Steve Daly
June 18, 2004 AT 04:00 AM EDT

When Hollywood’s reigning goodwill ambassador strode on stage at the Academy Awards this year, the orchestra struck up ”Hail to the Chief.”

Good call, stickman. There’s no denying that Tom Hanks is the closest thing the movie business has right now to an unimpeachable incumbent, a front-runner in both box office ($4.4 billion in worldwide grosses since 1992) and acting honors (two consecutive Oscars for Best Actor, in 1993’s ”Philadelphia” and 1994’s ”Forrest Gump,” plus three additional nominations for ”Big,” ”Saving Private Ryan,” and ”Cast Away”).

Now Hanks is heading down the Oscar-bait campaign trail once again as Viktor Navorski, the refugee hero of Steven Spielberg’s new comedy-drama-romance, ”The Terminal.” Picture a guy much like Robin Williams’ Soviet defector in ”Moscow on the Hudson,” except he never makes it past customs to Bloomingdale’s. Instead, poor Navorski gets stranded at New York City’s JFK Airport — a man without a country after a military coup voids all passports issued by his native land, Krakozhia.

No use fumbling for an atlas, since Krakozhia is a nonexistent, vaguely Balkan country (and Navorski is only very loosely based on a real guy who’s been benching it at France’s Charles de Gaulle Airport for years). Think fable, not docudrama. ”It’s the terminal as global melting pot,” says the director. ”No matter what we read about people disliking us abroad because of recent events, America still is the most attractive mystery to people living offshore.” What was Hanks’ style like on set? ”Like a silent-movie actor,” says Spielberg. ”He was able to invent between the lines, and that was something I’d never experienced him do before.”

In person, Hanks looks remarkably unlike his latest doughy cinematic self. There’s extra charisma that doesn’t come through the lens. He’s tan and tall (about six feet), has a killer grip, and his eyes are radiantly clear — nothing like befuddled Viktor. We sat down with the star for the skinny on movie accents, future plans with Meg Ryan, and why, despite whisperings over the years that he’s a natural for elective office, he’s no Arnold Schwarzenegger.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY So you just came back from plugging The ‘Ladykillers’ at your first-ever trip to the Cannes film festival.

HANKS The first time you do [a press conference], you think it’s only happening once, so it’s very important. But those people have been sitting there for 92 press conferences. So you arrive at, Okay, this is something to be survived, as opposed to actively participated in.

EW Bad questions?

HANKS They could talk forever about ‘Who else is staying in your hotel?’ That’s the big news.

EW See many movies at Cannes?

HANKS I think if you’re on the jury, you’re guaranteed to see a lot. But here’s what I saw. I saw a car, a room, a boat, a dock, a carpet. And a street and a restaurant. That’s what I saw. All very lovely.

EW Now you’re back gearing up to launch ‘The Terminal.’ What’s the secret of going Meryl Streep to master an accent?

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