Killer Instinct: Tom Hanks talks 'Road to Perdition' | EW.com

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Killer Instinct: Tom Hanks talks Road to Perdition

He's bad to the bone as an enforcer working for gangster Paul Newman. But will crime pay for 'Road to Perdition' star Tom Hanks?

(Francois Duhamel)

There are some things even Tom Hanks, the man who can seemingly do anything (big man in a boy’s body, AIDS-afflicted gay lawyer, buzz-cut astronaut), just can’t do — or at least, not well. For starters, the man has no game. ”Terrible basketball player,” says the two-time Oscar winner, ticking off his inadequacies on his right hand. ”Just bad as bad can be.” Also, if he’s met you only once, try not to take it personally if he doesn’t greet you properly. ”Names,” he says. ”That thing where you can’t recall the person’s name, so you just fake it? That’s me.” And then there’s his teeth. ”Man,” he says, ”I wish I had better dental hygiene. That stuff comes back to haunt you.” He smiles. His teeth look just fine. ”Believe me,” he insists, ”we’re only scratching the surface.”

On July 12, moviegoers will be able to pass judgment on one more thing Hanks may or may not have the ability to do: play a killer. The film is Road to Perdition, costarring Paul Newman and Jude Law, directed by Sam Mendes (following up his 1999 Oscar-winning debut feature, American Beauty), and produced by Richard and Dean Zanuck and Mendes. It is the summer movie season’s obligatory prestige picture, the kind of august piece of Oscar bait more commonly seen in the fall. It is a stately, serious, somber film; it is not, to use Newman’s words, ”a popcorn flick,” in which ”the orgasm has to be four times as great as the last great orgasm. This picture aspires to something.”

It’s also a picture in which Hollywood’s ranking Mr. Nice Guy shoots people for a living. Hanks plays Michael Sullivan, a foot soldier in a Depression-era Irish Mob run by John Rooney (Newman), who loves Sullivan like a son, much to the chagrin of the elderly man’s increasingly unhinged biological son, Connor (Daniel Craig). One night, Sullivan’s oldest boy Michael Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin) witnesses his father and Connor committing murder. Scared the boy might squeal, Connor conspires to kill the Sullivans, a betrayal that fails but leads to a tragedy that sends Michael Sullivan on a quest for vengeance, Michael Jr. in tow.

Forrest Gump this ain’t. Nor is it Big, Philadelphia, or Apollo 13, films that cemented Hanks’ standing as a fine actor, box office golden boy, and really nice guy. But if there was ever a movie where being known for being nice could be a liability, this is it. So the Big Question: Will audiences believe Hanks in a role summed up by Mendes as ”a bad man and a bad father, who becomes a good father, but remains a bad man”?

”There is no doubt that a degree of this ‘image’ is going to follow you into every gig,” says Hanks over a light lunch of bagels, fruit, and coffee in Los Angeles in late June. ”I remember telling reporters while promoting The Green Mile, ‘I will play a guy who kills people professionally for a living — and you will say that I’m the nicest executioner ever in the movies.’ Look: I am a nice guy,” he says, laughing. Then, stabbing you with his dark eyes, he deadpans: ”At least they don’t call me a pussy.”

Well, at least he can talk the part.

Like so many things coming out of Hollywood these days, Road to Perdition began life as a comic book. Three years ago, Dean Zanuck, then VP of development at his father Richard’s production company, was pitched a number of properties, including a graphic novel called Road to Perdition, written by Max Allan Collins. Struck by the book’s tragic tale of a father and son, Zanuck shipped the 286-page comic to his own father in Morocco, where he was making the military thriller Rules of Engagement. “Thinking big,” says Dean, “Dad told me to send it to Steven Spielberg.”

Good call. Within days, Spielberg said Let’s do it and set the project up at DreamWorks (though not as a directing gig for himself, as his slate was full). The filmmaker sent the graphic novel to screenwriter David Self (Thirteen Days), with whom he shared a common interest: resuscitating the old-school mobster flick. He also sent a copy to Hanks, who was filming Cast Away and was much too busy developing a rapport with a volleyball to make sense of it. Months later, though, after reading Self’s adaptation, the actor was all over it. “I just got this guy,” says Hanks, who has four children (Colin, 24; Elizabeth, 20; Chester, 11; and Truman, 6). “If you’re a man, and you’ve got offspring — emotionally, it’s devastating.”

Soon after landing Hanks, Perdition got Sam Mendes. Like the rose petals that he showered upon Mena Suvari in American Beauty, follow-up offers were pouring in for the British-born theater director-turned-moviemaker. His criteria: something epic, something period, something visually driven. He had been eyeing a thriller called The Lookout by Scott Frank (Minority Report), but then DreamWorks sent him Perdition. “What was really interesting to me about the film was that it was narratively very simple, but thematically very complex,” says Mendes, 36, who once again has made a movie preoccupied with self-deception, the secret worlds of our parents, and America.

Perdition’s primary concern, however, is with violence — how it warps those who perpetrate it, and those who witness it. Self had fleshed out both ideas by creating a foil for Sullivan that was not in the graphic novel: Maguire (Jude Law), a creepy crime photographer who moonlights as an assassin. “On the page, it was clear this guy had to have a hell of an effect on the audience,” says Law. “Instead of big, butch, and invincible, I wanted to make him a rodent. He probably eats junk, which explains the gunky yellow teeth.” He laughs. “It was great fun.”

Yet there was concern about how Mendes intended to portray Perdition’s wickedness. In the graphic novel, Sullivan can’t enter a room without taking a bloodbath. Before committing to the film, which was shot in the Chicago area during the winter and spring of 2001, Hanks wanted assurances from Mendes that the violence would be meaningful, not gratuitous. Ditto Conrad L. Hall, American Beauty’s Oscar-winning cinematographer and Mendes’ most trusted creative collaborator. “Sam knows I hate violence,” says Hall (whose resume nonetheless includes the watch-through-your-fingers In Cold Blood and Marathon Man). “But he promised he would minimize the blood.” Indeed, the film’s first murder sets the tone: Shot from the point of view of Michael Jr., the bullet to the head is, in fact, bloodless; the most accentuated detail is the gun’s warped-echo roar.

Hanks isn’t responsible for Perdition’s first killing, but Hollywood’s Mr. Nice Guy authors much of the carnage that follows. Early script drafts were actually bleaker; not only was there more killing, Sullivan was an alcoholic. “In the streamlining of the film, those things were lost,” says Self. “The philosophy was ‘less is more.’”

Similarly, Hanks created much of Sullivan’s conflicted menace by keeping him quiet, cutting dialogue wherever possible, especially lines that betrayed any sense of self-awareness. Some sly directing also helped. “We hold the man at arm’s length from the audience for the first half hour,” explains Mendes. “We put the audience in the shoes of the boy who doesn’t understand his father; in a way, the film was assisting Hanks the whole time.”

Mendes also cut any scene in which Sullivan comes close to justifying himself — like an ambitious tracking shot in which Sullivan chases Michael Jr. through a muddy forest, catches him, and sits him down for a heart-to-heart. “I had everyone up at 5 a.m., making rain and hanging f—ing icicles from the branches — and I cut the scene! It was just too much ‘But why do you kill people, Dad?’” says Mendes with a whiny kid voice.

The sum total of all these decisions is a Tom Hanks rarely seen on screen. Cold. Detached. Unlikable, even. But strange as that may seem, Mendes thinks America is ready for a morally ambiguous Tom Hanks. “Audiences need him again. He’s our moral weather vane. And it’s very appropriate that post-Sept. 11, he should be playing this character who’s not all good, who’s dealing with a violent world and trying to make sense of it,” says Mendes. “I really believe that.”

Paul Newman is 77 years old. If this interview had taken place earlier in the day, you’d probably be reading the words “surprisingly spry for his age” in this space. But it’s late afternoon, the day’s publicity work has left him drained, and Newman looks…well, like a 77-year-old man. But the mind is very much alive. Ask him a question, and his head bows, his eyelids droop — and suddenly, he’s using the phrase “torrent of sperm.” The question, by the way, was “How do you feel about being called ‘a living legend?’”

“Living legend,” he says. “All right, then. But what do I have to do with that? The answer is ‘Very f—ing little.’ If you think about that torrent of sperm out there, and yours was lucky enough to land in Chicago, St. Louis, wherever — it’s the luck of the draw.”

Okay. (It’s Paul Newman. The Hustler. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. If you want to argue with him, go ahead.)

“Intimidating,” says Hanks of his first meeting with Newman. Practicing for the first time the piano duet he and Newman play during a wake — a melancholy showstopper — Hanks found himself in the throes of a “pinch me” moment. And though Jude Law shot only one scene with Newman (cut by Mendes for pacing reasons, the sequence also featured a cameo by Anthony LaPaglia as Al Capone), he relished the experience, nonetheless. “The opportunity to just sit and watch Paul Newman work was just joyous,” says Law, adding that the actor has always been one of his role models. “His artistry, his charity — he’s the blueprint, really.” Watching Hanks and Newman, Law was struck by similarities. “They both possess incredible concentration and incredible professionalism,” he says. “Neither of them behave like divas or fools; they are who they are because they are incredibly talented and just really nice guys.”

Newman seems keenly aware of the effect he has on his peers — hence, his propensity for salty wisecracks and dirty jokes, just to remind folks he puts his pants on just like everyone else. “It’s all razzle-dazzle, anyway,” says Newman. “You find the humorous part, I think you can dispel it all pretty quickly.”

The actor prepared for his Irish gangster by asking Frank McCourt, the Irish American author of Angela’s Ashes, to record a tape of himself speaking. On set, Newman peppered Mendes with scores of questions, but otherwise kept his own counsel. Newman’s toughest moment may have been a scene in which his John Rooney tells Sullivan, “I will mourn the son I lost”; many on the set wondered if the actor was drawing upon his memories of his son Scott, who died of a drug overdose in 1978. “I think I would have done that 20 years ago,” he says quietly. “But blissfully, you don’t have to go down as many side roads as you used to have to go down.”

In truth, though, it was 14-year-old Tyler Hoechlin — a relative newcomer plucked from among more than 2,000 young hopefuls — who had the most daunting acting challenge in the film. So many of Perdition’s most critical moments hinged on him, such as the climactic scene, in which the narrative and thematic arcs all come down to one choice: whether or not Michael Jr. will fire a gun. “There were two or three times,” says Mendes, “when I had to pull him to one side and say, ‘Imagine this. In 18 months’ time, you’re sitting in [Hollywood’s] Mann’s Chinese [Theatre], you’re 80 foot high, and you are not good in this scene, and you will regret it for the rest of your life. Okay? So you have to be good.’ That was a conversation we had before we shot the last scene in the film. And he nailed it.”

Perdition wrapped in June 2001, but Mendes had miles to go. DreamWorks had hoped to release the film last Christmas, but last September, the admittedly slow and demanding director asked for and received more time for scoring and editing. Little consideration was given to releasing the film later this year; that window had already been claimed by another DreamWorks/Tom Hanks film, Catch Me if You Can, directed by Spielberg. So Perdition arrives during a season where the conventional wisdom is that audiences prefer their men in black wearing Ray-Bans, not trench coats. “It’s a counterprogramming move,” says Jim Tharp, the studio’s head of distribution, who cites another Hanks vehicle, 1998’s Saving Private Ryan, as proof that the tony stuff can make an impact in the summer. “There’s a place for the popcorn movies, but certainly there’s a need for this kind of movie, too.”

Besides, it would be foolish to bet against everyone’s favorite Everyman. “You know, they said the same thing about Forrest Gump,” says Hanks. “There were people who said, ‘You can’t release a movie called Forrest Gump in July. Nobody’s going to care about it.’” Still, he shrugs. “Either it will work or it won’t.”

While Mendes and Newman mull their next moves (“I got a couple films in the pipeline,” says the actor; one of them may be yet another reteaming with his wife of 44 years, Joanne Woodward), Hanks finds himself at a dividing line in his career, one drawn for him by the American Film Institute, which recently gave him its lifetime achievement award. He is only 46. “If I’m 90, and I haven’t scored another one of these AFI things,” he quips, “then I will truly view the latter part of my career as some kind of failure.” So what’s his plan? “There has never been any master plan,” says the Bosom Buddy-turned-global superstar. “I will maintain my faith in chance and serendipity. That’s it. That’s my master plan.”

Arrogance: one more thing Tom Hanks just can’t do.