Eastwood and Hanks talk ‘Sully,’ their film about the humble, smiling hero who landed on the Hudson River

"Sully" director Clint Eastwood, left, and star Tom Hanks.
“Sully” director Clint Eastwood, left, and star Tom Hanks.
(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

In Clint Eastwood’s newest film as a director, “Sully,” Tom Hanks plays Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, the US Airways pilot who made an emergency landing in the Hudson River in January of 2009 after a flock of geese crippled the engines in his jet. Written by Todd Komarnicki and co-starring Aaron Eckhart as Sullenberger’s co-pilot and Laura Linney as his wife, “Sully” focuses on the captain’s split-second decision-making in the air.

Even as Sullenberger was treated as a hero in the media, few knew that the decisions he made in a window of less than fours minutes after losing his engines would come under intense scrutiny — from both his airline and national safety regulators.

It would plague the pilot for months.

In a late-August interview, Eastwood and Hanks talked about the heroism of Sullenberger’s story, the thing that annoys them most about other directors and how a Democrat and a sometime Republican find common ground during one of the most contentious U.S. elections to date.


Tom Hanks stars as Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger in Clint Eastwood’s new film.

What made you think this four minutes would yield a larger story?

Eastwood: My assistant put the script on my desk along with about four other things, and it said, “Untitled story about Captain Sullenberger and the Hudson River,” and I thought, “Well, I know what that story is about. Everybody was saved. The iconic shot with 155 people on the wings in the Hudson.” But I read it one night and realized, “Oh ... there is conflict there.”

Tom, what did you know about Sully?

Hanks: Man, what a landing. What a hero. The real emotional spine of it I had no concept of. He was a humble, smiling hero who just did his job, and that’s all I knew.


With white hair.

Hanks: Yes, which is actually chemically very hard to create. I spent a lot of time in hair and makeup while experts stood behind me and talked about the problems with my scalp. It turns out there’s no reverse Grecian Formula.

Clint, you had actually experienced a water landing — or water crash — when you were in the Army. How did that impact you?

Eastwood: It was a military plane. I was just a passenger. In those days you could get a free flight if you were in uniform. I was a 21-year-old kid, thinking that that was gonna be my last trip. We landed off of Point Reyes, Calif. The plane sunk immediately, so we swam into Point Reyes. The few hours that we spent in the water -- it was white shark breeding ground … In hindsight, if I’d known that at the time I could have died of some sort of occlusion. It was a harrowing experience for a young guy. But it was a good experience to have for this particular project because I knew what the plane was going through. The plane literally becomes a boat for a while.

Hanks: Did you ever meet the pilot?

Eastwood: No. I was supposed to hang loose for a hearing like the one we have here, but I never heard back. Like a good Sgt. Bilko-esque person I kept my eyes open and my mouth shut. It kept me out of going to Korea at the time.

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Why do you think Sully’s landing got the attention it did?

Hanks: It was uplifting because, jeez, things sort of worked. That institution we have, of expertise and professionalism and grace under pressure and instinct, actually came through.

Is there a place for this kind of hero — a guy who’s really competent -- on the big screen in an era when we’re accustomed to guys with capes and magical powers?

Eastwood: I think there is. I don’t know how everybody else feels, but I just long for reality rather than these made-up things. … When I was a kid, I remember the first Batman, the first Superman comic books when they came out, thinking how great that was and wouldn’t it be great to see a movie like that. They did some cheap serials, but they’re not the same as today. But I think younger audiences would like to see a real hero also.

Is it different acting with a director who is also an actor?


Hanks: It is, ’cause they know what’s required. All directors should have to act and all actors should have to direct, so that they can understand all these key things that come into play with whether you can meet your day. I went off and surveyed everybody I knew who had worked with Clint and said, “Is it true?” That’s all you have to say.

Is what true?

Hanks: The one take. One actor, I won’t say who it is, said, “He is so obviously ‘the man.’” I said, “I think I understand what you’re saying.” The pleasure of working with somebody who’s an actor is they don’t waste time with stuff that doesn’t matter. There is a shorthand. … I don’t have to explain anything, I just have to do it. Let’s not talk about it.

Eastwood: I’ve worked with many directors, as Tom has. I was always annoyed by too much explaining. I had one well known director who kept saying, “Now Clint, this is what ….” And I’d say, “I know. I read the script. I’m the one who cast you as the director. Let me show you and you’ll correct me if I’m wrong.” Acting is an animal thing, not an intellectual thing, once you get past all the BS. I’ve been to all the classes and heard of all the different techniques. It’s a fun profession, but you have to take it for what it is; you’re not curing cancer.

In the early days you have a tendency to intellectualize, but you’re really just trying to sound smart and score with the chicks.

— Tom Hanks

Hanks: In the early days you have a tendency to intellectualize, but you’re really just trying to sound smart and score with the chicks.

Speaking of the early days, Tom, they’re remaking “Splash” with a woman, Jillian Bell, in your role.

Hanks: Why not? Sure, go ahead. Give it a shot. It’ll have pre-awareness for the marketing and it’ll have a new twist. And who’s the Merman?

Channing Tatum is playing Darryl Hannah’s part.

Eastwood: That’s got to be a winner. It’ll probably outgross the first one.

Hanks: You could also do it with me and Channing Tatum.

That would be another twist.

Hanks: Who could say no to that? That guy’s gorgeous.

Which of Clint’s roles could you imagine a woman in?


Hanks: Dirty Harriet.

Eastwood: I’d say, go ahead, shoot your shot. More power to ya if you can come up with a different angle on the character.

This election, a lot of Americans are finding it hard to talk to friends and family who are on the other side of the aisle from them. Clint, you’ve spoken out on behalf of Republicans in the past. Tom, you’ve backed Democrats. How do you guys handle it?

Eastwood: I’m not on either side of the aisle. I think most Americans are going, “What the ... ? Is this all we can do?”

Hanks: I’m so glad it’s going on for another 60 days. Let’s send in the ballots right now. I don’t think anybody’s mind’s gonna be changed. “Oh, she explained that. Oh, he took that back. Oh, well, that changed my whole reasoning for it.”

Eastwood: When there were 17 people on the stage [in the early GOP debates], I thought, well, there are three or four people up there I could see voting for. They seem pretty good. I had a few …. And then I thought, what the hell happened?

Hanks: The average movie set is the least political arena on Earth. Nobody bothers talking about politics because, one, we all love the job so much. You don’t talk about current events. You talk about old show business stories and whether or not there’s gonna be French onion dip at the craft services table that day.


Eastwood: I used to be extremely liberal and went through the ’50s with the House Un-American Activities Committee and the Hollywood 10. As you get older, you change certain things. I found out that a lot of my liberal friends weren’t liberal because they weren’t liberal about approaching anybody else’s ideas, or at least standing for it. They started getting really animalistic about, “I can’t even associate with this guy. He’s stupid. He’s an idiot.”

You mean liberal in the sense of being tolerant of other people’s ideas?

Eastwood: Yeah, that’s the ultimate liberal, isn’t it?

I hate to pick up the paper. I think both individuals and both parties backing the individuals have a certain degree of insanity.

— Clint Eastwood

So when you say you’re not on either side of the aisle, does that mean you’re not voting for Trump?

Eastwood: I’m totally an enigma. I’m just astounded. I hate to pick up the paper. I think both individuals and both parties backing the individuals have a certain degree of insanity.

Hanks: I’ve worked with people who are much further to the left than I am and much further to the right than I am. At the end of the day, who gives a ... . Good for you. This is America. Vote your conscience.

Eastwood: If the director’s a communist, whatever, he’s a communist. Feel the Bern. I’m with him. All I care is that he directs. For the actor, the same thing. All you really care is that he comes in and performs.

Hanks: And everybody buys in on five-dollar Friday.

What’s five-dollar Friday?

Hanks: You don’t know? You work for the L.A. Times! Five-dollar Friday is somebody walks around the set with a bucket. You write your name on a five-dollar bill and put it in. At the end of the day on Friday somebody reaches in and pulls out a winner. I have never worked on a movie in Los Angeles that did not have five-dollar Friday. I’ve only won once, on “Charlie Wilson’s War.” When you’re above the line, you have to split it with the [production assistants].


Eastwood: I’ve never been on a movie where they play five-dollar Friday. I must not be very observant.

Hanks: You’re showing your left here, Clint — “I put no importance in money.”

Eastwood: Hey, everybody puts importance in money on a film set.

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