Cover Story

Ashore Thing

Making ''Cast Away'' -- Tom Hanks talks about the grueling filming of the lost-at-sea film

Making ''Cast Away''

The silence probably lasts a few seconds, but on the receiving end it feels like an eternity.

You half-expect chirping crickets to break the deafening void. Or tumbleweeds to roll through the sudden loneliness of the room. Maybe even the pages of an antique wall calendar to tear off, evoking the painful passage of time.

When the awkward moment comes, it runs so counter to the received wisdom on Tom Hanks that it's hard to comprehend. All that life-is-a-box-of-chocolates hooey about his being America's red-white-and-blue Mr. Nice Guy, or the second coming of Jimmy Stewart, becomes meaningless. Because right now, Tom Hanks is just a man. And more to the point, Tom Hanks is a man who can get a bit snippy.

Like all great actors, Hanks can enthusiastically glide through the sort of backslapping interview repartee that all Hollywood vets have to fake in the service of promoting a film. But like all flesh-and-blood mortals, he can keep up the act only for so long. Admittedly, asking the star of Cast Away how he lost more than 50 pounds to play a man stuck on a desert island isn't the most original question. But it's one that needs to be dutifully posed nonetheless. And clearly, it's too much for him to bear.

Hanks lets out a long sigh and his shoulders slump like a kid's balloon deflating. His grin flattens into a grimace. And his eyes narrow into a vaguely intimidating Clint Eastwood squint. Silence. One one-thousand. Two one-thousand. Three one-thousand.... Cue sarcasm:

''Well, I'll tell you so I don't have to tell anyone else....''

Four one-thousand. Five one-thousand. Six one-thousand....

More sarcasm in case the first sortie missed its target:

''You know coconuts? Think you can eat a lot of coconuts? Well, let me tell you, it's a natural laxative. So just put two and two together there. Take a coconut, drink all the milk out of it, and then eat all the insides, and you tell me how you feel after an hour and a half....''

Silence.

It's obviously meant as a joke — but there's no smile. The tense subtext is clear: Tom Hanks will not suffer fools gladly. And right now, this reporter is cast as the fool.

To be fair, for most of this July afternoon Hanks is a complete gent. Later, he'll even patiently detail his weight-loss regimen — needless to say, it wasn't really a strict diet of coconuts and trips to the throne.

Tan, muscular, and lean, the 44-year-old actor seems to have shaved 10 years off his age along with all that flab. He looks more like the man who washed up on a beach in Splash than the one who went ashore in Saving Private Ryan. Wearing an Army green T-shirt, faded jeans, and a pair of brown suede loafers, Hanks is plopped on a leather couch in the spartan production office of his upcoming WWII miniseries, Band of Brothers (the 10-part drama, executive-produced by Hanks and Steven Spielberg and based on the Stephen Ambrose book, will air on HBO next spring). The setting: About an hour north of London, and just outside the windows of his office is a nearly abandoned airfield, where the plywood facades of about-to-be-liberated French bakeries and cathedrals make it feel like the corner of Hollywood and Rhine.

Today is the final day of shooting on the only episode Hanks is directing. Sipping a cup of tea and juggling last-minute production details, Hanks explains that in this hour-long chapter, 140 British paratroopers will be rescued from the Nazis. There's more to it than that, but Hanks' synopsis is so jam-packed with military factoids and encyclopedic minutiae, it's like listening to Patton audition for Rain Man. Clearly, Hanks regards World War II with an almost reverent sense of nostalgia — the details of the battles seem to give him a peace of mind far removed from the Hollywood hamster wheel.

But when the conversation circles back around to Cast Away, and how unconventional the $85 million film is — what with its entire middle act featuring the actor all alone on an island with few lines, no music score, and no voice-over narration — the two-time Oscar winner (and four-time nominee) gives the impression that he feels a bit like a prisoner of war himself.

''Look, it's all a Hail Mary pass,'' he says with a laugh. ''It's a huge risk. And part of it is, 'Well, why do it if it's not a huge risk? Why go through all this stuff?' The whole movie itself is, I think, bodaciously treading new territory.''

In a way he's right. Cast Away is probably the most experimental film the actor has made. And despite the fact that he's reteaming with Robert Zemeckis — the director behind his biggest box office success, 1994's Forrest Gump — it offers the kind of one-man-without-a-net acting exercise that only a star with his fiscal track record could get a studio to greenlight.

Still, there's a defensiveness choking the air precisely because Cast Away is a new kind of animal for Hanks: a little somber, a tad arty, and following a decade-long string of box office hits, something of a commercial question mark. Not to mention that months before it's even hit theaters, he's had to sit through tireless comparisons between a labor of love he's been toiling on for six years and an overnight sensation called Survivor.

Frankly, the guy has a right to be snippy.

Considering the almost absurd hot streak Hanks has been on for the past decade, it's difficult to remember a time when he wasn't quite so invincible. But scan down his resume and it's there in black and white: The '90s did not begin well for the actor — witness the double whammy of Joe Versus the Volcano and The Bonfire of the Vanities.

Those titles may seem like a one-two punchline now, but at the time, that pair of films represented a telling snapshot of an actor being yanked in opposite directions — the goofy, synapse-crackling cutup versus the aspiring capital-A Actor striving for leading-man gravitas. When asked, months after our initial encounter in England, if there's one movie in particular Hanks wishes he could erase from his filmography, he chuckles: ''Oh, there's probably a half dozen!''

It's easy to laugh now with the benefit of hindsight. Because after a rocky start, the decade has arguably been kinder to Hanks than any other actor in Hollywood. Beginning with 1993's Sleepless in Seattle, the 10 films Hanks has starred in have grossed $1.6 billion domestically. It's gotten to the point where seeing his name and mug on a movie poster has become a sort of Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval for a large chunk of moviegoers: This way a well-crafted mainstream blockbuster lies.

''I think you're giving me the benefit of what has been a pretty good track record,'' says Hanks modestly. ''But, you know, why didn't they come for That Thing You Do!?''

Maybe because they heard the director wasn't any good?

Hanks laughs... sort of.

Even though the lackluster returns for That Thing You Do! ($26 million domestic gross) still eat at him, the film marked a crossroads in Hanks' career: Not only was it the first time he'd stepped behind the camera as a feature-film writer and director, it was also a symbolic promotion — he'd finally earned the goodwill and creative capital to produce his own pet projects — an offer he's taken up with Band of Brothers, his previous HBO miniseries From the Earth to the Moon, and now Cast Away.

Hanks came up with the idea for the movie six years ago. At the time, the film had the jokey, vine-swinging title Chuck of the Jungle. But Hanks says the story line he envisioned was always dead serious, almost metaphysical: Take a modern man and strip him of everything — food, water, shelter, even the ability to tell time.

Hooking up with his old friend, Apollo 13 screenwriter William Broyles Jr., Hanks decided to make his island alter ego, Chuck Noland, a FedEx troubleshooter whose life is so harried that he has to whip out his Filofax just to schedule dates with his girlfriend (Helen Hunt). Then, during a late-night courier flight over the South Pacific, Chuck's FedEx plane crashes into the ocean. He drifts on to an uninhabited island, where he's stranded — alone — for the next four years. Alone, that is, except for a volleyball that also washes ashore. Taking a cue from its manufacturer's logo, Chuck names his inanimate pal Wilson.

Hanks insists it's just coincidence that his companion shares a name with his wife of 12 years, actress Rita Wilson, who joined him on the Fiji location. ''I just think Wilson was a better name than Spalding or Voit or Adidas,'' jokes Hanks. Actually, the idea for Wilson originated with Broyles. Shortly after starting the script, the writer was so stumped coming up with Chuck's survival scenes that he traveled down to a virtually unpopulated island in Mexico's Sea of Cortes to find out firsthand what the alienating experience would feel like. ''I had to figure out how to open a coconut because I was so thirsty, I had to figure out how to make a knife out of a rock, I had to learn how to spear stingrays,'' Broyles says in a bouncy Texas twang. ''It was just a few days, but I got really lonely. And then one morning this Wilson volleyball washed up on the beach and I looked at it, and put some seashells on it, and I started talking to it...I totally went Kurtz,'' jokes Broyles, referring to Heart of Darkness's madman.

Hoping that Zemeckis might be interested in working with him again, Hanks showed the director an early script draft shortly before Zemeckis began shooting Contact. But the filmmaker didn't think the story was fully fleshed out. ''It was a really hard movie to write because it didn't have any conventions,'' he says. ''There are no bad guys, no one's running around chasing after microfilm... and we didn't want to junk it up with desert island clichés.''

Like...?

''Well, like anything you might have seen on Gilligan's Island. Or the supermodel who floats up on a raft halfway through. Or pirates attacking the island.'' (In fact, during postproduction Zemeckis lopped off the original feel-good ending, opting instead for a more ambiguous one.)

Little did they know as they were returning from their locations in Fiji, Russia, and Texas that yet another soon-to-be desert-island cliché was hitting the pop-cultural landscape like a tsunami. Before it debuted on May 31, Survivor seemed like just another warm-weather diversion in TV's summer replacement lineup. But as the CBS show exploded, Variety reported that audiences were greeting an early Cast Away trailer with shouts of ''Vote him off!'' Hanks admits that he was initially a bit spooked by the show's like-minded theme but adds that he always felt confident that the madness would ebb and Survivor ultimately wouldn't trivialize their movie. ''Because I always felt we didn't have a trivial film,'' he says. ''Good or bad, we always had something that was much more substantial than what is essentially a game show that is a television phenomenon.'' Adds Broyles, ''Remember, Big was like the fourth of those movies about switching bodies, and which one do you remember?''

If nothing else, Hanks will be the survivor remembered for the most shocking physical transformation. Hanks credits Zemeckis with the idea of halting production so the star could go from 225 down to 170 and let his hair grow until he looked like a reefer-fried roadie for Molly Hatchet: ''Bob was like (imitates Zemeckis' high-pitched squeak), 'You know what we can do? If we really wanted to do this right, we'd make the first half of this movie, then take a year off and make the second half!'''

When asked what he missed most during his year of caloric deprivation (during which Zemeckis went off and made What Lies Beneath), Hanks doesn't even pause: ''Oh, those FFs, man. Those fries from France... The only thing I did not give up was coffee.... Nope, wasn't about to! Can't do it! Excuse me, no, I'm not! Ain't gonna happen, pal!''

In the first half of the movie, Hanks' Chuck Noland makes The Green Mile's roly-poly Paul Edgecomb look positively svelte. But after his four-year struggle against the elements, Chuck becomes a wispy spectre with the stare of a zombie. Tom Hanks is the movie's special effect.

''It was a burden,'' says Hanks of the physical and psychological tolls exacted by the role. ''And it was a burden because I knew when the time came there wasn't going to be anyone else to work off of.'' Months later, Hanks even wonders aloud if anyone will care about his character's solo journey. ''It's as naked and exposed as one guy with a guitar on stage,'' he says. Breaking into a country & western drawl, Hanks riffs, '''Thanks for comin' by, folks, I'd like to sing you a coupla little songs that I think are kinda neat and I hope you like 'em too.' That's exactly what it's like. But the problem there is, Who's gonna give a s---? That's really what it comes down to.''

It's hard to tell if Hanks' nervousness is completely sincere. But he is aware that the film is his to carry. Measuring his words almost philosophically, the actor says, ''Movies are binary — they're either ones or zeros. They either work on all cylinders, or they seem to work on absolutely none.''

So was there ever a sense while he was making Cast Away that it might not work?

''That's what we said every day: 'This...might...not...work!' I think that's probably the great fear we have with Cast Away, because people are like, 'I understand you're on this island, and you don't talk, and it's just you, and you don't do anything for an hour?' And I'm like, 'Well, two thirds of that is true, but that last third where I don't do anything? Are you kidding?! I fight for my life for an hour!'''

After spending a day in Tom Hanks' presence, a bizarre sensation starts to take hold. Listening to him sprinkle his sentences with folksy phrases and words like dang it and jeez, it feels as if the entire room has been sucked through a wormhole back to Mayberry.

For example:

Tom Hanks on disappointment: ''Well, the Dodgers don't win the pennant every year.''

Tom Hanks on acting: ''I don't want to be Coca-Cola and give up the secrets....''

Tom Hanks on directing: ''There's no way you can whip the cows faster to get to Omaha. You just have to ride back there and say, 'Geddalong, little dogie,' and eventually you'll get there.''

Homespun Hanksisms like these are, no doubt, largely responsible for all those comparisons to Jimmy Stewart. While Hanks says the analogies are an honor, he'd clearly prefer that folks quit bringing them up. There was some talk a while ago that Hanks might remake Stewart's 1950 classic Harvey, but the actor never bit. ''It's like saying we're going to do an updated version of It's a Wonderful Life.... Why? Leave it alone. Harvey is perfect as is, thank you.'' (Hanks begins shooting his next film, the Prohibition-era crime drama Road to Perdition, directed by American Beauty's Sam Mendes, in February.)

Hanks' whole Mr. Nice Guy persona has always been his biggest asset with the public: He's funny, but he's not in-your-face funny like Jim Carrey; he's handsome, but he's not a pearly-white traffic stopper like Tom Cruise. And he's smart. Smart enough to choose the characters people want him to be: a crew-cut astronaut, a patriotic WWII captain, a compassionate death-row prison guard. ''Tom is a nice guy, but he's not that nice a guy,'' says Broyles. ''He has his irritated moments. I knew him before his sort of superstardom and I'm sure he misses just being able to go down to Dodger Stadium and sit in the stands and order a Dodger Dog.''

Whether or not Cast Away becomes a hit, it's too late for Hanks to ever go back to being that anonymous guy in the bleachers. But it's possible that by treading into his new film's dark-night-of-the-soul existential waters, Hanks is trying to send a message to his fans. Maybe there's more to his career than being Mr. Nice Guy. For now, though, all he can be certain of is that when Cast Away opens on Dec. 22, those past successes will mean squat. He's not Jimmy Stewart or even Tom Hanks: Movie Star. He's just another actor waiting for the public to give its verdict.

''There's never any surety involved. None,'' says Hanks, a month before the film's release. ''Everybody assumes that there is, but that's the glory of looking at it in retrospect. 'Well, jeez, you had a hit movie, that must have felt good before it came out?' I got news for you: When a movie opens, everybody (involved) is throwing up in wastepaper baskets. That's the way it was on Apollo 13. It's the way it was on Forrest Gump. And it will be the same for this one.''

Originally posted Dec 15, 2000 Published in issue #573 Dec 15, 2000 Order article reprints
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