You hear Tom Hanks a way off. Exhorting assistants, taking calls and bestowing greetings, good cheer and Californian optimism on all he encounters. “Hey, let’s do that… Oh, great!… That’s right, we must!… Sure thing.” Hanks’s voice carries through the double doors and into a suite at Claridge’s until, with a final “Who’s this guy again?”, he’s in the room.
Dressed in a preppy jacket and trousers that, incongruously, he appears to have matched with coal miner’s boots, the 59-year-old immediately spots my new notebook on the table and grabs it. “Look at this, will you,” Hanks says, opening it up. “Where is it from, China? Greece?” Actually, it’s from Smiths but I’m so bowled over meeting the star of Forrest Gump, Philadelphia, Captain Phillips and the Toy Story franchise, the winner of two best actor Oscars, seven – count ’em – Emmys and four Golden Globes, that I simply watch as he leafs through the pages. Is one of the biggest stars in the world really checking my questions before I ask them?
Hanks has been in London for a day and he says everyone he’s met wants to talk about Donald Trump and the US elections. He doesn’t get the fuss. “Every four years the circus comes to town. With bears and trapeze artists, and wild people screaming like crazy. But come November 9th, the circus will be pulling out of town.” What if they leave a clown behind and he becomes president? “Pffft…” Hanks shoos away the idea of Trump winning. “I met him at a charity thing 12 years ago.” Did you think then he was a potential president? “No. And I still don’t think that.”
Hanks, a donor to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, would appear to be a classic Hollywood liberal, but maybe not. He tells me, “Ronald Reagan was supposed to be a very dangerous cowboy. It turned out that Reagan said some really smart things and did some really great things.”
When Trump suggests building walls on the Mexican border, doesn’t Hanks fear this time we really are in the age of dangerous cowboys? “There are certainly always reasons to fear the mob,” he says. “But do you know what? The mob is only about 28% of us and they are going to remain 28% of us. I fear the litter the mob leaves behind on my street more than I fear the mob.”
In his new film, A Hologram for the King, Hanks plays Alan Clay, an executive in midlife meltdown attempting to sell a hologram-based IT system to the King of Saudi Arabia. As usual, Hanks is an American everyman given the chance to redeem himself. Less usually, he finds that redemption in the arms of a Muslim woman doctor.
With all the anti-Muslim feeling in America right now, is A Hologram for the King partly redressing the balance? “Well, I think my job is to steer away from stereotypes,” he says. “Ten years ago, we shot some of Charlie Wilson’s War in Morocco. I had never been to a Muslim nation before. I was a white, western American and I assumed that every time the muezzin called the faithful to prayer, everybody shut down and went to their local mosque. Some did but really there was no change whatsoever. A huge stereotype was busted just like that.”
There’s also an extended, and arguably courageous, post-snorkelling sex scene with Hanks and 49-year-old British actress Sarita Choudhury. “Not everybody looks like a layout in a lingerie ad,” says Hanks. “But we weren’t worried about it. We embraced the fact that, when it gets down to it, you’re all sweaty and damp. So we end up being fleshy, but it’s about the tactile pleasures of it as opposed to the purely visual ones. You can almost smell the pleasure. The first time I saw it, I was, ‘Oh, dear God, let’s not scare the children! Let’s not show that!’ But it ended up being beautiful in the way of a Rubens painting.”
Few naked women would appreciate an allusion to Rubens, the Low Countries master of the big bottom. But Hanks deals with this thought as he does with most negativity – he brushes it aside, exclaiming, “Sarita is one of the most enchanting creatures you will ever come across.”
Hanks’s Clay is the latest of several ordinary characters under extraordinary pressure that he’s portrayed, stretching back through Richard Phillips in Captain Phillips, Chuck Noland in Cast Away and Captain John Miller in Saving Private Ryan. But how can an actor worth, at one estimate, $350 million still capture the spirit of the common man? “Jeez,” he says, a little put out by this logic. “If that was the case then Bob Dylan shouldn’t be singing any songs any more because he’s got it whipped, right? How can he be making a song about Rubin “Hurricane” Carter if he’s already Bob Dylan?”
When Hanks was on Desert Island Discs earlier this month, he told Kirsty Young of his childhood loneliness. He explains now how the experience affects the choice of films he takes on. What the roles have in common, he says, is “this desire to belong to something bigger than ourselves, otherwise we’re lonely. We all fight the battle of loneliness.”
In the case of Captain Phillips, “it was the burden of the reality of command. Paul [British director Paul Greengrass] kept saying, ‘It’s hard, isn’t it? There’s a bit of King Lear to this, isn’t there?’ And I thought, ‘Paul, what the f *** are you talking about? It’s about pirates that come on board a ship!’ But as we got to it, I said, ‘Oh, OK – I understand what he’s talking about.’”
He hasn’t always been so measured. “In the early days, when I was just starting out and, quite frankly, doing OK, I thought all that mattered was instinct. Instinctively, you thrust in. Instinctively you go, go, go.” So, did you change your mind? “Instincts are what can get you to the time trials, but then after that you’ve got to do the exercises and the warm-ups. You have to ponder greater questions.”
Some actors would have happily settled for the success that Bachelor Party brought but Hanks didn’t. After playing “a succession of guys who were going up and up and searching for happiness”, Hanks decided it wasn’t enough. “I wasn’t going outside of my boundaries because it was just too easy to stay inside.”
It all changed with 1992 baseball drama A League of Their Own. “A big ding went off in my head. It was the first time I’d played a guy who was broken down. He’d f***ed up his career. Apollo 13 was coming up and I was worried that [director] Ron Howard wouldn’t see me as a guy in charge of a spacecraft flying to the Moon. So I said: ‘I don’t want to play pussies any more.’”
The reinvented, non-pussy-playing Hanks won consecutive best actor Oscars for Philadelphia (1993) and Forrest Gump (1994). “We could have made five Forrest Gump movies,” Hanks reveals.
“The studio were saying, ‘Are you insane? Do you have some intense desire not to make money?’ Because they wanted us to develop the second Forrest Gump movie two days after the first one came out, I could be talking to you right now about the version of Forrest Gump that I wrote and directed myself, and that only stars my friends, telling you, ‘You know, I think this is the best of all the Forrest Gump stuff…’”
He pokes fun at Hollywood but Hanks did make all those Toy Story movies. “But they are incredible,” he says. “They regenerate the whole thing. When I finally saw Toy Story 3, I had tears in my eyes! How can I have tears in my eyes, because these poor little toys might get burned at the city dump?”
Like the character he plays in A Hologram for the King (in cinemas from today), work has obliged Hanks to be away from his own family (he has four children by two wives). “It’s part of the job,” he says. “When we made Road to Perdition, I had young kids who were in school and my older son [the actor Colin Hanks] at home, I should have been around to give support. That was four months that I kind of lost, it was out of my control.”
How did you react to that? “I went back after filming and said, ‘Sorry I was gone, let’s pick up right here.’ For four days you’re playing catchup, then on the fifth day everybody realises that we’re here now and we’re going to be OK. But being an actor can be a great boon to the rest of the family, I mean, Fiji for Cast Away!
“I’m lucky,” he says. “I was in charge of offspring at a very early age, so I didn’t have the luxury of being able to get stoned a lot. And I never drank too much. I was never what I call a s**tfaced artist.” Does he regret that? “No, I didn’t think it was more fun to be intoxicated or stoned, I thought it was more fun just to be seeing what was going on. I did my share, but it didn’t become a habit.”
Hanks will turn 60 in July. “I’m on the back nine,” he says. “And I want to play more than another nine. But I’ve never had a problem with getting older in movies.” Do you actively enjoy it? “I accept it. I don’t view it as an obstacle to get over, everybody knows how old I am, they’ve been watching my movies for ever.”
The 60s is a decade when we pay the price for previous indiscretions and Hanks already has type 2 diabetes, which he blames on a bad diet in his 30s and 40s. “I’m part of the lazy American generation that has blindly kept dancing through the party and now finds ourselves with a malady,” he says. “I was heavy. You’ve seen me in movies, you know what I looked like. I was a total idiot. I thought I could avoid it by removing the buns from my cheeseburgers. Well, it takes a little bit more than that. But my doctor says if I can hit a target weight, I will not have type 2 diabetes any more.”
It seems like an ironically ordinary disease for a man who specialises in playing regular guys. “That’s right, an everyman’s aff l ict ion. I’m in Hollywood and I make movies. Some do great, and some don’t. But that doesn’t supersede everything else that goes on in my life. Concerns about your health, your kids, your place in the zeitgeist. You know, the stuff that happens.”