In 1979, when Tom Hanks was just another struggling New York actor, he withdrew a biography of Walt Disney from the public library and found himself fascinated by the animator’s story, in particular his tenaciousness in the face of early professional struggles.
“Walt had so many business setbacks that would have broken other guys,” Hanks said. “His ability to see potential in this goofy little art form makes him an equal to, I’m sorry, Picasso or Steve Jobs or anybody like that.”
Thirty-five years later, Hanks, 57, is one of cinema’s biggest stars and one of the very few actors alive who could get away with playing Disney on screen, as he does opposite Emma Thompson in John Lee Hancock’s “Saving Mr. Banks,” a drama about the creative struggles behind the Disney movie “Mary Poppins.”
At the same time, the two-time Oscar winner appears in a very different performance, as a New England seaman using guile and grit to survive a kidnapping in Paul Greengrass’ “Captain Phillips.”
Both movies rely on Hanks’ unusual ability to play larger-than-life and everyman at one time — to be a man capable of leading a ship’s crew or a film studio, yet vulnerable enough to crumple in the arms of a Navy medic or in the face of a withering comment about his “silly cartoons.”
And both movies have received award season attention, with the “Captain Phillips” performance earning Hanks Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Award nominations.
In an autumn interview on the Sony Pictures lot, where Hanks was in between guild screenings of “Captain Phillips,” the actor spoke about his creative choices on those movies and on what he saw in those characters that spoke to him — namely a hearty appetite for work.
“Every actor or actress has countenances they bring to a part,” Hanks said. “Sometimes it’s a perfect mesh, and sometimes it’s not. If it’s not, you might be able to get there if you do the work. Part of it is completely physical, the voice, the body. But the other part of it is the motivation. If my countenance doesn’t match up, I have to feel as though everything I’ve learned will get me to the place where I need to be.”
Hanks’ fame — after decades of memorable starring roles in such films as “Philadelphia” and “Forrest Gump,” which won him his two Oscars, and “Big,” “Saving Private Ryan” and “Castaway,” which earned him three more nominations — can be both a help and a hindrance to a performance.
“There’s nothing I can do about [being famous],” Hanks said. “I mean, literally, what can you do except follow a certain degree of instinct and just go with it? And, look, I am getting older, so I look different than I did a long time ago.”
In casting “Saving Mr. Banks,” Hancock said he wanted an actor whose face moviegoers would recognize as surely as TV viewers recognized “Uncle Walt” when he hosted his anthology shows in the 1950s and ‘60s.
“I felt strongly we needed an icon to play an icon,” Hancock said.
In the film, written by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith, Disney is faced with one of the biggest challenges of his career, when P.L. Travers (Thompson), the Australian author of the “Mary Poppins” series, is resistant to the studio’s attempts to adapt her books. Taking place over two weeks in 1961, the movie follows the author on a trip to California, where she meets — and maddens — Disney and his songwriters Robert (B.J. Novak) and Richard Sherman (Jason Schwartzman) and screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford).
Hanks said he was initially skeptical that he could play Disney for the man’s own studio, asking the filmmakers how rounded a portrait of Disney they expected to show.
“Are there going to be a couple of warts on the guy?” Hanks said. “And I found that what the screenplay did and what John Lee Hancock was going after was enough of a real guy that ... it would be deeper than the Uncle Walt who was hosting the TV show.”
Walt Disney Chairman Bob Iger called Hanks himself to offer the part, and the actor set about preparing by visiting the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco and talking with Disney’s daughter, Diane Disney Miller, as well as some of the mogul’s old colleagues.
He learned from Richard Sherman, for instance, that Disney had a chronic smoker’s cough, which Hanks adopted for the film. He also wore Disney’s slim mustache and insisted to Hancock that Disney be surrounded by piles of scripts and blueprints on his desk.
“He worked all the time,” Hanks said. “If it wasn’t scripts and stories or payroll, he was literally building Disney World at the time.”
In “Captain Phillips,” Hanks was also drawn to a tale about an industrious man, merchant mariner Richard Phillips, who was taken hostage by Somali pirates in 2009.
The screenplay, written by Billy Ray, follows Captain Phillips as he steers his massive cargo ship along the Somali coast, where a group of pirates led by Muse (Barkhad Abdi) board and terrorize the crew.
Hanks asked the real Richard Phillips, who lives in Vermont, about a scene in the script in which the captain pauses and ponders the horizon.
“He said, ‘Tom I haven’t done that in 35 years,’ ” Hanks said Phillips told him. “The captain’s job is a truly pressure-filled one that never stops. And I was fascinated by that, because it ends up impacting everything that happens.”
For Hanks, the work on the film was extremely physical, with Greengrass shooting on ships in open water and photographing Hanks swimming in a tank for one sequence. During filming, some of the crew got sick from the pitch of the sea.
But the most harrowing moment came from an emotional challenge — the last scene in the movie, an improvised moment in which a Navy medic tends to a wounded, freshly rescued Capt. Phillips.
Many critics have called the moment among the best in Hanks’ long career.
“To get that moment as an actor and play it with absolute humanity, it’s the best,” Greengrass said.
For Hanks, playing Capt. Phillips — and Walt Disney — was a gamble worth taking, he said.
“Even though it would seem as though there’s some kind of business decision, it’s never been anything but a leap of faith,” Hanks said. “And I’ve felt good about all the leaps of faith I’ve taken.”