THE LADYKILLERS - Q&A with Tom Hanks
Before the Coen Brothers started rolling the cameras to capture Tom Hanks latest screen creation as the wonderfully named Goldthwait Higginson Dorr in THE LADYKILLERS, the actor had a full year to let the character "simmer in the pot," as he describes it himself.
It's a phrase which Dorr, a southern gentleman, a lover of the English language and a criminal, would have been proud of himself. And what's more, it obviously paid off - Hanks serves up a feast of a performance, one which, if you'll pardon the pun, he obviously enjoyed tucking into.
"Oh he was fun to play," he says. "He's so wordy, so verbose and it's the kind of language that you don't hear too often, but it's great to be able to speak those words."
Based on the 1955 Ealing classic which starred Alec Guinness and a young Peter Sellers in one of his first film roles, Hanks wasn't interested in doing a re-make, but he was very keen to fulfil a long held ambition of working with Joel and Ethan Coen.
"It was 'the Coens are interested in doing THE LADYKILLERS," recalls Hanks. "'The Coens? Oh OK, say that I'm dropping by....' That's what intrigued me."
Somewhat surprisingly, he still hasn't seen the original film. Once he'd agreed to take the part he felt that it was best to wait until filming was finished before he took a look at Guinness's performance because, understandably, he didn't want to be distracted. "I'll get around to it one of these days," he says.
The Coens have taken the skeleton of the story and made it very much their own. In the original, Professor Marcus (Guinness) rents a room from a dotty and naive old lady (played by a superb Katie Johnson) in the London suburbs and whilst he pretends to rehearse with his fellow musicians, is planning a robbery.
Hanks as Professor Higginson Dorr, PhD, is a charlatan who pretends to be on sabbatical from his university when he rents a room from the formidable widow Mrs Munsen (Irma P Hall) and then proceeds to recruit a band of misfit criminals to rob a casino conveniently close to Mrs Munsen's house. But our criminal mastermind has not bargained for the inquisitive nature and powerful morals of Mrs Munsen.
Hanks, at 47, is arguably the best loved, most successful actor in the world. He has won two Oscars - the first, in 1993, for his moving performance as an Aids stricken lawyer in PHILADELPHIA and a second, a year later, for the title role in the remarkable FORREST GUMP.
He was also nominated for an Oscar for BIG, in which he played a young boy trapped in a man's body, Steven Spielberg's world war two epic SAVING PRIVATE RYAN and for CAST AWAY, playing the sole survivor of a plane crash washed up on a desert island.
Among numerous other memorable performances he has also starred in THE GREEN MILE, SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE, A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN, APOLLO 13, THE ROAD TO PERDITION and CATCH ME IF YOU CAN. He will soon be seen in THE TERMINAL, which saw him reunited with Spielberg for a third time.
Hanks lives in California with his wife of 16 years, the actress Rita Wilson. Together they developed and produced the hit comedy MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING. This interview was conducted during the recent Cannes Film Festival where THE LADYKILLERS featured in competition.
Is it true that this is your first time in Cannes at the festival?
Yes it is. I've never been here to the festival before.
And what it's like?
It's everything it's supposed to be. It's ridiculously glamorous and sunny. If there is a quintessential film festival, this is it. I wish I could go see movies, I wish I didn't have to sit around and talk about my own. I wish I could go out there and have a coffee on the beach and then try and get in and see three movies a day, I think that would be a be a blast. Unfortunately, I just get to see one and I've already seen it (laughs) Not a surprise to be had in it except how they translate some of the words.
Did the Coen Brothers surprise you at all?
I thought they would be much more kind of animated than they were, they are actually these quiet, retiring guys. I must say they are no different now than the first time I met them, I just had lunch with Joel. They don't erupt, they don't sink, they don't do anything, they are straight as a highway. And it was like that from the first time we met to talk about THE LADYKILLERS. It was like 'so how do you want to do this?' and we just started talking and got on with it. I mean, you think they are bizarre, you know? (laughs) You think they wear capes, you know, they have obtuse taste, but they are not like that at all. Ethan always paces around and says 'hey man, let's try this' and Joel is always saying 'well, what we are trying to do is...' and that's it, it never changes.
Have you seen the original LADYKILLERS yet?
No. I haven't seen it. In fact out of all of that (Ealing) school, I've only seen KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS and if someone had come and said 'would you like to do an updated version of KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS?' I wouldn't have done it. Just because I would have had no organic way of approaching it. What am I going to do, do it exactly the same? Make some strange obtuse changes?
So it was a conscious decision not to see the original?
Yeah. And being completely oblivious to the original made it possible for me to see it as simply a Coen Brothers movie. I knew it existed, of course. But kind of like the way that you know that certain Charlie Chaplin films existed. I don't know the particulars of it, I've seen a couple of stills from it and that's it. Like for example when The Boys came - The Boys, I love calling them the Boys - when The Brothers came and said 'what would you think about having some teeth?' If I'd seen the original would have said 'no, no you can't, because Alec Guinness did teeth..' But I had no concept of teeth or no teeth.
He uses some remarkably flowery language. Where did the accent come from?
Well, they wrote him as this kind of petrified southern gentleman kind of thing, but you know, without a doubt, a guy with only two suits and a watch that probably doesn't even work (laughs). And there's this verbosity of this Edgar Allan Poe like dialogue which required going to some place that was almost old school. Actually, I think everything he says is a lie. There's a grain of truth but when he says he's on sabbatical from the university where he teaches, I think he's been on sabbatical for about 17 years, ever since he got stuck in an inappropriate sexual situation with one of his students! So you have to start building on that and it had to be from Mississippi and that just dictates a lot of work you have to do. And the way he talks, if there was one thing that I said it was, 'OK, I have to do this because it will be demanding of me.' Because of the way he talks in that he never hesitates, he is never lost for words and you just riff so much here, the thing has to be like gas from a pump, once it starts going it just has to just roll along. And the Brothers agreed, they were 'oh yeah, that's the way that we saw it too.'
Is it fun, building a character like that physically as well as emotionally?
Yeah, it was fun because we had a lot of time. If I'd read it and three weeks later we were shooting it would have been a disaster but they were busy doing INTOLERABLE CRUELTY at the time so I had as much as a year, I can't remember exactly. So it sat there and simmered in the pot. But yeah, that's the reason I'm an actor, this is the great fun of doing this and that in particular.
It's all very detailed too, the way he talks, the way he looks, and rather old fashioned clothes he wears, with the bow tie, and the cane he carries...
Mary Zophres, who did the costumes, slowly layered this up and I remember we were talking and I just loved everything, the hand made suits and hand made shoes and we were going to go with a string tie kind of thing. And I was like 'no I don't think that's right.' A string tie is too much out of its time, if he is just wearing a bow tie, that's an odd choice. With a string tie he's trying to pretend too hard...But you know, things like that, it's all wonderful, that kind of detail.
Is it fair to compare your THE LADYKILLERS to the original?
I think it's fair in the same way every season somebody does a Hamlet and it's compared to the Hamlet of the last season and sometimes it's better and sometimes it's just different. And you can't deny that it's based on an original and a lot of movies are like that.
But with the Coen Brothers doing it, you know it's going to be a very different film...
That's right. And that's exactly how it came to me. It was 'the Coens are interested in doing THE LADYKILLERS.' 'The Coens? Oh OK, say that I'm dropping by....'
Were they on your list of directors to work with?
The Coen Brothers have been these guys, like John Cassavetes or Woody Allen, every time a movie comes out you want to see the latest Coen Brothers movie, whether you understand it or not (laughs).
You were joking the other day that sometimes you found their films a little hard to understand...
There have been some movies, yeah (laughs). Look, I was with Barton Fink right up to him standing in that flaming hallway and then I wasn't sure what was going on anymore. But they are responsible for movies where I cannot predict what is going to happen next. I don't know how they did it. I watched O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU? and it felt like I was on fire there, it just went so many different places and FARGO is one of the best movies ever made. So is BLOOD SIMPLE and so is RAISING ARIZONA. So these guys are capable of putting together a narrative that is a complete surprise, that is totally unpredictable and also they exist in completely...they are part of the radar but they are under the radar.
Is it easier to play nice guys or villains?
It's easier to play knuckle heads and that's what this guy is - he's just a knuckle head. Really, there is no difference. Every role requires the same amount of make believe and faith in the process and I don't say yes to something unless I have an instinctive knowledge of what it is I am going to have to do in order to get there and in this case there was a huge amount of verbiage that went on and massive amounts of check list stuff - you know he's going to have to have a dialect, he's going to have to be able to rattle this stuff off. But nice guys, bad guys? I try to play somebody who just believes in what they are saying more than anything else. I play people with confidence, whether they are trying to kill an old lady or not, they still are convinced they are doing the right thing and this is the only way to get things done.
But do you sometimes sit at home and think 'OK, next time I have to do something different?'
No, I don't understand how to work that way. It would be an artificial, trying to steer your career in a certain way and that would be very inorganic and it would probably make for a crappy movie. I don't know how to do it other than believing 100 per cent in what we are talking. Even in ROAD TO PERDITION or something like that it can't be 'hey, it's time to go off and completely change the image...' Well if you try to go off and completely change the image well then you could do anything - play a woman, play Superman, do stuff like that. There's just nothing to be had from it.
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