The Making of Tom Hanks: The Transcript

Tom Hanks, what a pleasure to have you here. How are you doing?

I’m all right, Sam. It’s nice to be chatting with you. We’re just kicking off the week-long, “let’s not work until after the 4th of July.”

Am I your last work obligation?

This is not work. This is what we do all the time, you know, down at the office, all we do is lean in each other’s doorway and say, “hey, I read this goofy thing yesterday. I saw this crazy, nutty thing. What do you think of that? Do you have any opinions of it?” That’s all we do. We don’t do any real work at the office. We just compare opinions and then try to decide if it’s gonna be Pizza Thursday or not.

You know, it’s funny you say that because I have read a funny, goofy thing recently, and it is your debut novel, The Making of Another Major Motion Picture.

Masterpiece, you got it. Don’t forget masterpiece in there.

Beautiful correction. It’s called The Making of Another Major Motion Picture Masterpiece.

Yes, yes. Keyword there.

I want to start here because as I understand it, you are someone who wakes up every morning with quote—“stories in my head and questions that I want to ask.” So, as you woke up each day, over these pretty turbulent past few years, what were the stories and the questions that you wanted to work through in this novel?

There is nothing more interesting, and there is no better way to turn a stranger into an acquaintance, than asking them how they do what they do for a living—and why. Even if people hate their jobs, that’s hours of conversation there, man. And when I took on this task, I woke up over the last five or six years trying to figure out what the verbiage, what the more common language is going to be that would somehow communicate this odd way of making a living.

So, the stories that I wanted to tell, when they were focused on writing the book, are not that different from the ones I just wake up with in the generalist, ‘how does anybody get by in this cuckoo world when it’s just one damn thing after another?’ No matter what the theology is or whatever the formula is, they so rarely take into account the basic human condition of wanting to have significance and connection and sincerity and presence. And that’s what I did, and I will say that’s what I do—in preparation to Talk Easy with Sam Fragoso.

You know, the thing that you’re hitting on, about— there’s nothing more interesting than talking to someone about how they do what they do, is basically the premise of this show. So, I want to sit with an early passage in the book that explains how movies are made.

Ok, let me get a copy of the book. (Hanks purchases his book on the iPhone.)

This section comes at the top of page six.

You ready? (Hanks begins to read.)

Making movies is complicated, maddening, highly technical at times, ephemeral and gossamer at others, slow as molasses on a Wednesday, but with a gun-to-the-head deadline on a Friday. Imagine a jet plane, the funds for which were held up by Congress, designed by poets, riveted together by musicians, supervised by executives fresh out of business school, to be piloted by wannabes with attention deficiencies. What are the chances that such an aeroplane is going to soar? There you have the making of a movie, at least as I saw it at the Skunk Works.

What that is, is a description of how a civilian, meaning somebody who has never made a movie before, if they were to visit the set, they would honestly say, “what is going on?” The Skunk Works, of course, is a reference to test facilities where a lot of experimental aircraft were built and crashed. Killing everybody that was on board and dashing the hopes of everybody that had anything to do with the building of it.

As you were reading that, I was thinking about all the films you’ve made over the last 40 years and how it’s a miracle that any of them turned out as well as they did.

You know, it starts at the very beginning. I heard long ago that George Lucas said that all movies are binary. They are either double zeros and they do not work, or they’re zero one and they work. And that divide begins at the inception of the movie in the brain of whoever first comes out with it— hey, you know what I think would make a good movie? And then every step of the way, that is always a coin toss between zero zero and zero one. Everything about it. The movie has made so many different times and you start fresh every single day. I’ve been incredibly fortunate because, you know, look, I’m gonna say, I think I’m probably batting in the high three hundreds.

That’s a hall of famer!

Well, maybe, excuse me, did I say 300? Excuse me. I’m gonna take that back. I’m gonna walk that back. I think I’m batting like 295, and if I have a good enough season, maybe I can get above 300. It’s a huge alliance of collaborations that go into it. And that’s why long-term directors always work with the same people, because they can finish each other’s sentences. They know the type of stuff that they’re going to get. As Bob Zemeckis once said to me when we were sitting on a park bench in Savannah, Georgia, wondering if this story of this goofy guy [Forrest Gump] was gonna mean anything, he just said, ‘We’re walking a minefield, Tom. We’re walking a minefield. We have no idea if we’re sowing the seeds of our own destruction.’ That sounds pessimistic, but actually it’s not. It’s actually incredibly pragmatic to understand that all you can do is follow your instincts and not walk away satisfied with what you have. I think a lot of the days ending up making a movie is you sort of want to upchuck behind the stage door because you don’t think you really nailed it.

Jason Schwartzman and Tom Hanks in Wes Anderson’s latest film, Asteroid City (2023).

Well, I promise that we will get into all of that upchucking in a little bit. But in both this novel of yours and your latest film, Asteroid City, there’s a kind of nesting doll structure at play. And while the book and the movie are certainly different, they both seem bound by this love of storytelling, which I think for you begins like most things at the beginning.

You’re born in Concord, California, 1956. By the time you’re five years old, your parents divorce and become what you’ve called “pioneers of the dissolution laws for the state of California.”

[Laughs] Marriage dissolution laws, yeah. My parents got divorced when one of them had to up and establish residency in Reno, Nevada, which my dad did for six weeks, and one night he showed up and three out of the four Hanks kids were hustled off to go live in Nevada with a whole new group of very nice folks, as I recall, for the better part of three years after that.

Well, by the time you’re ten years old, you’ve lived in ten houses in five different towns with two sets of families. And it’s around then that you begin taking trips to and from a small Northern California town called Red Bluff, where you’d visit your mother. Now, was it on that Greyhound bus, in the window seat, where you first discovered this passion for storytelling?

I discovered the escape of being completely alone for a big chunk of finite time. A bus ride from Oakland to Red Bluff took somewhere between four and five and a half hours. I might have had a couple of comic books. I might have had a pen and a notebook, but mostly what I had was a window seat that looked out on the entire passing human condition. I would look out that window and saw moments of humanity flash by.

We might pass a car that would be loaded with a family and they’d have, you know, pillows and blankets and food all around them. And we’d pass trucks and because the Greyhound bus was up high, I could see into their cabs, and I could see burly guys with mustaches or incredibly skinny guys smoking cigarettes. I could see things dangling from their mirrors. We would pass pretty girls in Volkswagen Beetles, who would be talking and waving their hands with each other and they couldn’t see me. And I would see the countryside roll by, and sometimes it would be city corners in places like Vallejo or Sacramento. And other times it was just the lonely clapboard houses that would be out on a piece of land. And there might be a wading pool in the front yard that was kind of gone to moss. There might be kids’ bicycles or boats up on blocks.

And so I would get all these kinds of gestalt moments in which, naturally, I would envision the longer stories, the back stories, and what was coming down the pike for all those people. Where are they going? Where does that guy live? Who lives in that house? How come there’s no kids in the pool right now? I did that four times a year. Between the ages of seven and seventeen. So, I racked up a lot of downtime by myself, and I didn’t look upon it as a chore or it was never boring. It was actually always fascinating.

With all those stories— you moving out outside the window, living in the world as a young preteen, in-and-out of different schools and towns, you’ve said before that you would unleash what you’ve called ‘some sort of inner charm monster’ when meeting new classmates. Was that some sort of self-defense mechanism? And if so, why did you feel you needed to employ something like that?

Well, it certainly was a self-defense mechanism, but it was also combined with I had no fear walking into a new classroom.

No fear?

None. I had no problem outside of sizing it up pretty quick. Essentially, once I said something out loud that somebody reacted to, I was fine. I was funny, I was outgoing, I was loud. I never wanted to skip school because there was action there, and I think I developed some sort of chops. I remember Jay Leno used to have this thing, he says, “I was always a comic. I always wanted to be a comic, you know? And it’s like, I’d be funny in school and the teacher was like, ‘well Mr. Leno, if you are so funny, perhaps you’d like to get up and entertain the class.’” And Jay Leno said, “well, I was in fifth grade, so I did a solid ten minutes.” That’s kind of the way I looked at it. There was action at school.

Did you have any material that you would do in front of classmates?

I would take stuff that, funny voices, that my brother would do in the quiet of our own home and take it to school. I remember at one point we were briefly going to the same class, and he heard me say something that made everybody laugh that he had said the night before, and he said, “Hey, that was my joke!” But he didn’t have the courage to do it in front of everybody, and I did. Look, I just wanted to have a good time myself. I just wanted to experience joy, and if that meant spreading it as well, then I’m your man!

I heard that you would even take your brother Larry’s tape recorder and record different bits on there for him to find later.

[Laughs] I’d do stuff like, “It’s coming. The tidal wave is coming. We recommend that you all get to high land as quickly as possible. People, it’s coming. The tidal wave is…” Yeah, I would do that. You know, just part of it was just to hear my own voice, but also to write the material, you know?

They gave you a SAG card right then and there, I’m certain of it.

They should have. I should have been doing voiceovers, even back then with my squeaky voice. And also it was, you know, a Craig reel-to-reel tape recorder, this was a miracle. Who had tape recorders in their house? You had to be a rich kid. I don’t know where my brother even got this. For all I know he shoplifted it from some cheap electronics store.

You know, we were trying to pinpoint the beginning of your love of storytelling, but I wanna try to identify the beginning of your desire to be an artist, which I think happens at around thirteen years old. You’re lying in bed trying to fall asleep the night before you go to see 2001: A Space Odyssey in the theater.

That was it. I viewed it all as a very romantic quest, the idea of sailing across space and space suits and helmets. I was not enthralled in the adventure of it as much as I was sort of like in the beauty of it. And I had actually seen this book prior to seeing the movie itself— it’s called The Making of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which I couldn’t understand because I hadn’t seen the movie yet, but it had photographs in it of the making of the movie. Now, understand in 1967, ‘68…

The movie came out in ‘68.

Okay, so this is in the fall of 1968. We went down to the Cinerama Domes. It was a big deal and had lobby displays, and it was the first time I was in a theater where I noticed that the sound system was the most advanced I had ever heard. It wasn’t just coming from the screen, it was coming from all around us. And there was actually an overture. So, I walked into the theater, and it’s still lit up, but Ligeti’s Overture is playing.

Pacific Theater’s Cinerama Dome, at 6360 Sunset Boulevard at Vine. Circa 1963.

And when it began, I was used to movies as they had always been—John Wayne movies and Kirk Douglas movies. Movies had dialogue, and they had bad guys and protagonists. There was very little irony or mystery. Everything was spelled out for you. And here this movie unspooled, and there isn’t a word of spoken dialogue until about twenty-seven minutes into it. When a lady says, “here’s your level, sir,” and prior to that, we saw the entire history of humankind played out via Stanley Kubrick’s vision.

Now that was… I’m thirteen, and I finally see and understand that cinema is this combination of light and image and performance and procedure and behavior. And I was able to figure out that what we were looking at was a man learning how to use a tool in order to beat his way into getting what he wants. And then from that comes the greatest time cut in the history of cinema in which a bone is thrown up in the air, and when it comes down, you’re 30,000 years into the future and man has conquered space and is flying to the moon like it’s relatively routine. And I can’t say that I understood any of that movie when I saw it, but I knew that it was great, and I knew that it had blown the back of my head off as far as consciousness wise, but I reveled in every small, tiny detail of it—so much so that I went back the next week by myself in order to see it again, and I’ve been looking at it ever since because there is a story about as big as you’re ever going to get. That is still nothing more than odd dialogue. I mean, there is no narrator that says, ‘and it was at that moment, that moon watcher realized,’ there’s nothing like that in there. The only supers are—’beyond the infinite.’ There’s nothing in there that makes it easy for you to comprehend what’s going on outside.

After you saw the movie, you’ve said, “I started asking this question: how do I find the vocabulary for what’s rattling around inside my head?”

Yeah. The thing about being an actor is you’re speaking with somebody else’s vocabulary, but it goes through the sieve of your own consciousness. I gravitated to acting because I could get up in front of people like it was nothing at all. Other people can’t do that, you know, I realized that that was a difference. The vocabulary of communicating ideas by way of first, of course, the words of a playwright. Well, it’s one thing to learn the dialogue, but it’s something totally different to understand what the heck you’re saying at the same time; what it is that you’re trying to communicate. And in some ways, all you need to do is trust the language.

Hanks, as a college student in 1977, working backstage on a production of Hamlet. (Image credit: Great Lakes Theater Company. )

But something else happens that I learned about seven years later when I was twenty and found myself doing Shakespeare. Dan Sullivan, who at the time was directing us to the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival, got mad at all of the professional actors in the room because they were hungover from a party the night before. And he said, “Look, you guys have to show up on time and you have to know the text, and you have to have an idea.” I understood showing up on time cuz we’d get yelled at if we were not up on time. That’s true. I didn’t have a lot of lines to learn because I was pretty much carrying a spear and only had really one scene as an actor. But nonetheless, the thing that he said about— and have an idea, that was new. I thought, we’re told what to do, we’re told when to move. No, no, no. He was actually saying, you have to come in with something grander than what is just written down on the page. And I didn’t even know how to do that for another fifteen years or so, but I understood that that was the difference between doing it professionally and doing it for the parks department. You had to do something more than just read the play and learn the lines. You had to study some aspects of human need and human behavior and the particulars.

I’m gonna tell you right now, I played Fabian in Twelfth Night, and Fabian, I believe, is the worst role ever written in Shakespeare. And he is in one scene in which he and somebody else sits in a tree and laughs as Malvolio reads a fake letter. And Fabian has this line; the worst line in Shakespeare is this line: “Sowter will cry upon ‘t for all this, though it be as rank as a fox.” Sam Fragoso, do you have any idea what that means?

Sam Fragoso doesn’t.

I’m not sure what it means either, but I was instructed to say it as though it was the funniest retort you could possibly imagine saying, and we had to laugh our asses off after. The story that you have to come up with, the idea that you have to have in your pocket, has to be able to make sense out of saying a line that bad.

So that’s you at 20 years old. I want to understand, about the ideas and questions rattling inside your head, looking for a vocabulary. A vocabulary of what?

It was the vocabulary of, of playing it by ear, if that makes sense…

Was it not a vocabulary of loneliness?

Well, I filled up loneliness by being that guy who happily walked into the room. I did. But there’s a combination between, why are you lonely? Are you lonely because no one has paid attention to you? I can’t say that was the case. My loneliness came about because of confusion, because no one ever really explained to me where we were going or why. Outside of a couple teachers and the parents of friends of mine, I’m not sure anybody put a hand on my shoulder and said, “you know, this has nothing to do with you, and you’re going to be ok, and all you have to do is trust your instincts.” I just figured out that I had to trust my instincts.

I knew people that would rationalize away any possible move or ‘oh, I can’t do that because I have a job, or I can’t take this gig because of that.’ I was a bit of a blank canvas when it came down to people coming up to me, particularly at the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival, in which people were telling me based on their observation of me, they said, “okay, if you wanna be an actor, here’s what you need to do.” I never addressed the first part of their advice, which is, do I wanna be an actor? Is it even possible to be an actor? Who’s an actor in this world? Well, they were and they were telling me, ‘you are too.’ And so here’s what you need to do. You need to go to New York City.

Going to New York City is only things that Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds did in motion pictures. I didn’t go to New York City. I was from Oakland, for goodness sake. Maybe I’ll get drafted or something like that. So, the vocabulary I was looking forward to was I think the vocabulary of options beyond the ones that were immediately around me, realizing that, ‘oh, I can do that.’ The vocabulary of saying, ‘well, let’s see what’s going to happen.’

Well, here’s a little bit of what happened. I’m gonna do an abridged run through here for us.

Of my fascinating life? Bring it on. I’d love to hear it.

You do move to New York City, after a formative run at the Shakespeare Festival in Cleveland. Then you do two seasons of Bosom Buddies in Los Angeles, where you’re kind of doing a riff on Tony Curtis from Some Like It Hot.

Yeah, yeah. Fair enough.

Daryl Hannah (left) and Tom Hanks (right) in Ron Howard’s directorial debut, Splash (1984).

You then get a big break in Ron Howard’s Splash, followed by a string of films that I’m not going to pass any judgment on whatsoever. By the time 1988, 1989 rolls around, you said once that, “I had experienced enough bitter compromise that I had overcome. There was stuff that should’ve destroyed me.” What should have (or could have) destroyed you that didn’t?

Any one of those jobs coming to an end, quite frankly. How I blundered into being put on a TV show with Peter Scolari, I have no idea, but I bow down in humble submission to divine providence.

Our dear Holland Taylor.

And Holland Taylor. I mean, Holland is still one of my dearest friends on the planet Earth, yeah. We lost Peter last October, unfortunately. My bosom buddy. And then when it’s done, you have to put it all behind you and never ever look back on that as being the be all and end all. You have to only look at it as the vehicle that got you to this morning. There were money issues that I had, by that time I had a family.

When Bosom Buddies was over, I had two kids, and there was no guarantee whatsoever that I was going to be able to keep my house. I had a sense of responsibility that was really always about— “what do I have to do and be, and what do I have to create in order to get the next job?” And an awful lot of that comes down to two things you have to do: you have to wait, and you have to be ready. A lot of people can’t wait, and a lot of people can’t be ready. Somehow, I was able to do both those things, but you know, this all happened for me ridiculously fast, and there was all sorts of serendipity that went into it. Not the least of which are other people not taking jobs, I mean, Ron, when he directed Splash, he was just getting started as a director. He was Opie Cunningham. He’d been on Mayberry and Happy Days, and he wanted to be a director, and who in the world was gonna trust him? And so that meant everybody who was really an A-lister at the time wouldn’t give him the time of day. And he had a movie to make. So, I came along, and I had waited, and I was ready.

The bitter compromise then comes around to that same challenge of, am I creating art? Am I being authentic? Are my ideas good enough in order to propel this along and make it unique? And all the rest of the world catches up to your life. Believe it or not, Sam Fragoso, it’s one damn thing after another, and you don’t know if you’re stepping down into a bear trap that’s going to clamp down on your leg and give you blood poisoning or if you’re skipping through a field to over where your car is parked and you get to go home.

Well, through bear traps and maybe a couple not so great films…

(Laughs) Let me tell you something about being in not so great films: I’m a .295 hitter! Without a doubt, that means, you know, I struck out a lot. Lot of pop flies, lot of ground outs. But you never stop. Every day you learn something. And granted, sometimes what you’re learning is what not to do, but you also experience those moments in which— holy cow, that happened without my even having to think about it. How was it that that came down the pike? And all you do, you try and try and try and you work and you work and you work. And if you’re smart, you don’t let your own personality get in the way too much. And if you’re lucky enough, you have somebody that comes around and says to you, “why don’t you knock it off? Why don’t you concentrate on the work at hand if you consider yourself a professional?” You’ve got to have those people in your lives too.

You know, when you were talking about ‘being the artist’ you wanted to be… I get the sense that that really came into focus for you after you’re nominated for Big in ‘89 and make A League of Their Own in 1992. Because after that you have this conversation with your agent, Richard Lovett, in the early nineties, where you say what?

I said, I don’t want to play…now I’m going to use a word here that has two different connotations, and I’m doing the non-anatomical version of it. I said, “I don’t want to play pussies anymore.” And by that, I meant there was a whole school of economic motors of types of movies about the goofy guy, you know, he’s trying to fall in love and he has adventures. That was the coin of the realm in an awful lot of development in motion pictures. Light comedies. Sometimes they were good movies, but more often than not, they were just kind of grade B kind of like passes— almost a type of formula, that I always thought there was enough stuff in there in order to make it worthwhile doing, but I also just said, “Look, I’m an actor, and they’re asking me to be in a movie, and I believe my job as an actor in movies is to make movies.” And so I threw myself into stuff again and again because hey— I can show up on time, hey— I’ll know what the text is, and hey— I got some ideas for these moments.

But the truth is, what did we say at the beginning of this fabulous talk? We said movies are binary. They’re either double zeros or they’re zero and one. You can’t change it after the fact. You just really can’t. So number one, I got older. Secondly, I ended up having more kids. I met Rita on a movie [Volunteers] and we’ve been married for over thirty-five years now. But, along with that came a sense of what I wanted to do that was bigger than showing up on time, knowing the lines and having ideas.

In order to be Joe DiMaggio, you had to start having a different type of demands of yourself. You had to stay out on the field a little bit longer and work a little bit harder, and also say a word that is very, very, very hard to say. Sometimes you had to say: no. Saying yes to something is easy. You’ll make a lot of money, you’ll get to work with somebody great, you get to go shoot somewhere and they’ll pay you and you’ll be done and it’ll come out and be fun. It’s very hard sometimes to say, “No, in that this is not going to scratch the itch that I am feeling. And in order to maybe stay on point. This isn’t gonna teach me any new vocabulary.” I wanted to be a different type of actor, and I also wanted to be a different type of artist that would start bringing even more to that binary formula.

In that decade that follows, you do say yes to a handful of projects. And by my estimation, it’s one of the best decades an actor has had in the history of motion pictures, from Philadelphia (1993) to Catch Me If You Can (2002).

[Laughs] Well…

No, I think it’s true! I think it’s true. And I want to know, at this point in your life, which film best captures your spirit as an artist and storyteller? That makes you go, this is why I do the work I do.

I will tell you it, if I had to—and by the way, this is a pressure, I would never do this on my own, but I will do it for the sake of our talk, Sam… it was Cast Away. Cast Away completely came out of our own shop. And it was an incredibly deep throw from the get go because I read a story about FedEx, and I did not know this when I read this story, but I didn’t realize that jumbo jets filled with nothing but letters and packages traveled from the United States to Australia everyday across the vast Pacific. And the first thing I thought was, “What happens if one of those planes goes down?” And from that came the story of FedEx.

Tom Hanks in Robert Zemeckis’ Cast Away (2001).

I was talking with Bill Broyles, he was one of the original co-writers of Apollo 13. We were talking about actually another project, and he said, “so, what else are you talking about?” And I said, well, I have this idea about a FedEx guy, and he crashes. And I only have kind of like the first act in my head, but the narrative would be hanging around on him staying alive with fire, water, shelter, and food—and then whatever else is necessary. And from that brief conversation, that was about eight years before the movie came out, so eight years of working on it constantly. And it also was a great trifecta because I had the first act, Bill had the second act, and we did not have a third act until Bob Zemeckis came into the picture. And he said, “well, you know what you guys are missing here?” And from that came, not only the movie as it played itself out, but also the way we made the movie. To answer your questions, I would say that was a handmade house that I designed myself, allied myself with the hand of other people. And out of that came not just the zeitgeist of the human condition that I wanted to examine, but also the deep throw of the type of movie and the moviemaking experience that I wanted to have… no one had ever made a movie like that before, not without pirates showing up.

It’s fascinating because this decade we’re talking about, after Cast Away, you are celebrated in 2002, winning a AFI Lifetime Achievement Award at the age of 46. You are the youngest person to win this award, and I wondered, what did it feel like to be given a lifetime achievement award when you’re only halfway through your life? Like, they don’t tend to give out two lifetime achievement awards.

(Laughs) Yeah, I sort of said, “are you guys sure? I mean, I’ve had a pretty good run here, but…” I took it exactly as it was offered, that I think I had enough of a body of work that, if I had gotten hit by a bus the day afterwards, would stand up on its own. I took it as a very, very wonderful night to get together with a bunch of people that I’d known for many, many years. We had a wonderful party right after that that you could only get in if you had a personal relationship with me. And I took it in that brand of spirit. “Hey, I’ve done enough good work in order to warrant a pretty good clip package,” and at the end of the day, that’s nothing to sneeze at.

Almost in spite of that benediction, you’ve spent the last 20 years writing, producing, performing, playing. Not the every man, but instead I think the best of man. Folks like Sully, the pilot who landed the plan on the Hudson River. Ben Bradlee, the fearless editor of the Washington Post. Mister Rogers, I’m not gonna do an intro on him.

As an armchair historian, as you’ve called yourself, do you return to these figures because they fortify in you the belief that truth and decency matter? Do you return to them because they refuse to have their hearts calcified?

Truth and decency does matter. Not to everybody, but it certainly does. But the roles that you’re describing right there, and also throw in Richard Phillips from Captain Phillips, they were all very good at what they did for a living. To get back to the “what do you do for a living and what do you like about it? How do you end up there?” But they also faced a type of pressure that would snap the spine of lesser people.

Not just the landing of the plane and Sully saving all those lives. But then also everything that wen along with that after the with the National Transportation Safety Board was ready, was ready and wanting to find something other than a mechanical problem. He was fighting for his life and his career. Like certainly as Captain Richard Phillips did. What was offered by way of playing Fred Rogers was Fred Rogers seemed to be fighting a battle against everybody else in the world, particularly in the commercial television business that wants to make money off of selling toys to kids.

Tom Hanks (far right) as Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee in The Post (2017). Directed by Steven Spielberg.

All of those are some version of people who wake up in the morning and because of their chosen professions and because of the ethical codes by which they live, they do have to fight the never ending battle for truth, justice and the American way. And that’s a noble undertaking. To me, it’s what the great stories have always been about. I don’t think it’s a far cry from Hamlet to all of those people or any of the other great heroes of ongoing literature. Every Jean Valjean has some version of a Javert that is, you know, chasing them down. And Javert is really good and sometimes Javert represents the morals of everybody else in the world, you know?

But I’m fascinated by people who stick to their guns. That are actually viewing some version of “I can’t live any other way unless I do it like this. And so I have to do it like this.” And in that, it’s uncompromising. I think that there’s a bit of a default setting of cynicism that goes around there. And an awful lot of it says, “oh, come on, stop being such a goodie two shoes.” And I don’t view it that way. I actually view it as, “well, what would you do in this circumstance?” That’s what I always ask myself when I see movies. What would you do? And I think that’s the honorable question that those roles, and I think those movies, ask.

In the spirit of sticking to your guns, I have to ask you something because as you’re saying this, it’s hard to square away the hope you have– that I can hear in your voice– with the state of this country. Where we have pockets of people throughout who’ve made it their life mission to restrict bodily autonomy post Dobbs, to strip rights away from LGBTQ+ community, to dispose of history that they render inconvenient or self-incriminating.

You’ve made work in some form or another about all of these subjects through the years, and so I wonder as we sit here, has your faith in this nation and the people in it, has it been shaken, these past few years? Have you been shaken?

Tested, not so much shaken. Here’s something that, will, can, may, always happen. You can have your heart filled with any type of stereotypical prejudice. You can be a bigot. You can hate an awful lot of people. You can feel as though a victim from people who have taken advantage of you. You can feel stabbed in the back. You can feel as though you’re on the losing end of every proposition that comes down. And you could do it because of any number of reasons and any number of people. Now, cynicism, that’s part and parcel to the cultural exchange that goes on. And it seems to be very very loud at times, and we are always in a massive flux.

You know, I spoke at a graduation not too long ago and I said that the every graduating class has graduated into the most tumultuous times in the history of the world. There’s always so much that has to be done, but here’s what is seems to us happened over the long course of things. It’s gotten done. I think eventually tyrants fall, sometimes they fall because of laughter. Sometimes they fall because of gravity. And I think at the end of the day, we do have a process that is in place here in which the vast majority of people that I know and have come across give other people a fair shake at the end of the day.

At sixty-six, soon to be sixty-seven. Do you still feel the need and desire to be a reflection of us, the good and the bad?

Yes, I do because I go back to what I learned at the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival in 1977. I was backstage and I had to make an entrance right after Hamlet gave his advice to the players. And every night I heard Shakespeare by way of Hamlet say, “hold the mirror up to nature.” And that’s my job. Human nature is what we reflect back to everybody and it’s some version of that same question, “what would you do given the same circumstances?”

I feel as though sometimes you play a bad guy, but in that playing of the bad guy, you do hold a mirror up to nature because there are some people that are doing things for the wrong reasons that can be construed as being given… Look, there’s an awful lot of stuff I don’t bother with. All sorts of stories and movies that hold no interest to me because I don’t necessarily buy the standard antagonist-protagonist dynamic of an awful lot of stuff that’s out there. But there is plenty of other stuff where people have different motivations and they have to be examined and they have to meet their natural ends and natural conclusions. So I remain a type of artist/actor that I think is job number one when it comes down to doing any story that I tell, any story that I’m involved with, is that life is one damn thing after another. And sometimes it’s very, very hard to say no, it’s very hard to do the right thing. But there are some inner ticking clock inside all of us that I think more often than not, 70% of us will turn to true north.

You know, you’ve said my name, I think seventeen times in this conversation.

I think it’s been eighteen, Sam Fragoso.

Well, in that reflection of us, Tom Hanks, you’ve made it look so god damn easy. Almost like you’re Joe DiMaggio out there in center field.

Yeah! I met Joe DiMaggio. We were in a restaurant called Coco Pazzo. Rita’s mom was alive, we were having dinner with her and some friends, I think one of our kids might have been in a high chair.

Are you asking me to confirm looking at me?

(Laughs) No, no… And, the maître d’ came over and he says, “Excuse me Mr. Hanks. Joe DiMaggio is dining with us tonight and he wondered if you might come by so he could introduce himself.” And I was outta my chair. Dude, Sam Fragoso (19), I have, I met Joe DiMaggio and he was very elegantly dressed. He said, “Tom, I always wanted to meet another Bay Area boy” because he knew I’m from Oakland and he was from San Francisco.

And we started talking a little bit, I sat down very briefly with him. And at the conclusion of it, I said, “you know, Mr. DiMaggio,” and he said, “oh, call me Joe.” I said “so, you know, at one point I read a review that was a good review and someone said, Hanks is like Joe DiMaggio and makes it look easy”. And I said, “there has never been a greater compliment than I’ve received than saying that like Joe DiMaggio in centerfield, I made my job look easier.” And he said to me, “ah, yeah, it looks easy.” But then he held his hand over his heart and he said, “but it never was in here.” And I understood exactly what he was saying. He was that guy. Like I said, Joe DiMaggio, he did the work, he did the wind sprints, he showed up, he waited, and then he was ready. And in his own way, of course, that was an extraordinary moment and also a bit of a challenge, isn’t it? That he was not ready to rest on any kind of laurels. He would just say, “dude, I worked my frigging ass off in order to make it look easy” And this, I understand.

You feel that?

Oh my, yeah. Now here’s the thing, I love it. Look, I still come home at the end of the day wondering, “ah, man, I wonder if we really got that or not.” But I feel as though I’ve done all the work I can. Now, that being said, if they come back and say, “Hey, we’d like to reshoot what we did yesterday” I say, “Great! Because I’d like another shot at it.”

Yesterday I had a call with our dear friend, Holland Taylor.

Oh, you know Holland? Oh my.

From one dust mote to another…

Ah, dust mote thirty-eight.

And I asked, “what is your shared connection?” And she wrote just the greatest thing to me this morning over text. She said, “Tom and I, we both celebrate the infinitely tiny place we hold in the universe and our mote-ness, our status as specks, makes our marching gailey forth in the vast void sort of… majestic.”

She’s saying the work we do is noble because we care so deeply. We don’t wanna just do it right. A lot of people can do this right. But there was inside that. This unquenchable, unstoppable and actually, I think in a lot of ways, unaccomplishable desire to capture something in every line, in every moment in a bottle that no one else could ever have created or captured. It’s an elusive task. And sometimes it happens by accident, sometimes it happens by magic. Sometimes it doesn’t happen at all. But what matters is the desire and the try.

After all you’ve done, you still want to get it right, don’t you? 

Well, it’s like no matter how old your kids are, I want a long drive with them to be a fascinating time spent talking to one another. I do; I still want it to be magical and discoverable. And look, I will tell you that I worked with people who have remained at the top of their game, and I’ll just say, because they passed away, and I always think I’m gonna be able to go to New York and have dinner with Mike Nichols and Nora Ephron. They were all possessed by their desire in order to keep doing it, not just well, but keep doing it magically. To keep capturing something that no one else could, that only they saw.

She, of course, is in the acknowledgements of your book.

I wouldn’t be a writer if it wasn’t for Nora Ephron. Nora Ephron told me that the work I was doing in preparation for Sleepless in Seattle, in which I was fighting and cranky and having suggestions and wanting, and always asking, “is this enough? Is this enough? I don’t get it. I don’t get it.” She put in something that had come out in our rehearsal process, she and her sister Delia. And when it was done, she said, “you wrote that,” and I said, “I didn’t write that. I was just complaining during rehearsal, and you put it in.” And she says, “well, that’s what writing is, isn’t it?” And from then, I always would send her something and say, “is this writing?” And she would always come back and she says, “It is writing, but you ain’t done writing it. So get back to work.”

My last question, Mr. Tom Hanks, we’re talking about specks of dust, the passing of time. What was that story that you like to tell about Cecil B. DeMille and the checking of the gate?

Oh, yeah. When you use film—when you shoot on film, not digitally—you’re literally talking about a physical process of when celluloid goes through the camera. It has to go through, and it goes through the lens, and where it passes in front of the lens and actually captures the image as a photograph, it goes through the gate of the projector. And because it’s film, because it’s celluloid, it’s made out of petroleum products, it’s possible that part of the film can break off and get stuck in the gate. So, you would shoot and shoot and shoot and shoot, and when you would finally think you were done with the scene, and this has happened a many number of times, they will say, “check the gate.”

And the camera operator takes it apart, pulls the gate out, looks at it. There oftentimes is a splinter from the film that is in there. So, they don’t know if the image is going to be a pure one— there could be a big hash mark in there. It could be a scratch. They say, “no, no, sorry.” They would call it a jam in the gate. “No, there’s dust in the gate,” they would say. And they’ve got to put the gate back in, and you have to redo all of that magazine, about ten minutes worth of film, in order to recapture what you did somewhere.

On the other side, if you’ve worked your ass off like crazy, if you’ve made it look easy, and you are done, you have to say, “ok, great. Print that. Check the gate.” And the set is sort of on tenterhooks as the first camera operator, the focus puller pulls the gate out of the camera and looks at it, has to hold it up to the light, and lots of times will have a flashlight and go around the periphery. And when he says, “alright, the gate is good,” that means you’re done, and you get to move on. And maybe you’re done for the day, maybe you’re done for the week, maybe you’re done for the entire film. But nothing is finished until someone says, “the gate is good.” You’re a lucky person if you can say, “ok, I think we’re done. Check the gate.” Pause, pause, pause, pause. Wait. “The gate is good!” Then, then you’re finished, and you get to go. You don’t want to have dust in the gate.

Well, we have looked back on a whole lot of good work, a life lived, movies that you made look easy when I know it was not, and I just wanna thank you for leaning into that vocabulary of loneliness all those years ago, for making meaning through all these performances of yours, which in turn, I think has given us a vocabulary and language to better understand ourselves. And I know there is no gate in audio, but I’ve checked it anyway.


The gate is good.

The gate is good. You’ve been listening to Talk Easy with Sam Fragoso. I’m Tom Hanks. Join us again soon for another episode of Talk Easy with Sam Fragoso. Hey! I enjoyed that. Thank you, my friend.

Tom Hanks, it’s been an honor.

It’s been my pleasure. Thanks so much. I enjoyed talking to you. I truly did.