After all this time in the spotlight, it feels like Tom Hanks has lived several careers. From his early TV days on Bosom Buddies he became the go-to guy for likeable leads in comedies like Bachelor Party, The Money Pit and Splash.
Then, over the course of comedies that had a little more depth like Big, Punchline and A League of Their own, he morphed into one of the most accomplished dramatic actors of the day, winning awards faster than they could hand them out for Philadelphia, Apollo 13 and Saving Private Ryan.
Today Hanks can (and does) do anything – a glance over his career over the last two decades reveals one of the most eclectic rosters of roles in Hollywood. But even when he’s playing another everyman out of his depth, both Hanks and his characters seem the epitome of dependable.
And in director Clint Eastwood’s latest film Sully, he plays one of the most dependable real life figures of recent times in the titular pilot who landed 155 people safely in the river besides Manhattan in 2009 after losing both engines. He spoke to Moviehole.net in Los Angeles about meeting the real Sully and to whom we should attribute the epithet ‘hero’.
Was the pilot chatter fun?
It’s actually very fun to do. It’s great stuff because everything carries really cool meaning. The cadence and stuff like that is fun to get down, but it’s all right there on paper. We might have found some other things to say but you kind of get the run down of what the procedure is.
When the plane pulls away from the gate, the pilots are not allowed to have a conversation about anything other than the flight. Once your back off from the gate, there’s no ‘Hey, so we’re going to get steaks tonight, what do you want, how about those Dodgers?’
Literally the FAA says you cannot have those conversations. You only answer the tower, or you talk about the flight, that’s it. Until you reach altitude, which for this flight was supposed to be 35,000 feet. We actually put in one line that was, ‘Boy, beautiful day on the Hudson.’ Sully was actually breaking the law when he said it.
Any personal scary experience you could draw from?
I’m a pussy, man! I haven’t done anything that’s near death. Once I had to swim in the open ocean in Castaway! No, I’ve never experienced anything remotely like this. When I was in High School maybe, I almost smacked into the back of a bus on a motorcycle, or something like that. No, nothing even remotely like that. There’s four roles for us in real life. It can be the hero, villain, coward, or bystander. I’m the bystander.
Do you think the word ‘hero’ is a bit misused or overused nowadays?
I think the textbook definition of a hero is someone who voluntarily puts themselves in harms way for the betterment of others. That happens on occasion, and I think it is a ridiculously overused word, because it’s short hand somehow for accomplishment. Not all accomplishments are heroic accomplishments. Sometimes they’re just people doing the right thing. You don’t necessarily deserve kudos or a trophy for doing the right thing.
A guy like Sully, let’s just take it from this perspective, every day he gets up and flies 155 people from New York to Charlotte, he does that four times a day on a regular work day. That means he is willing to take on a responsibility to do that right, to make the routine of them flying high up in the sky faster than birds and to get out in a different city just a few hours later.
That shouldn’t happen in physics, but he says ‘I can make that happen, I can do it solidly and professionally’. That right there says to me, to some degree, he’s a hero. I’m voluntarily going to take this job in which you can trust me. What’s weird about it is, if he does his job perfectly, nobody buys him a beer in a bar at the end of the day.
If he is able to follow through on his instincts and not give in to fear, and actually do something quite amazing, well then they buy him a beer. Quite frankly, I think it’s amazing that he did it four times a day as a professional and solid thing.
Heroism is rare. It doesn’t happen all the time. Is he a bigger hero than the frogmen that jumped out of helicopters and pulled people out of the water? They’re heroes too, there was an awful lot of heroism on display that day.
What was it like meting Sully and what about him did you most want to emulate?
He’s a very intimidating guy. I had actually met him socially just a few weeks after the event in 2009, because he was at a party for the Academy Awards. Someone came by and said, ‘Would you like to meet Sully Sullenberg?’
‘You mean the guy who landed on the Hudson?! Yeah, I’ll meet him.’ I met him and his wife Laurie and we chatted for a little bit. He was like a combination of Elvis and John Wayne. He enters the room with his white hair and everybody stops.
We exchanged a couple of emails about the logistics and I said ‘here we go, for good or for bad, I’m going to play you’. Getting together with him, he had an agenda that was this thick. He had the entire script, and it was noted, underlined, highlighted, dog-eared, paper clipped. He had a lot of things that he wanted to tell me about what was wrong with the script and how we were not actually manifesting what we thought we were manifesting.
By and large he was right, but it was small details, stuff that could easily be vetted out. The thing that was going to be the true task at hand for me, was to somehow carry around the experience and the gravitas.
He explained it me like this. In his mind he’s always been thinking about rate of ascent, rate of descent, land speed, flight angle, you name it, gravitational pull. As they were coming up on the George Washington bridge, he knew instinctively how far he was going to be able to go.
He didn’t look at a gauge, he didn’t pull out a slide rule, he didn’t look at a calculator. His body and his body of work told him what the stakes were. How do you do that? How do you do that in a fake movie about what went on?
I joked earlier that this is what we do, but that doesn’t mean what we do is an easy thing in order to come around to it. It takes a small amount of work and some degree of fear and, at the end of the day, a faith in the groundwork that we lay for ourselves and the challenge we lay for ourselves.
Talk about the chemistry with Jeff [played by Aaron Eckhart].
I asked Sully, how come you didn’t take off, what’s that about? He’s not flying the plane during take off. He said, ‘Every pilot has to be responsible for a lift-off every 500 hours of flight time. I knew that Jeff was coming up on his 500 hour check, so I gave him the liftoff.’ Everything goes through that sieve of procedure and it’s not negotiable, that’s the thing that’s kind of perfect.
What can the audience most learn from the movie?
I think the lesson people might learn from the film is drive. Go by car.
What do you like about everyman roles where you actually do something extraordinary?
I think it all comes down to the reasons you go to the cinema in the first place. I like a fantastic movie as much as anything. When I was a kid there was a movie that we just all had to go see called Fantastic Voyage. There were no movies like that. Remember Fantastic Voyage? Science fiction films were kind of cheesy things, maybe there was a James Bond movie, but by and large heroes were cowboys like John Wayne.
Here was Fantastic Voyage, and they go to this cool submarine and they were miniaturized by some magic process. They were put in a huge hypodermic needle and then they stuck the hypodermic needle into the patient and then they traveled through the bloodstream and they had to go through the heart because they wanted to go up to the brain.
They were going to get out of the submarine and Raquel Welch was in a skin-tight SCUBA outfit. This was an added bonus, without a doubt. Then they pretended to swim and they had big laser guns, and they destroyed the tumor in the guy’s brain with laser guns. Then they quickly swam to the eye ducts and came out through a tear. I thought, this is the greatest motion picture ever made. That’s one reason you go to the movies.
The other reason you go to the movies is because you see a guy on a motorcycle who quits his job and rides around the country. Movies are glamorous things just because they’re being made movies out of, but I think that for me the power of the cinema is when you see some aspect of yourself. You see a film and you say, I wonder what I would do in that same circumstance?
I could be in that circumstance, I might grow up and find myself going through that, I wonder how I’ll handle it. You see something and say ‘that’s just like me. I’ve been through that same exact thing, even though I haven’t been in a plane, or I haven’t been on an island, or on a horse shooting guns’.
I see some aspect of human behavior in these movies that I think is fascinating and warrants having a film made about them. I don’t have an intimidating persona, I look like I look, I sound like I sound, so I think I’m limited as far as an actor goes. With an opportunity to play normal people who go through extraordinary things, that stuff happens every day. When you can find the movie that is able to capture it in a glamorous manner, sign me up.