Photo: Art Streiber
The uncommon common man—and perennial best-actor nominee—talks about important work (marriage), fun work (acting) and the three words that work magic in his onscreen roles.We know Tom Hanks as the actor's actor whose portrayals often make us reconsider our own moral choices. Whether he's playing a captain on a military mission or a lover with a breaking heart, we think about what we would do—and have done. We also know Hanks as the consummate family man, a dedicated husband and father whose stirring post-award speeches about his wife, Rita Wilson, leave us reaching for Kleenex.
Hanks's roles are unforgettable. His astronomical hits include Splash, Big, Sleepless in Seattle, Apollo 13, Saving Private Ryan, The Green Mile, and Cast Away. At age 45, he has already won back-to-back best-actor Oscars for 1993's Philadelphia and 1994's Forrest Gump. On September 9, his newest project, Band of Brothers, a ten-part HBO miniseries he coproduced with Steven Spielberg, will tell the story of a heroic World War II army unit on D-Day.
Not bad for someone who moved to Manhattan at 22 with his college sweetheart, actress Samantha Lewes, their infant son (Colin, now 23), and barely enough money for rent. Hanks, the third of four children, had spent most of his childhood moving around the San Francisco Bay area with his father after his parents divorced in the early sixties. (His mother, a hospital worker, remarried three times; his late father remarried twice.) In high school, Hanks's drama teacher encouraged him to pursue acting. After leaving college to study in the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival under the guidance of Irish director Vincent Dowling, Hanks debuted as Grumio in The Taming of the Shrew. In New York he struggled for several months, then landed a part in the TV series Bosom Buddies. He and Lewes had a second child—Elizabeth Ann, 19—before divorcing in 1987. A year later he married Rita Wilson, whom he had met on the set of Volunteers in 1985; they have two children, Chester Marlon, 11, and Truman Theodore, 5.
Tom Hanks came by my place when he and Paul Newman were in Chicago to film The Road to Perdition, which opens next year. Before our interview, when I told a few people that I was going to talk to Tom, I could just feel their hearts opening up. They sensed what my conversation with Tom confirmed: He is a man of integrity. He is exactly the man I had expected: kind, funny, humble, and honorable. In the nook where I often curl up to read a good novel, we sat and talked about what has made his relationship with Rita work for 13 years, why he has chosen some of his film roles, and the most important factor in determining the real success of one's work.
Start reading Oprah's interview with Tom Hanks
Note: This interview appeared in the September 2001 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.
Oprah: You've been described as the most uncommon common man anyone has ever known. Is that who you feel you are?
Tom: No—there isn't any great mystery about me. What I do is glamorous and has an awful lot of white-hot attention placed on it. But the actual work requires the same discipline and passion as any job you love doing, be it as a very good pipe fitter or a highly creative artist.
Oprah: When I mentioned to a few people that I was going to interview you, they said, "What a decent guy!" How close are you to that image?
Tom: Pretty close. I try not to lie to people—the only way to control the way you're perceived is to tell the truth. No journalist has ever been in my house and no photographs have ever been taken of where I live. I don't parade my family out for display, which is the way it will stay. Yet I have a reputation for being cooperative with the press. That's because when I do give an interview, I'm willing to tell the truth about what I do for a living and how goofy it is sometimes—and how volatile it can also be.
Oprah: The theme of this issue is success. Have you wrapped your brain around your success?
Tom: No—it still takes me by surprise. When I used to come here to Chicago, for example, I could walk around and do everything I wanted. That's difficult now that I am instantly recognizable.
Oprah: What happens when you go out?
Tom: Sometimes pandemonium busts loose—like in stores. I don't cause riots, but I do cause confusion. People freeze when they spot me.
Oprah: Does that make you uncomfortable?
Tom: It does. And it doesn't allow me to have a realistic interaction with the world around me. Most people want to be able to go off and deal with their day—stop in here, run errands there—and when you can't do that, going out becomes a chore.
Oprah: I agree. Can you move around freely in Los Angeles?
Tom: Yes, and New York. In other places, it's harder. But I think eventually this will all peter out.
Oprah: I don't think it's going to peter out, Tom! With all the acclaim you receive after every movie, do you feel even more pressure for the next role?
Tom: No. I start at square one with every role. If I let myself feel pressure, it would crush me. The truth is that everyone pays attention to who's number one at the box office. And none of it matters, because the only thing that really exists is the connection the audience has with a movie. Sometimes that's a palpable thing, but other times it's not. No actor has control of that. All you can control is your own passion for doing the work in the first place.
Oprah: So you're not affected by first-weekend box office numbers?
Tom: I'm not saying I'm not bummed if a movie doesn't do well, but that isn't the final analysis of whether it's any good.
Oprah: What criteria do you use when choosing a role—is it a gut thing?
Tom: It's a total gut thing.
Oprah: How did the Forrest Gump role come to you?
Tom: I was fascinated by a script entitled The Postman, which was written by Eric Roth. I didn't do that script, but I met Eric and we shared a lot of the same parameters of why we do what we do. So when a producer asked me, "What do you think of the book Forrest Gump?" [which Roth was writing a script for], I said, "That guy can write anything!" About a year and a half later, I got Eric's script—and it was a rocket. Reading a script is usually as exciting as reading a boilerplate legal document, so when you read one that makes you feel as if you're seeing the movie, you know it's something different.
Oprah: A lot of your movies seem to have a moral center. Do you look for those kinds of films?
Tom: The reason most of us go to the movies is to be involved in someone else's moral dilemma. Whether that dilemma is communicated the way Scorsese did it in Taxi Driver, which is one of the most amazing films I've ever seen, or the way Kirk Douglas did it in Spartacus, you know there's something happening on the screen that is bigger than the lives we lead but that is still recognizable to a 14-year-old in Oakland. I'm not looking for that when I read a script, but I am knocked out by it when I see it. And I'm almost always amazed when others ask me to be involved in something like that.
Oprah: Even now?
Tom: It's no joke. I'm not lying.
Oprah: But you get to choose from all the best roles! You are Mr. Top-of-the-World.
Tom: But I still have moments when I think, "They want me to play this role? They want me to be Captain John Miller [in Saving Private Ryan]?" Never in my wildest scenarios would I have thought I would be able to have enough of somebody's confidence to do such a thing.
Oprah: When you choose a role, is there a soul connection between you and the character?
Tom: There is. The first time I read about Captain John Miller, here's what I got: He's scared. And he's afraid in the same way that I would be in his circumstances. His fear is the reason for everything he does. And all the questions that are answered in the movie come back to that core thing.
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.
Oprah: Why did you take the role?
Tom: Because I was asked to—and back then, that was still a big deal. I thought I could bullshit my way through.
Oprah: How do you define success for yourself now?
Tom: By whether I still have a passion for my work. Vincent Dowling of the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival once said that work in the theater is more fun than fun.
Oprah: Did you pursue theater simply because it was fun?
Tom: That's it.
Oprah: Did you know you had the ability to transcend yourself in the way that you have?
Tom: No—but several things always separated me from a herd of other actors. Whenever I auditioned for a part, I'd think, "I'm probably better than 50 percent of the actors here, because half of these people are self-conscious in ways I'm not." I would do anything—I didn't care. But many would not make fun of themselves the way I'm willing to.
Oprah: And you knew that?
Tom: Right away. And I thought I was just as good as another 48 percent of the actors. Before you go into what is essentially a competition, you have to have that confidence. You have to ask yourself, "Are they looking for a guy my height? My age? I've got a shot." And if there are nine guys auditioning and they're all gorgeous, I have an advantage, because gorgeous guys are a dime a dozen. But if they need someone else—like a goofy guy with bad hair who is just okay—then that's me. And finally, the other 2 percent who audition are geniuses that I could never touch.
Oprah: Why do you think that not being a "gorgeous guy" is an advantage?
Tom: Because the majority of people in the world are not gorgeous. I've always known that, gee, I'm going to have to be charming to make this happen because my looks don't do it.
Oprah: I've read that after your parents divorced and you stayed with your father, you attended ten different schools by the time you were 10. How did all that moving affect you?
Tom: I was never intimidated by change. I was like an army brat who had lived all around the world.
Oprah: You never felt like the lonely, left- out kid?
Tom: I always had plenty of friends and lots of stuff to do, because I aggressively made those things happen. I didn't want to be lonely.
Oprah: Did you look forward to the constant change?
Tom: Yes. I knew that when I went to a new school, sooner or later someone was going to laugh at something I said in the handball line, and boom!—it would all be fine. Sometimes it took two days, but other times it happened on the first day at lunch. Because I went to so many different kinds of schools, I got a wide view of the way others did things, and I thought it was all so interesting.
Oprah: Both your parents eventually remarried. Didn't you have to meet and get along with a lot of new siblings?
Tom: That was very confusing. I often heard, "These are your new brothers and sisters." If no one had used the words brother and sister, it would have been okay. They should've said, "These are some kids your age who you'll be living with for a while." Two and a half years after that, I'd be saying, "What happened to that brother and sister we had?"
Oprah: Do you hear from any of those step-siblings now?
Tom: No—and I wouldn't recognize a lot of them if they came into this room. Every now and then, I do hear from the ones from my dad's final marriage.
Oprah: Does the instability of your childhood have anything to do with why you've become a great family man?
Tom: Honestly, I married into a classic old-world family structure in which people like to spend time with each other and construct their lives so they can. That hadn't been part of my existence up till then. And you know what? In the 13 years Rita and I have been married, I've discovered there's no substitute for that. There's such an advantage to being involved in the day-to-day details of each other's lives. It's a marvelous fabric to exist in.
Oprah: Here's what everyone wants to know: What is the magic that you and Rita have? When you made that speech about her at the Golden Globes—"Every day I stand at a crossroad, and I see nothing but love and acceptance in every direction"—that was more important to many women than the fact that you'd won the award.
Tom: I view my wife as my lover, and we have a bond that goes beyond words like wife or girlfriend or mother. For example, I was able to construct a number of things in Philadelphia  because of my relationship with Rita. The way my character felt about his lover is the way I feel about mine. The same was true when I played Forrest Gump, who loved Jenny. Without my connection with Rita, I don't know how I would've been able to connect with what Forrest was going through.
Oprah: Do you remember what you said about Rita after you won as best actor for Forrest Gump?
Tom: I said that I have a woman who teaches me what love is every day. Maybe that sentiment is possible to fake, but for me it's really true. What makes me different from others is that I verbalize this stuff. A lot of people would flee from what they think is award-show cheesiness, and I don't. I often joke that my speeches are very personal moments that play themselves out in front of billions of people.
Oprah: In a Hollywood that often exploits celebrities' relationships, I've never heard one negative thing about your marriage. What keeps it so real?
Tom: That it is real. But let's not pretend there isn't a huge industry driven by the choices made by editors and writers who decide what a story is. Rita and I are not fodder for a lot of those stories because we're not glamorous targets who warrant that kind of attention.
Oprah: Is Rita your best friend?
Tom: Yes, in addition to being my lover. And it has been that way from the very beginning. We laugh just as much now at two in the morning as we always have. And we fight less and less.
Oprah: Has your marriage gotten better with time?
Tom: Yes. Everyone says, "You have to work at relationships." Sometimes you've got to work, but if you're working 60 percent of the time and only enjoying it 40 percent....
Oprah: So you and Rita don't have to work at it much?
Tom: We deal with what has to be dealt with, but there is something natural to the foundation of our marriage. I am now at the point where I can't imagine it any other way.
Oprah: If Rita had been the first person you were with, would you have been ready for this?
Tom: No. The success of our relationship was a matter of timing, maturity, and our willingness to have an intimate connection. When I married Rita, I thought, "This is going to require some change on my part." I won't deny that providence was part of us finding each other, but our relationship isn't magic—the way it's shown in movies. In real life, our connection is as concrete as me sitting here. Not that marriage doesn't come close to being hell in a handbasket sometimes. But we both know that no matter what, we'll be with each other—and we'll get through it.
Oprah: Do you believe in fate—that there is a life predestined for you?
Tom: In Forrest Gump, which has now entered into the pantheon of movies you can tear apart, [director] Bob Zemeckis came along with this thing about whether each of us is a feather floating along in a breeze—and I think that's bull.
Oprah: Do you believe you're the captain of your own soul?
Tom: Without question, we make choices—and those choices have consequences. So can you control your own destiny? To a degree, certainly. Must you have faith in serendipity? Without question, you'd better. Otherwise you're foolish.
Oprah: Are you always looking for a role that will take you to the next level?
Tom: I'm not looking for anything. If you start looking for something specific, then you take providence right out of it. You can't completely control it. Otherwise you'd make the same kind of movie over and over again, which some people say I've done. I have faith that a script is going to hit me like a ton of bricks, and when that happens, it's undeniable that I should choose the role.
Oprah: With all the buzz leading up to your nomination as best actor for Cast Away, I was shocked that they didn't call your name on Oscar night. Did you think you were going to win?
Tom: No, no, no.
Oprah: We all just wanted another speech about Rita!
Tom: Well, you would have heard a doozy!
Oprah: I told everyone that you would win—because all actors know how hard it is to act alone across from a darn volleyball! That's the hardest thing on earth.
Tom: I know how the Academy Awards works: It's a card game, and I'm in the toss-up category.
Oprah: Do you see yourself as a successful actor, father, husband, and human being?
Tom: Up to now, I have been. Anything can happen after this.
Oprah: And if nothing else happened after this, would you still see yourself as successful?
Tom: Look, if I stopped having passion, I'd be done. The truth is I'll probably be able to work from now on. Whether it's at the level I'm doing it at now is beside the point, because my work is really a blast. When it stops being a blast, then it ain't no fun no more!
Oprah: When you first become successful, you're just happy to fly first-class. It's like, "Look at all this legroom!" Does having all of the physical comforts of success allow you to look for more meaning in your work?
Tom: The free headphones in first class? All that stuff becomes relative. And yet I'm always aware of how little I have to worry about financially.
Oprah: Isn't it better to have experienced all of this after growing up with so little?
Tom: The challenge now is how Rita and I will rear our children, who do have everything. All that most parents hope is that their children are happy, funny, well adjusted, and have a passion for something in their lives. What would negate everything is if the next generation that we're responsible for has a passionless existence. And that's cause for occasional sleepless nights.
Oprah: Do you ever worry that you're giving your kids too much?
Tom: Sure. I also hope my kids understand that they're not operating in a normal world. And yet there are principles they have to adhere to that are normal—like decency, choosing between right and wrong, and honesty. That's important stuff, whether you're flying first-class or not. People ask me all the time, "What kind of father are you?" I won't know until my kids are grown. I am ludicrously proud of my one son who is an adult, Colin—he is an actor who's out there doing stuff. He astounds me: He is a gentleman and a professional who is pursuing something difficult. Yet the only thing he has ever asked me for is advice—never favors. He has just said, "What do you think I should do, Dad?" It's extraordinary to me that my son would listen to and have faith in whatever wisdom I can offer.
Oprah: You're an icon for heroism in a way that Hollywood isn't accustomed to. What is the significance of that?
Tom: I don't know if that will have significance that lasts beyond the pages of the entertainment sections of newspapers. But I would like to think I've reflected the audience's lives somehow, though it's in this big, false, glamorous arena of movies. I hope people see themselves somehow up on the screen. Shakespeare said it best: Hold the mirror up to nature. Human behavior is worthy of examination and celebration. The easiest thing to do is to rag on the media, because it isn't doing a very good job right now. It is so much easier to profit from celebrating the worst aspects of ourselves. Acting strikes me as the antithesis of that. We can examine the worst aspects of ourselves, but we don't have to celebrate them. That's why The Sopranos is a work of art—it is authentic. It communicates that there are people out there who think a certain way. And in a weird way, we can recognize ourselves in the characters. Even if we're good Catholics who've never been to a strip bar, we can still say, "He's going through the same thing I'm going through." And that is a magnificent thing.
Oprah: That's so true.
Tom: I try to do what I call the three E's—educate, entertain, and enlighten. If you don't entertain, no one will show up. But you also have to educate, because people want to discover specific things about a world unlike their own—whether it's how hard it is to go to the moon or how scary it is to be on Omaha Beach. A story also has the opportunity to enlighten us, because as we connect the extraordinary moments on film with the ordinary moments of our lives, we ask ourselves, "What am I going to do the next time I'm scared? What would it be like to say goodbye to my family for the last time?" Despite the fact that these movies are big engines of commerce, the characters remind us that we're part of a greater humanity and that we can actually affect the world by the choices we make once we leave the theater.
Oprah: And that's why we all love you so much—we recognize ourselves in your characters! Thank you, Tom.
Tom: You're welcome, Oprah.