Ralph Nelson
Liane Bonin
December 13, 1999 AT 05:00 AM EST

Tom Hanks submitted to six days of down-and-dirty boot camp to prepare for ”Saving Private Ryan,” so you’d think the two-time Oscar winner might have schlepped down to the local prison for a look-see prior to shooting ”The Green Mile.” No way. ”I made the specific choice that I didn’t want to go,” says Hanks. ”I’m not sure I would’ve had the same confidence in the screenplay that I had if I had gone off and seen things the way they really are.”

Given ”Mile”’s somewhat warm-and-fuzzy spin on prison life, a stroll through a modern-day lockup probably wouldn’t have been a good idea. And Hanks worried that too much information would make it impossible for him to overlook the minor inaccuracies in the script. ”Here’s the best example,” he says. ”Stephen King, for good or bad, gave [our characters] sidearms. Now, I don’t think you’re going to have loaded weapons anywhere within the reach of a number of inmates.”

King wasn’t the only one happy to bend the truth a little. Hanks overlooked history when it came to costuming his character. ”The reality is that they didn’t wear uniforms on death row in 1935. But Frank [Darabont] wanted them because it looked really cool, and I wanted them as an actor because it gave me this exoskeleton that was communicating some of the subtler aspects of the scenes.”

And Hanks was adamant that the guards wear hats, even though they were a cinematographer’s nightmare. ”We had so many discussions about the hats,” he says. ”’Are we gonna wear these hats?’ ‘Oh god, what are we going to do about the hats casting a shadow?’ ‘Can you wear them way back on your head?’ But the hats were really important because when they’re on, that means a guard is officially on duty. And when they’re off, things are relaxed a little bit. They were this intangible signal to everybody of when they’ve got to shape up and fly right and when they don’t.”

On at least one point Hanks was happy to follow along with history. ”I got pretty beefy for the part,” he says. ”I wanted to communicate the idea that, if I came into your cell and I was mad at you, you might have reason to fear me.” Fear Mr. Hollywood Nice Guy? Now that’s stretching the truth.

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