Tom Hanks on surviving coronavirus

Hadley Freeman

THE GUARDIAN – “Welcome to the future, Hadley!” Tom Hanks said from my computer screen, as he makes a quick glance to the right of his own to check my name.

“Can you remember the last time you felt comfortable running around with other people?” he asked. I told him it was probably the last time I saw him, when we were at the Academy Awards in February, where he had ratcheted up his fifth Oscar nomination, for his performance as the beloved Fred Rogers, in A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood.

“Remember those carefree days of the Academy Awards? But here we are! Great day!” he said and finished with a chuckle. It is because of coronavirus that Hanks and I are talking through screens. He was promoting a film that will be streamed on Apple TV+. Greyhound told the story of Captain Ernie Krause on his first wartime mission in the Battle of the Atlantic. It is a classic Hanks role, by which I mean he played a thoroughly good man in extraordinary circumstances. But Hanks takes my comment more literally.

“Look, I’ve played a lot of captains,” he said. “Captain Jim Lovell (in Apollo 13); Captain Richard Phillips (in Captain Phillips); Captain Sully Sullenberger (in Sully); Captain Miller in Saving Private Ryan. But I try to bring to any of these roles, and specifically to Ernie Krause, the question anyone could ask, including you, Hadley, ‘What would I do if I was in his shoes?’ Then it ends up being something more palpable than a museum piece of what it was like to be on this ship in the north Atlantic.” He’s right. It’s hard to think of any actors who are as good at establishing such instant empathy with the audience as Hanks. It’s why so many of his films are so comforting to watch. It’s also why he’s often described as an everyman, because he makes his characters so relatable, not because he himself – a Hollywood megastar who collects typewriters – is relatable, although that distinction is often confused.

Hanks doesn’t just star in Greyhound, he also produced and wrote the screenplay, adapting it from CS Forester’s novel The Good Shepherd. “My ego has run rampant, Hadley, and it’s all over the picture!” he hooted. Hanks has written films before – the 1996 paean to 60s bands, That Thing You Do!, and 2011’s Larry Crowne. But Greyhound has been an especial labour of love for him, one he sweated over for almost a decade. It is one of those war movies that really should be seen on the big screen. So the change in plans has been, he said, “an absolute heartbreak. I don’t mean to make angry my Apple overlords, but there is a difference in picture and sound quality.”

Apple TV+ is having a similarly negative impact on Hanks’ appearance in this interview. Even though he is in his office, “the cruel whipmasters at Apple” decided the background needed to be a blank wall, presumably so nosy journalists like me wouldn’t spend the whole encounter snooping at Hanks’ bookcases. Against the eerily empty backdrop, he looked, Hanks rightly said, as if he’s in “a witness protection programme. But here I am, bowing to the needs of Apple TV”.

Hanks is used to bowing to the changed landscape. Back in March, while he was filming in Australia, he and his wife, Rita Wilson, became, he said, “the celebrity canaries in the coalmine of all things Covid-19”.

They were among the earliest and most famous people in the west to be diagnosed with the virus on March 10, and were hospitalised for three days. I ask if they have suffered any after effects of the illness. “Oh no, we’re fine. Our discomfort because of the virus was pretty much done in two weeks and we had very different reactions, and that was odd. My wife lost her sense of taste and smell, she had severe nausea, she had a much higher fever than I did.

Tom Hanks, winner of the Cecil B deMille Award, poses in the press room at the 77th annual Golden Globe Awards at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on January 5. PHOTO: AP

I just had crippling body aches, I was fatigued all the time. I couldn’t concentrate on anything for more than about 12 minutes. That last bit is kinda like my natural state anyway,” he said, with another chuckle, as if he were my father telling me there are no more monsters under the bed.

I interviewed Wilson shortly after she and Hanks had returned to the United States (US). She still sounded pretty shaken, and we discussed how she talked to their children about the illness (she and Hanks have two sons, Chet and Truman; Hanks also has two older children from a previous marriage, Colin and Elizabeth). Was Hanks scared? He makes a scoffing face before I’ve even finished the question. “When we were in the hospital, I said, ‘I’m 63, I have type 2 diabetes, I had a stent in my heart – am I a red flag case?’ But as long as our temperatures did not spike, and our lungs did not fill up with something that looked like pneumonia, they were not worried. I’m not one who wakes up in the morning wondering if I’m going to see the end of the day or not. I’m pretty calm about that.” On the day Hanks and I spoke, the infectious disease expert Dr Anthony Fauci is warning that, unless current US outbreaks are contained, the rate of coronavirus infections could reach 100,000 a day.

Hanks is regularly referred to as ‘America’s Dad’ and is so revered his face will probably be carved into Mount Rushmore, so I asked how he thinks his country has responded to the virus.

“I have nothing but question marks about the official position as well as the individual choice. There’s really only three things everyone needs to do: wear a mask, social distance, wash your hands. I know societally it’s been politicised. I don’t understand how anyone can put their foot down and say, ‘I don’t have to do my part’.

“Well, I must say, I grew up looking to our leaders for calm and informed guidance and I don’t think we’ve got that,” he said, eyebrows tuttingly raised. I’ve interviewed Hanks a couple of times. Talking with him is always a charming experience. This won’t come as a massive surprise to anyone, given his reputation for niceness, although I’ve seen him be prickly. “Well, you know, um, you know,” he said, apparently flummoxed. “I don’t carry around a lot of anger. But rather than just being nice, I think I’m kind. Can we say that?”

It’s true that, since I last interviewed him, his demeanour has shifted slightly from the nice Jimmy Stewart he had going on, to something more akin to the beatific kindness of Fred Rogers, “a part people like you would say I was born to play,” he said. ”For A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood, I ended up reading a lot of (Rogers). He put ideas into words for me.

There’s no reason not to greet the world with some kind of kindness.”

If, at the end of the 80s, you were asked who THE big star of the 90s would be, your answer would likely have been Eddie Murphy or Tom Cruise – but it was Hanks. I often think of him as the acting world’s REM: likable in the 80s, unexpectedly mega in the 90s.

But unlike REM, he has only got better – and bigger – in the 21st Century. I asked how he made that shift from being the go-to guy for chaotic comedy to a revered quasi-paternal figure.

“Don’t ask me, it wasn’t planned!” he said, “There was a moment, after A League of Their Own, when I just felt that I wasn’t going to play a certain kind of young man any more. I was older and I’d experienced some degrees of bitter compromise in areas that are not public,” he said.

“So I started looking for stuff that was different. But I was surprised when I would get these offers. When I said to Ron Howard, ‘Gee, I’d really like to make a movie about Apollo 13’, I thought he’d said, ‘Okay, but you gotta be one of the guys with the headset in the big room in NASA. You don’t have the moxie (to be the star)’. But I have a job where I pretend to be other people, and it’s worked 51 per cent of the time.”

At this year’s Governors Ball – the Academy’s Oscars afterparty – the proper A-listers were, as usual, hurriedly ushered into a special section behind a velvet rope, so they could relax unbothered by the peasants. But Hanks spent the whole evening – behind the rope, yes, – but standing against it, so journalists and members of the public could queue up to talk to him. Part of me saw this as another instance of Hanks’ kindness, but a more cynical part of me wondered if he just needed some validation after not winning the Oscar for his portrayal of Rogers.

“Let me tell you, it’s impossible to relax in a room that’s filled with about 1,500 people. If I really wanted to relax, I would have sat in my car behind the Kodak theatre,” he said.

In an interview last year, Hanks said that he realised from an early age he could “seduce a room”. Is what he did at the Governors Ball and all this niceness him doing just that?
“You know, I don’t even think about it. It truly is a self-defence mechanism when I am uncomfortable or unsure of myself. Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve been aware (that I have an ability), in a way my brothers and sister did not have, to walk into a room and make everyone believe I was incredibly comfortable with being there. And that, along with attention deficit disorder, turned out to be the perfect combination for becoming an actor,” he said.

Hanks was born in California. When he was four, his parents divorced. He and two of his siblings lived with their father, a cook, while the youngest brother lived with their mother.

Hanks moved more than 10 times before he was 10, but drama classes at school provided some much-needed stability and by his early 20s he was acting in small films, before making his breakthrough with Splash in 1984. Hanks is a character actor who cannily turned himself into a superstar. He pinned every nuance and you often forget you’re watching someone whose face you’ve known for four decades and instead fully believe he is the character he is playing. Hanks’ much-vaunted niceness should be less of a factor to his appeal than what a stone-cold brilliant actor he is.

I asked how lockdown has been for him and he switched back to reassuring dad mode. “I have all the benefits of my station, I’m able to see the kids and a few friends. I’m not experiencing anything but the great question of, what’s going to happen? You’re a member of the fourth estate – what’s the future for our industry?” he asked.

I told him I stopped making predictions after Hillary Clinton lost. Suddenly Hanks looks deflated. “Yeah, remember those carefree days?” he said, but his heart’s not in the joke any more. To cheer him up, I asked if he has any words of wisdom for other people out there struggling right now. “Wisdom from a guy like me? I wouldn’t give that on a bet. Because I’m the answer on Jeopardy I have some wisdom somewhere?” he asked.

“It’s funny how this stuff blends into the art you hope to create. When we put together Castaway, we knew there was a card missing from that deck of 52, and the consternation over what was missing from that movie drove us insane. It was that elusive kind of beat, and it was what we’re talking about right now: how do you go on? In Greyhound, Krause has a little card that said, ‘Yesterday, today and forever’. That’s all we have as human beings and that’s all we have in the midst of the 19 different crises that we’re facing right now, between Covid-19, worldwide economic disaster, what happened to George Floyd – the great reckoning that we’re all going through. What do we have that we can have faith in? Well, we can have an understanding of yesterday, we can have a plan for today and we can have hope for forever, and that’s it. That’s my wisdom. It ain’t much, Hadley, but is there anything else?”

We’re both quiet for a beat. Is he for real? Does it matter? Someone give this man his third Oscar.