From acclaimed filmmakers Andy & Lana Wachowski (The Matrix trilogy, Speed Racer) and Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) comes the stunning, epic and powerful Cloud Atlas, based on the best-selling novel by David Mitchell. Through various genres and time periods, spanning 500 years, and with the actors playing a variety of characters that cross genders and races, the story contains drama, mystery, action and love, interwoven in such a way that illustrates how everything is connected and that the actions and choices in one era can have consequences in another. The film stars Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Susan Sarandon, Hugh Grant, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Ben Wishaw and James D’Arcy.
At the film’s press day, co-stars Tom Hanks and Halle Berry, who each play six different characters, talked about how fun this entire process was, the challenge of getting to play so many different roles in one movie, the dizzying experience of going back and forth between directors and time periods, the fear that this would never work, the fight to get this story to the big screen, and the collaborative spirit throughout. Check out what they had to say after the jump.
TOM HANKS: Take the word fun and infuse it with as much importance and delight as possible. Quite frankly, eating pizza is fun. But for everybody, this was part of being in the greatest repertory theater company imaginable, and everybody was gentle, everybody was kind and decent. The process, though involved and sometimes very physically taxing, could not have been more rewarding for us, as actors.
Did you not get to feel like you were unrecognizable?
HANKS: I can say that there was Dermot Hoggins. There were almost 100 extras in that. Before we did anything, I was just in the crowd and nobody pieced together that I was the guy that was going to do something. So, that was fun.
Was part of the fun and excitement of this the fact that, as an actor, you got to play so many roles in one project, or was that challenging?
HANKS: Both, without a doubt. Yes, it was great. We always knew who we were playing, the next day. We’d read the call sheet, so we knew where we were going to have to be and how long it was going to take to do it. Sometimes you make films where you’re playing the same guy, but you go to six different locations. You shoot part of it in Iceland, you shoot part of it in the Sahara desert and you shoot part of it in L.A. This was like that, but squared or cubed. It was like a algorithm because the concentration and the output of each one of the characters was so completely different. They all required a different energy and a different vibe that you carried around with you all day, and they all felt different because the costume and the make-up changed the way you stood or sat or tried to take a nap, on occasion. It was almost like a huge amount of the “work” was done for us. So much of what we have to do is pretend it’s happening for the first time. On this movie, literally every day, you were doing something that would never, ever be repeated again because that character was going to go away in another day or two.
HALLE BERRY: And it was fun. It was so much fun! I can’t remember the last time I had this much fun on a movie. There was one day my daughter came up, when I was dressed as Dr. Ovid. She loved coming to see all the different characters, and she liked most of them, but that day I said, “You’re going to come see mommy’s new character.” So, she walked up, she saw this old man and she was a little frightened of him because he had this thing on his eye. And then, I walked up to her and she was a little scared of just who this man was. And then, when I said, “Hi, honey!,” her wheels came off and she took off running in the other direction. I think she was just traumatized.
HANKS: She’s never been the same. She started smoking since then. She’s a four-year-old kid, smoking cigarettes.
Is it liberating, challenging or both to play across races and genders? What are the chances you’re ever going to play a Jewish trophy wife, ever again?
BERRY: Ever, I know. Very, very thin. I have to say that I loved it. I loved every second of it. Had it not been for a movie like this, that required each person to play all of these characters to fulfill the theme of the movie, nobody would have ever picked me to play a Jewish German woman or an Asian man, ever. There was a knowingness, when this was all happening, that this was pretty special and, as artists, we should soak in every moment of what this process is. Every day that Ovid stuff was on, I wanted to really enjoy what that felt like and what that was about.
Was it a dizzying experience to go back and forth between directors, time periods and genders?
BERRY: It was, for me, but it was also really dizzying and even more fun to see everybody else. I had conversations, one day, with Hugh Grant for five minutes, and had no idea. He was fully in his character, and I didn’t even know until five minutes [later]. I was like, “Hugh?! I’m talking to Hugh?!” I had no idea. [You got to] see everybody else sit in the make-up trailer and be transformed, and little by little put pieces on and walk out of there somebody [else]. When I first saw Hugo [Weaving] as Nurse Noakes, I just about fell out. That was one of the funniest images I think I’ve ever seen. He was out there, smoking and talking in his deep voice, but looking like this woman. There were moments that I just want to crystalize in my mind, that I’m going to have from this movie.
Were there ever any doubts that this would really work?
HANKS: Fears, no doubts. Tom and Andy and Lana had put this together in so many boiler room sessions, over the course of a year or so, or maybe even longer, before we ever saw any of it. They had carried this around. If you’re to read the screenplay, you would see that, just like in the film, someone walks out of the room in 1934 and walks into a room in the year 3000, and it’s all the same beat, and all the same emotion and color. So, my fear was, “I’ve got six characters. I’m going to choke on two of them, at least. I’m going to blow it.” In baseball, you’re still batting four out of six. That’s pretty good. There were some of the one-offs, particularly, when you were just working for a day or two, that you say, “Man, I hope the magic comes!”
Being a director and producer yourself, are you involved in the fight to get projects made, and were you able to help the filmmakers with the fight to get this made?
HANKS: I think both [Halle and I] were in the position where we said, “We’re in! Does that help you? I’ll do it!” And that was two and a half, maybe three years before we got around to actually saying, “Okay, we’ve got the money.” I’d get calls from them, every six months, saying, “We’re plugging away. We’re almost there.” I’d say, “Well, I’m standing by! Let me know.” We knew that it was going to be a hail Mary pass, to some degree, because it’s not a sequel. It’s a one-off. It’s not a tentpole or a franchise. They should have called it Cloud Atlas 2. Everybody would have loved it. But, god bless ‘em. You guys know, as much as I do, that three years ago is now the ancient history phase of the motion picture business. When Inception came out, it was a movie that everybody saw five or six or seven times, but it was still dismissed as a one-off, at the end of the day. You could probably talk to marketing people or financial experts in the business who would say, “Well, the problem with Inception is that there’s no reason to make another one.” Now, that’s the anti-thesis of what art should be, but nonetheless, there we are.
So, why should this be such a tough sell? Didn’t people just used to go see wild, crazy movies because they looked amazing and there were people they liked in it?
HANKS: You’d think that would be the case. The filmmakers aren’t running the studios anymore. Sometimes people who like films are making them, but by and large, they have to go report quarterly earnings and all that stuff. You know as well as I do that the competition is so huge that it’s very hard to get people to show up to see any movie in the theater, much less an original one that isn’t a version of something else they saw. I have a feeling that, 15 years from now, the remake of Cloud Atlas will get financing sooner than the making of Cloud Atlas did.
Can we get it back? Are people eventually going to catch on?
HANKS: With your help. It is your job to take this very idea. Without a doubt, we all know that audiences crave something they’ve never seen before. That’s what they want. They want to be dazzled. They want to go in either to have their expectations blown out of the water, or have no expectations and are dazzled by the decisions that we made. We shall say. I’m going to tell you right now, there are going to be all sorts of articles about this, on both the business pages and in the entertainment pages. They’re going to say, “Well, here’s why there’s already two strikes against Cloud Atlas,” and none of them are going to say that it’s a great movie. They will never even touch on the fact that we think it’s one of the greatest motion pictures ever made. We’re not allowed to [say] that because we have all been together before to talk about other movies that we’ve been in and we’ve been lying through our teeth when we’ve said, “Yeah, it’s a pretty good movie,” when we hated it. The point is that they have created something. When I first met [the directors], Lana said, “I want to take something as important, as groundbreaking, and as new and scary as Moby Dick was, the day it was published – and it was not a success when it was published – and 2001: A Space Odyssey, which was a movie that played in theaters for four and a half years, and now is the classic that it is, for all time.” Marketing people don’t want to hear that. They do not want to hear that. They want to hear, “This is a story about a guy who’s trying to get laid, and he can’t do it until he meets the cheerleader.” That’s what they want to hear.
Had either of you read this book, before reading the script?
BERRY: No, I hadn’t. I only actually read the book after we made the movie, and that was by design. When Lana and Andy [Wachowski] first called me up and told me about it, I said, “I haven’t read the book. Do I need to read the book?” And they said, “No, actually, don’t read the book. Just read our screenplay.” Honestly, that was largely enough to wrap my brain around what that screenplay was, so I didn’t even try. I just accepted what they said, and I read it after. We got done shooting this movie on December 23rd. I got back home in L.A. and I started reading it on Christmas day. I think I read it easier. Some people struggled, the first time around, with certain parts of it. But, after playing all these characters and really understanding the screenplay, the reading of it, after I got through Adam Ewing, was much, much easier and very enjoyable for me.
What are some of your favorite movies?
BERRY: I love The Graduate. That’s one of my all-time favorites.
HANKS: I’ll try to get as current as possible because it’s so easy to say a movie that I saw 30 years ago. I thought that Fargo was a brilliant motion picture. That’s one of my favorites of all time. I’ve seen 2001: A Space Odyssey about 120 times, or something like that. I think one of the greatest movies ever made is The Best Years of Our Lives, which follows the story of those three veterans, when they come back home. And the fact that they made that in 1949 is extraordinary to me.
Tom, were you involved in the process of figuring out how Georgie (Hugo Weaving) would talk to Zachry?
HANKS: Only in that, when we were there, Hugo was talking to me just [to the side of me]. That can be intimidating. He’s not there, he’s me. He’s verbalizing the fears and the worries that I, myself, have. So, it was simple, and yet he had to crawl around from the other side of the rock to get there. There’s one scene that’s just so bone-chilling, when his hand just appears with all those feathers on it and he starts whispering to me. That was very early in the shoot, too. That was pretty quick.
HANKS: That was when I was holding onto the rope and my hands were bleeding. I laid down on the set and he walked towards me, and they tilted the camera to make it look like that.
BERRY: When I first saw the movie, I saw that and thought, “How did they do that?!”
HANKS: Hugo had to work like crazy, in all those scenes. He had a huge amount of verbiage, and they shot it from 19 different angles and put it all together. I remember going, “Hey, thanks, Hugo, I saw exactly what you were saying.” It wasn’t interaction. It was like implanting the thoughts into my head. It was pretty cool.
Even though you guys weren’t all together at once, was there still that collaborative spirit?
BERRY: We were together for a read-through in Germany, before we all got started. That was the first time [we were together]. Not every single person was there, but almost the entire cast was there for that. I think that was such a great experience because Tom Tykwer, who did the score, played the music for everybody, so we heard what it would sound like. It was already written before we even started. There were pictures, all over the walls, of the sets and the characters, so we were able to go into this world. We all heard the lines being read by the real actors, for the very first time, in this room. From that point on, we went off in our different directions and did our stuff, but that first meeting solidified our connection, and we realized that it’s a big ensemble and we’re all in this and playing our parts and supporting each other.
HANKS: I met Xun Zhou the day she played her dead body. That was the first day we met. She came from China, so she couldn’t be there [before that]. It was like Movie-Making 101, where you go, “All right, this is your sister. You love her very much. She helped raise you. She’s the mother of the little girl. And she’s dead now, so you’re very upset about that. She’s been murdered. All right, and action!”
HANKS: I’ve seen the movie three times now, and I’m always finding these new versions of the way they connected everybody to everybody else. There are small ways, like details of what books they’re reading or what things they’re creating, and also the struggles that they’re going through. At one point, I realized that this is all about the battle of being free and the whole essence of freedom. Adam Ewing becomes an abolitionist. Robert Frobisher is not allowed to love who he wants to love. Luisa Rey discovers this vast conspiracy that is going to literally enslave people, as far as the energy that powers their lives. Every one of them is fighting against this brand of cosmic injustice that is completely defined by the era that they are in, so that by the time you get to the end of it, [Meronym] is fighting to stay alive because radiation is actually killing her and Zachry is trying to escape the primitive dangers of these cannibals that are trying to kill him. So, it’s all variations and versions of freedom from slavery, or the embrace of freedom that you cannot comprehend. Hugh Grant always talks about the status quo and the natural order of things. In every one of those generations, the natural order of things enslaves people, and it shows that some people are meant to be kept down, and you just can’t change things. Well, that’s not what the human condition or human history has proven, again and again and again and again. I’m not saying that that was on the forefront of what we were doing, every day. Every day, we were just trying to figure out, “Is this a real moment? Does this make sense?” But, in the minds of mom, dad and Tom – the geniuses who were our bosses – they knew that. They were slowly sheparding to that, and they kept adding these little dollops of what that connection is. I just think that’s friggin’ extraordinary.
Tom, will you ever do another straight wacky comedy again? Do you ever look for those types of films?
HANKS: I’ll read anything that comes across the pipe, but it’s got to be about something, at the end of the day. I don’t think anybody is anxiously baiting their breath to see if I’m ever going to do a ‘Burbs again.
Cloud Atlas opens in theaters on October 26th.