man. But if the last few years have seen him slip a little into the background, now the roles are getting interesting again. For the father of four kids from two marriages – the eldest, Colin, is also an actor – flawed authority figures now seem a speciality.
“But isn’t it all about the flaws?” he says. “Otherwise we’re all just superheroes and cops that can’t be killed. The scars are where it gets interesting. You get to 57 and realise the trick is to say ‘OK, I’m smarter now than I was two weeks ago – I’ll settle for that.’”