Oprah: So there's a soul connection....
Tom: Yes, that has to be there. If I have no connection with the character, then it's all fake—it's just blah, blah, blah.
Oprah: Does that make it easier or harder to say no to a role?
Tom: It's difficult to say no sometimes. I often hear, "They'll really take care of you," or "Someone else is going to take the role if you don't play it." Some of the best advice I ever received was to always ask myself: Am I going to kill myself if somebody else takes this role? The answer is almost always no.
Oprah: When did you learn to say no?
Tom: I had to say no to Fantasy Island back when I was doing Bosom Buddies.
Oprah: You mean Fantasy Island, the TV show?
Tom: Yep! I got an offer in between our two grand seasons of Bosom Buddies, and I said, "You know, I'm not going to do Fantasy Island. They said, "What are you talking about? What are you doing instead?"
Oprah: Wasn't playing in Fantasy Island like playing in The Love Boat?
Tom: I did a Love Boat! And based on my trip on the Love Boat, I said, "I'd just as soon not do Fantasy Island." Somewhere in the middle of my career, there came a moment when I said, "I'm not going to play pussies anymore." Up until then, I'd made a career out of playing ordinary guys who couldn't figure out how things work. After I did A League of Their Own [in 1992], I took a year off from making any artistic decisions. At that time, my career was an express train. I was continually being asked to make movies, so I felt I had won an actor's lottery. If people were asking, how could I say no? That would be insane. But I finally had to ask myself, "What kind of creative entity am I? And when do I start to control some of my artistic destiny?"
Oprah: Do you wish you'd said no to The Bonfire of the Vanities?
Tom: Only because it's one of the crappiest movies ever made! And yet if I hadn't gone through that experience, I would have lost out on something valuable. That movie was a fascinating enterprise from the word go. It was bigger than life, and for some reason it had a huge amount of attention on it. I can go to Germany, even now, and people will say, "How come you don't make good, gritty movies like The Bonfire of the Vanities anymore?" They have no concept of what it meant to be an American and have that movie enter the national consciousness. Bonfire taught me that I couldn't manufacture a core connection.
Oprah: That's a good lesson to get.
Tom: And it came along at the right time. When I was playing Sherman McCoy [in Bonfire], people stopped me on the street to say, "You're not Sherman McCoy." I was like, "Oh, yeah?" I was going contrary to everything about the character and even the screenplay, but I kept telling myself, No, no, no—there's a way I can get into this.