In Charlie Wilson's War, Tom Hanks plays a hard-living Texan Congressman under investigation for cocaine use by none-other than (then Federal Prosecutor) Rudy Giuliani. Who then is encouraged by a Houston socialite (and former daytime talk show host) to help the people of Afghanistan, and eventually is responsible for the US intelligence involvement in the area and the founding of what becomes a major part of US foreign policy for years to come. Oh, and it is a completely true tale and both the congressman and the socialite are still alive and well. So no pressure there then.
Buzzine's Emmanuel Itier sat down with Tom Hanks in Los Angeles, CA for an interview which begin by examining the perils of playing someone who is standing on the set with you and of trying to remain visible when onscreen with Julia Roberts... and spiralled out into Mr. Hanks thoughts on an impending writer's strike in Hollywood, the possibility of computers replacing actors and his secrets of a happy marriage...
Emmanuel Itier: What worried you most about playing a real character in this film?
Tom Hanks: Not mucking up his motivations. The only other time I’ve played someone real was Jim Lovell, and that was pretty simple: He didn’t want to die in space. That was pretty basic motivation to play. Here, with Charlie, we’re not in the business of screwing up someone’s life or lying about them. And in as complex and difficult a world as politics, in one way it’s clear-cut and black and white. And then Charlie with his womanizing and his recreational everything, there are a lot of things you could go to in order to try and simplify his motivations for what he did.
I think that’s a sin. If you’re going to do that–if you’re going to change what really happened, then people are going to be in places they never were and will say things they never said. The chronological order will be all messed up. It’s going to be compressed and people will come to their conclusions much faster than they really did. You’re going to alter history to a degree.
But there’s a way to do that with authenticity, to encapsulate the story and still stay true to what really went on. It gets difficult when you’re making a movie that needs to entertain people, blah blah, and maintain the true sense of what motivated these people. You want to make it easy, simple, and recognizable to everybody. You want to make it like A, B, C and D. If you do that too much or in direct opposition to what really went on, why in the world would you call it Charlie Wilson’s War? Call it “Pete Smith Went to Pakistan,” just make it up.
The dilemma that I or we always face as a producer or actor is starting off from what really happened, and if what really happened is different from what we’re doing, why are we making it up? That’s the hardest thing.
EI: If a job is worth doing, it is worth doing well... so, are you ready for that third Oscar?
TH: Sure. Yeah. You bet. Bring it on. Fine! I guess it’s the Oscar season, although that begins now earlier and earlier every year. Who’s going to win? I’m going to give it to him right now. I haven’t seen his movie, but I’ve seen the poster and it’s fantastic.
EI: You bought the movie rights to this book a little more than five years ago. Why was is now the right time for this?
TH: It wasn’t a matter of now being the right time. We purchased the book very quickly, and it wasn’t like there was going to be a bidding war. There are a lot of people who wouldn’t want to bid on this, wouldn’t see the potential because it’s a piece of journalism. When we read it, I said, “I don’t know how to make this movie. I only know this is a fascinating story, and if we can somehow capture the way politics really works and have it map out in a way that geo-politically is historically accurate, I think there’s a way of doing it.”
It sits around for a while and sometimes the only people who believe that are us in the office. First Aaron Sorkin was interested, then he went away for a while, and while we were looking for someone else, other people came in and said, “Here’s what I would do with this story,” and we didn’t believe it. They wanted to turn it into something other than what it was. We kept saying, “Look, this is called Charlie Wilson’s War and we want to make Charlie Wilson’s War.” Aaron finally wrote it and without question it was great, but as soon as you write the blueprint, it was, “Okay, how do we actually make this?” And then when Mike Nichols comes along, you end up going back to square one with every decision you’ve made so far.
We would have made this movie in 2003 if it had gone fast, but it didn’t. There are a lot of “war movies” right now–movies dealing with the war on terrorism or the war in Iraq. This is not one of those movies. I understand people have machine guns and there are helicopters in the sky and Muslims, but those are not enough criteria to make this about what’s happening in Iraq or even Afghanistan today. It’s about one of many chapters of Western society’s involvement in this very, very complex place that goes back thousands of years.
We could have made this movie in 2002 or we could have made this in 16 years’ time, and it would have been as relevant because it’s a period movie about something that happened about 27 years ago. Afghanistan was invaded in November of 1979. I remember being at a friend’s house for an impromptu Thanksgiving dinner and Jimmy Carter was on saying the Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan. So it’s a movie that has some tenuous connections to what’s going on now, maybe some more specific because, guess what? Peshawar and Afghanistan are still a mess.
EI: Were you always planning on playing Charlie?
TH: Yes, because I just read it and thought he was an amazing man. If someone else had come along that would have been better casting as Charlie, I would have agreed to that. As a producer, I think I’m pretty good casting as Charlie and as an actor.
Well, let’s see…if the name of the movie is Charlie Wilson’s War, I think I’d like to play Charlie Wilson. This is very funny, but when it was first announced we had the rights to the book, I got a letter from Brian Dennehy who knew Phil [Seymour Hoffman] and said, “Should you ever get around to this, you really must consider Phil to play Gus. Not only does he look almost exactly like him, but he’s such a brilliant actor, he will be able to bring him to life.” So in my head, there was no one else to play the role.
EI: Is Charlie as large as life as you portray him?
TH: He’s even larger–even bigger. He makes energetic actors look like lazy adolescents. He’s about 75 now. He just had a heart transplant, if you can believe that, to give him another 20 years probably. He beat himself up pretty bad. He probably would have lived a long time but would have been almost infirm because he had a badly-diseased heart. This way, he’s going to be around for a lot longer. He is brilliant in a lot of ways. He’s sober now - that’s a big difference. He’s married to a fabulous woman named Barbara and they travel every place. There are parts of Texas where he is as beloved as Ringo Starr is in Liverpool.
EI: But doesn't all of that make it even harder to play a real guy?
TH: Sure, because you want to get it right. Plus, Charlie is taller than I am. He’s got a lantern jaw. He’s better looking than I am. He’s got an incredible physical presence and an odd taste in clothes. And he also has a huge amount of experience with the ladies, and even the women in our office were saying, “He’s got something. He’s a charming guy.” But the other thing he has is he has no hypocrisy in his life, whereas an actor makes his living by way of hypocrisy. But it’s the motivation–why he was in politics in the first place.
I wanted to get the same degree of passion and certainty–stuff that is not easy to fake. Charlie was around a lot when we were making this movie and I’d always say, “What do you think? Come at me.” He took us to task quite a bit, constantly over things that were in the script. He was okay with what I was doing, but I kept saying to him, “Jeez, Charlie, I wish I was taller...”
EI: Did you concur with Mike Nichols, that Julia was the only woman to play Joanne?
TH: Sure, yeah. Mike, very early on, said, “How about Julia?” and I said, “If you can deliver, she’s absolutely perfect.” And she is, come on! Joanne is a ball of fire. She has the same exact amount of drive, desire and preparation that she did back in the heyday, and Julia really sank her chops into this thing. We were rehearsing one day and she and her team were looking about for something to do and she said, “Why don’t I do this?” And she took a safety pin and started separating her eyelashes, and I was thinking, “Great, I’m going to knock myself out here and all anybody’s going to talk about is you and that f***ing safety pin.” And that’s what Joanne would really appreciate – a scene that is all about her.
EI: What was it like working with Julia?
TH: She’s magnificent. She has priorities that go far beyond making movies, and yet she knows exactly where she is in the zeitgeist of the business. She also is a consummate actress who’s completely prepared and requires no maintenance whatsoever. And because of the atmosphere Mike creates in the course of preparation, there was no self-consciousness at all: It was like acting with a really good friend.
EI: Charlie Wilson has changed over the years. Has America?
TH: Well, the whole world has changed. Remember a thing called the Soviet Union? Kind of miss that Soviet Union now...
EI: Who are the bad guys now?
TH: Alas, I think it’s always proportional. There always seems to be the same amount of bad guys. It always seems to be 50/50. I think any brand of fanaticism that says you have to live the way we live, those are bad guys. There are bad guys all over the place, but there are good guys too. Just because they wear a hat we don’t recognize, it doesn’t mean everybody wants to kill us. There are some people out there who just want to raise their kids and sleep warm at night. But there are enough people who say I don’t want people to raise their kids and sleep warm at night unless they believe as I believe, and those are bad guys. But we have some of those who live right here in America too.
EI: Are you planning on directing again?
TH: Quite frankly, I’m still in my child-rearing years and I don’t want to take up that much time. I’m very artistically satisfied with the creative producing I’ve been able to do and being an actor. First of all, I’m not a born director. I think I can do it now. I think I’ve learned enough and could turn out something that resembles what’s in my head, but I don’t want to sacrifice right now.
EI: This is the first time you have worked with Mike. Why did you wait so long?
TH: He wouldn’t hire me for any of his other jobs. We had come close to doing a couple of other things which either he did not direct, or I did not appear in. We have a mutual appreciation of society and have known each other for over 20 years, but it just didn’t work out.
EI: You said earlier you wished you were taller for this. What else in life do you wish you were?
TH: Well, Jeez. More well-read, bilingual, more favoring of vegetables…
TH: No, because I’ve made the announcement: “I ain’t eating broccoli.” I’ll eat it raw, that’s fine. And raw carrots. You know how you go to a restaurant and they say, “Well of course we have our plate of steamed vegetables…” I would say, “You can take that and throw it away. I’m not going to order it.” I like some good spinach, some green beans, some good kale every now and again, the classic French version of asparagus with a nice vinaigrette. I’ll go with that, but you start getting into squash or cauliflower or stuff like that, and I’m not so interested.
EI: That is some straight talking: is that, in your eyes one of the secrets to a good marriage? What otherss do you know?
TH: Never getting divorced! By picking the right person and saying, “Hey, guess what - you’re the one for me.” That’s pretty much what happened. It’s as simple as that. I have a great friend who also happens to be the woman I like to sleep with every chance I get. It all seems to work out. There are no real secrets except the original match.
EI: Will Rita act again soon?
TH: Well, she’s in Old Dogs with Robin Williams and John Travolta, and just directed a short film for Glamour magazine’s Reel Moments series, and she’s doing a lot of writing. She writes for Harper’s Bazaar – she’s working on her sixth or seventh piece for them – and she just wrote a piece for Oprah’s magazine. I married this Renaissance woman all of a sudden. Holy cow! I’m like, “Can you knit me some socks or something?” in order to bring some domesticity to our marriage, and she steadfastly refuses. But I accept that... and that’s one of the secrets to having a good marriage.
EI: What’s your take on the writers’ strike?
TH: There’s a lot at stake. The last time the writers were on strike, they were out for 22 weeks, but that was a different world. I can see reasons for both sides refusing to budge. I can understand them both. I can also see both sides saying, “If we don’t go back to work now…” this will linger for a very long time now. You know, there are only 24 hours in a day and a lot of ways to entertain yourself now, and so that audience that does not watch your show or go to your movie is going to be doing something else.
When I say “the industry,” I also mean the art form of entertaining people by way of a screen, no matter how big it is, and that is at a mysterious crossroads in which a quarter mile is nothing but fog and you can’t see where anything is going. On one hand, it has the international conglomerates who also make jet engines, milk, baby diapers and Bic pens, and are looking at an unknown revenue reality. But at the same time, you’ve got writers who create stuff that, for some reason, is being given away for free on the Internet and yet there is advertising revenue that comes from those sites.
So something is going to have to be figured out, and it just may take a huge amount of time in order to figure out what that is, because no one knows what’s coming down the pike. They only know one thing and that’s that the last time we were at this juncture, a little thing called a videocassette or a CD or a pay-per-view movie made the studios and those conglomerates 18 gajillion billion dollars. That’s all they know. Whether or not they are going to lose or make that much money on the next round of gadgets remains to be seen. I’m disappointed they haven’t reached an agreement, but I’m not surprised.
EI: Talking of things being changed by technology, did you see Beowulf? You were one of the first into the performance-capture medium with The Polar Express - how does Beowulf represent a step forward for that technique?
TH: I did. I saw it in 3D and it was pretty magnificent in many ways, and in other ways I said, “Well, okay, that works good.” It will be interesting to see how it grows. When we did The Polar Express' motion capture, it was like something we did in our garage compared with what they did on Beowulf. Now they have sensors on the back of their heads that measure the facial expressions in different ways, including the eyes, when ours could barely animate. Depending how fast the computer abilities move, it’s going to remain to be seen whether it will be cheaper, faster or better.
In theory, it does allow anybody to play any role. Look at Ray Winstone. If you go out and meet Ray Winstone now, he doesn’t look like the guy in the calendar in the bar – he looks like the guy serving beers behind the bar. So that’s interesting, and it still has a huge amount of potential and I leave it up to a guy like Bob to take something like Beowulf and turn it into something amazing. There are sequences in it that just blew me out of my head. And Monster House, which also was motion capture, might be an easier way to do it because you’re not going for photo-realism. It’s to be seen... I don’t know.
EI: Could actors eventually be replaced by computers?
TH: The actual, physical apparition of an actor, maybe, but not the voice, the interpretation or the role. The writers are not going to be replaced by it, the directors aren’t going to be replaced by it, even the concept of cinematography is not going to be replaced. And not everyone can do this. This is why they keep coming back to us and asking us: They’re always going to need actors somehow, even if it’s just introducing the movie to the press...
EI: Keep doing that - what’s the status of Angels and Demons?
TH: Those movies are written every day. You go to the set and you keep writing. You’d think Dan Brown wrote a book, so you just adapt a book – well, that’s just impossible. We got to the point where people were literally going to start paying to have nails and hammers being used to build something somewhere, and we couldn’t do it.
We don’t know exactly what’s going to happen so it got pushed by way of the work stoppage. I actually belong to all three guilds – Actors, Writers and Producers – so I have been negotiating but have broken off talks with myself. And I have a guild [SAG] that might not let me go to work in June, so who knows what’s going to happen.
EI: Finally for today, while you are thinking of the business side of the movie business, what is the most profound lesson that have you learned from entertainment so far?
TH: I was just enthralled by everything I ever saw and I thought, “You mean you can make a living doing that? That sounds like a pretty good scam.’ Rather like writing about movies – that sounds like a pretty good scam too, doesn’t it?[Laughs]
Universal Pictures' 'Charlie Wilson's War' is in theaters from December 21, 2007.