Tom Hanks Talks SAVING MR. BANKS, His Reluctance to Play Walt Disney, Working with Paul Greengrass on CAPTAIN PHILLIPS, CLOUD ATLAS, and More

by     Posted 364 days ago

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Next month, John Lee Hancock’s (The Blind SideSaving Mr. Banks will open in theaters.  Based on the true story, the pic focuses on Walt Disney’s (Tom Hanks) twenty-year pursuit of the film rights to author P.L. Travers’ (Emma Thompson) novel Mary Poppins and the rocky relationship that formed between the two when she finally came to Hollywood.  Loaded with great performances, a strong script, and the first time Walt Disney has been portrayed on screen, Banks is a likely contender for this year’s award season.  The film also stars Paul Giamatti, Bradley Whitford, Jason Schwartzman, B.J. Novak, Annie Rose Buckley, Ruth Wilson, Rachel Griffiths, Kathy Baker, and Colin Farrell.

At the recent Los Angeles press day, only a few other reporters and I had an intimate thirty-minute roundtable interview with Hanks.  While I’ve been running Collider for over eight years, this was the first time I’d gotten to interview Hanks and am happy to report he’s as nice, friendly, and honest as everyone says.  During the interview, he talked about his initial reluctance to play Disney, how he was convinced to do the role, his process as an actor and if it’s changed over the years, the way Cloud Atlas changed him, what it was like to work with Paul Greengrass on Captain Phillips, future directing plans, and so much more.  It’s a great interview.  Hit the jump for more.

Before going any further, if you haven’t seen the Saving Mr. Banks trailer I’d watch that first.  And if you’d like to listen to the audio of this interview, click here.

saving-mr-banks-posterQuestion: What were your first thoughts when someone asked you to play Walt Disney?

TOM HANKS: Oh I thought, “Oh hell.”  The burden, you know.  Honestly – the responsibility.  I heard about it first from Tony To.  Tony is now – I think he’s head of physical production at Disney.  But he and I did – we executive produced and worked and created on From The Earth to the Moon, Band of Brothers, The Pacific.  We had done a lot of stuff.  So he was over there.  We have lunch every now and again.  He says, “You’ve got to play Walt Disney in this movie we have.”  And I said, “Geez, who needs that pressure.”  Then Bob Iger called me which, you know, he even said, “Look, this is not usually the way this works.  I call you and say well will you do it.”  And I said, “Well, I haven’t” – I hadn’t read the screenplay.  So right off the bat it’s like – I know I’ve turned playing real people into a bit of a cottage industry.  

Like, you know, it’s like please can I just play a fake guy one of these days.  So I know the work that goes into it.  And so the question really was is well what Walt Disney are we gonna see here?  What version of it because I was vaguely aware that it was about the making of Mary Poppins.  I had read a biography of Walt Disney years and years ago that was very vibrant.  And I knew enough of the history of the man to say, “What’s gonna go down?”  And then reading the screenplay I honestly – you can tell if you want to do a movie 12 pages in just because the DNA of the whole story and the whole philosophy of the movie’s all right there.  And because it was about this odd creative process and Walt was at the top of his game – Walt was already the Disneyland guy and, you know, Walt was actually busy building – I knew he was building Disney World at the same time.  So it was a different Walt Disney than I had ever seen.  

And because it was really Emma’s movie I just said, “Okay.  All right.  I understand what this is.”  So now I’ve gotta do the, you know, the monster construction work in order to figure out all this other stuff that goes on.  They kept saying, “Well, we want somebody recognizable like you to play somebody recognizable by Walt Disney.”  And I said, “Is that a good thing?  I’m not so sure that’s a good thing.”  And then when I heard that Paul Giamatti was in it – Paul should play Walt.  Why not him?  He looks – so we just got into a whole thing.  But once I got to the page 12 and I just said yes and I didn’t even have to kind of have a conversation with John Lee Hancock.  I said, “Come on over.  We’ll talk about how we’re gonna do it.”  So we just did.

Well you know how difficult any movie is to get made.  Any movie, you know, even something small.  But could you imagine how – the tenacity that it took.  I mean the 20 years plus everything else plus her constantly turning them down.

HANKS: Oh that, yeah, yeah.

I mean, that’s just an amazing journey.

saving-mr-banks-emma-thompson-tom-hanksHANKS: Well, you know, part of it is like – I understand.  There’s a lot of people out there that see no reason at all to have their hard work, you know, literature turned into movies.  And she – and Emma if she hasn’t already told you – she hated movies.  She hated Walt Disney.  She thought it was a low class art form.  She had this very specific idea who Mary Poppins was.  And the truth is – the fascinating thing happens – she needed the money, you know.  I get that.  But how Walt Disney gave up script approval to somebody is astounding to me.  But, as you can see I think it plays out in the movie realistically.  He said once you get script approval we’ll just turn on the charm and we’ll bring him out here and everybody will be fabulous.  We’ll show them what a homey atmosphere we have and how we’re all just one big happy family.  And, of course, you know it carried no weight.  

I would love to have been, you know, truly privy to whatever that last – that meeting was which did happen.  I mean, he flew to London instantaneously and what they said to each other is amazing.  He might have just said, “Honey, you’re gonna make a, you know, a shitload of money.”  And that might have been enough to, you know, to turn it around.  But, yeah, it’s hard.  It’s hard in order to get that kind of stuff – particularly if the person doesn’t think it’ll be the coolest thing.  You know, I met Elroy Leonard, you know, who writes very different movies than – and I said, “Hey now, what do you think about these – you know the movies that are made of your books?”  And he said just what you said.  It’s so hard to make a movie.  God bless him just for trying.  Which is a – that’s a really good attitude.   That’s a really good attitude to have.

Well you talk about which Disney you were gonna play and that’s one of the things that fascinates me about him is this is a guy that is actively involved in this thing from the beginning and week to week had a Disney that he played.

HANKS: Yeah, yeah. 

And so the materials that you looked at…

HANKS: It was Disney playing Walt Disney.

It was him turning the Disney on and to some degree is that what he’s doing to Travers in the movie? 

HANKS: Oh, absolutely.

Turning on that Disney.

HANKS: Oh, that whole first meeting is, “Oh, it’s gonna be so wonderful.”  And he’s gonna fly out, he’s gonna break hearts and he’s gonna make everybody feel absolutely magnificent.  The thing that was amazing about Walt Disney is he actually – that’s want he went for.  That’s what he was aiming for.  So it wasn’t baloney.  He wasn’t one of these guys who said, “Look, we’ll just turn on the razzle dazzle and we’ll be fine and we’ll fake everybody and we’ll have enough stuff and we’ll get the tickets.”  He did want particularly all the stuff that really had his imprimatur on.  He wanted it to be heartbreakingly special.  For example, he was never satisfied with Cinderella because he didn’t think the characters were drawn with enough – with the same panache that the earlier Disney characters.  So he actually kind of like discarded it.  He downplayed it.  But – I mean, that is just evident in everything from those moments in the wonderful world of color, you know, it’s Walt Disney in performing…

saving-mr-banks-tom-hanks-emma-thompsonWhich is what I grew up on.  Like that era of him on TV.

HANKS: Yeah, and I loved all those shows where he’d say, “Tonight we’re gonna show you our new attraction that we’re bringing in.”  It was like, “Oh my God.”  This was like you’d died and gone to heaven.  But then you had the other one – the other side of him which was an extremely pragmatic businessman.

You don’t build an empire unless you’re a certain kind of person.

HANKS: Well, not only that.  I don’t think you continuously – you don’t continuously push the art form of whatever the art form is even if it’s the idea of a theme park. You know, that came about because he was sitting on a park bench at the carousel in Griffith Park with his daughters.  And he said, “How come this is the only carousel I get to bring my daughters to.  There should be a place where a dad can bring his kids.”  And originally Disneyland was just gonna be this little amusement park that was over on the L.A. River on Buena Vista.  I can show you the plans.  So he was a guy that was always pouring money into his dream literally.  I mean, it sounds hokey but he had – call them dreams, ideas, whatever you want to do.  He poured all of his money into those.  And when you – I’ve heard extensive conversations he’s had about the history of Disney and he glosses over all of the successes and talks instead about the failures, the difficulties, the payroll, the box office. How much Shostakovich costed him for Fantasia.  Is it Shostakovich?

Uh-huh.  Yeah.

HANKS: Was that who it was?  How much that cost him, you know.  So he was always kind of like he had two pens in each hand.  One was to draw, you know, the cartoon and the other one to sign the payroll checks.  So I think you get that in the course of what it is.  Because when it’s just him and his staff in some of the scenes it’s like this for once he just looks up at Tom and he says, “What.”  It’s like what nightmare is coming across my desk now.  Which his, you know, hey, that’s the way business works, you know.

What did it mean to you personally to play Walt Disney?

HANKS: The responsibility of, you know, trying to get it right is the main thing.  But anytime you’re playing anybody real there is – you have to go for some brand – as much sort of like authenticity as the piece allows.  You can’t just go in and make stuff up in order to make – I mean people do but I don’t – I can’t do that – just come in and make stuff up in order to make the movie work a little bit better, you know.  It’s like if they were saying, “You know, I’d like to have Walt Disney smoke a big cigar.”  I’d have to say, “He doesn’t smoke a big cigar.  He smoked three packs a day of cigarettes.  Let’s do that.”  But you can’t have a – “No, I think it’d be great if he always has this big cigar.”  I said, “Well I’m not doing your movie because I’m not gonna turn him into a cigar smoking guy.”  We had a hard enough time trying to have him smoke, you know.  It feels – the authenticity of the thing that trumps all.  You’ve just got to find that.

Fields carefully negotiated.

saving-mr-banks-emma-thompson-bradley-whitfordHANKS: Oh my God.  You guys know how this works.  If we smoke cigarettes in this movie about making Mary Poppins it would be rated R.  That’s just the way it works.

It’s unbelievable.

HANKS: It would be rated R.  So we had negotiations of you cannot light a cigarette, you cannot inhale a cigarette – so all I had to do was put it down.  Now I always had a pack of the cigarettes and sometimes I was playing around with them and a cigarette lighter here and there.  But the man smoked three packs a day.  Well, yeah, he actually thought he had a polo injury and he went into the doctor and they did a surgery and the cancer from his lungs had got up to him.  And he passed away very shortly thereafter.

I’m very curious.  I’d heard rumors about why you really took the role and I really want to put this out there.  Was it true that you took the role because you were gonna be promised a Disneyland passport for life?

HANKS: I’m gonna tell you something that’ll blow that right out of the water.

Good timing.

HANKS: I’m gonna tell you why.  I’ve already got one.  A little thing called Woody.  And a little thing called Toy Story 1, 2 and 3.  Now I can’t get 30 people in there but I think I can just kind of like – I could go down there right now and just have lunch and spend the day.

Take us all down there.

HANKS: You know, I might be able to get you all in.  And you know what I’d do?  I’d find a little – there’s actually a little shady spot on Tom Sawyer’s Island.  The kids can run around to their heart’s content and you can almost take a nap down there.  Just wave to the canoes every now and again.

They probably think you were part of it.

HANKS: Let’s not discount – what do they call it?  The slag factor that comes along with – the access – all access pass.

I really was curious though, when you’ve done – you’ve done a lot for Disney with Pixar and now playing Disney.

HANKS: Turner and Hooch.

I wasn’t gonna bring that…

HANKS: Flash.  Let’s go back to the beginning.

I was gonna say what are the perks that come with making Disney a lot of money?

HANKS: Oh, that’s interesting.  That’s a good question.  You know, that’s very – they’re not telling tales out of school.  The truth is they were afraid of this movie.  One is they sort of had to do it because they had, you know I guess there’s a – legally I think you can make this movie almost anywhere you want to.

saving-mr-banks-jason-schwartzman-bj-novakYou just couldn’t show Mary Poppins stuff.

HANKS: Yeah, you wouldn’t be able to – but you can call anybody what you want to call it.  So that I think between Alan Horn and Bob Iger I think they had some sort of like meeting with you know, I think we have to make this movie.  We can’t let somebody else do it.  And the way I understand it there was no like parsing this out in order to make it palpable.  I mean, Kelly’s screenplay and what Allison wanted to do was the movie that you’re seeing.  But, you know, they were – they have a different type of movie that they make now.  I mean, all studios do.  So a relatively inexpensive movie that’s period, that’s set back in the thing that is about playing songs on a piano in a rehearsal hall and having me dressed up in, you know, one of two different suits.  They were going like is anybody gonna care?  How do we do this? 

It was experimental on what they make these days.

HANKS: Almost, yeah.  And yet I always just said, “You guys are nuts.  This thing is fantastic and I believe you’re in the business of trying to make fantastic movies.  So I think you’re gonna be just fine and dandy.”

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