Hanks takes career down a dark `Road'

Actor plays a killer in his newest film

July 08, 2002|By Ron Dicker | Ron Dicker,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

CHICAGO -- The air conditioning blasts out the muggy Midwest afternoon, but perspiration still beads on Tom Hanks' face as he settles in for an interview at a downtown hotel. "I'm Michael Corleone back from Havana," he jokes.

Hanks, the first actor to win back-to-back Academy Awards since Spencer Tracy, has not had a reason to sweat at the box office in a long time. Every one of his movies since 1992's A League of Their Own has come up dollar signs. His last 10 films have averaged more than $179 million.

A little change of pace like Road to Perdition, opening Friday, isn't going to throw him, either.

America's latter-day Jimmy Stewart goes darker as a contract killer hellbent on revenge for the murder of his wife and youngest son. Winter rains and shadows shroud Hanks' pasty visage as he stalks his prey in Depression-era Chicago, his one living son in tow.

Mr. Mermaid-lover, Meg Ryan-kisser, G.I.-saver offing people? Get used to it. "The contract killer with the heart of gold," he snickers.

Hanks points out that he took a chance in his last venture, the 2000 survivalist epic Cast Away. It was almost a silent movie, he says, and it connected with audiences.

"The risks are inherent in whatever it's gonna be," says Hanks, who earned his fifth Oscar nomination for Cast Away. "Forrest Gump was a ridiculous risk. Every movie that comes out, the monetary aspect is so huge, and there's so much pressure."

Hanks isn't the only principal whose collar might be feeling a little tight. Road to Perdition is director Sam Mendes' sophomore movie after winning the Best Director Oscar for 1999's American Beauty.

"I've always felt there's kind of a latent darkness in Tom that's underestimated," Mendes says. "In parts like Philadelphia and Punchline, there's a lot of rage in what he's done in the past. People forget that with the softer movies in recent years."

In Perdition, Hanks invites moviegoers not to love him for a change; just watch him. "As soon as somebody shoots somebody point-blank in the head, whatever those motivations are become incredibly checkered," he says. "You get into some complicated stuff that is not love and puppy dogs."

The actor, who turns 46 tomorrow, acknowledges the movie, written by David Self from a graphic novel by Max Allan Collins, is partly a gangster flick. But he says he was far more interested in peeling back the scab to reveal the open wound of father-son relationships.

Hanks is a henchman for the Irish mob whose wife and youngest son are murdered by the son of the mob boss (Paul Newman) who brought up Hanks as his own. Newman protects his natural-born son (Daniel Craig), so Hanks and his surviving child (Tyler Hoechlin) must hit the road, Hanks contemplating both the father figure who betrayed him and the boy in the passenger's seat, who will do anything for his dad's love.

"Sometimes the concept of going off alone with one of your kids is an incredibly intimidating thing, because you don't have the safety of everyone that's involved," says Hanks, who has three sons and one daughter from two marriages. He and actress Rita Wilson have been married since 1988.

Hanks grew up in a splintered family in the San Francisco Bay area, living in several homes with stepparents. His father liked to make his opinions heard, and they sometimes had a numbing effect on Hanks.

"You'd be a very unwise man to not take into account who your kids are," Hanks says. "By the time they're 2 1/2 years old, it's evident. I think you'll know whether your kid has the same interests or desires. My dad was in the restaurant business, and he could not fathom why I wouldn't want to go down and be the assistant manager at the Jack in the Box down the street."

Rejected for parts in plays at two colleges in Northern California, he dropped out and began acting in community theater. A director encouraged him to try the Cleveland drama scene, and that's where his career began.

The Ohio city is also where co-star Newman was born. Newman says of his fellow star, "He has the quality of not dodging things, which is true off-screen and on-screen. There's no fancy footwork. What you look at is what you get, and that's refreshing."

Hanks was the genuine article from the start. His visibility grew with the cross-dressing TV sitcom Bosom Buddies (1980-82), and he earned his first Oscar nomination as the boy inside the man in Big (1988).

But he forged his eminence in four landmark movies of the 1990s: Philadelphia (1993), Forrest Gump (1994), Apollo 13 (1995) and Saving Private Ryan (1998). He won best-actor Oscars for the first two, but called his experience with Steven Spielberg on Private Ryan life-altering.

He re-teams with the Academy Award-winning director in Catch Me If You Can, playing a detective who chases a master of disguise played by Leonardo DiCaprio. The movie is slated to open on Christmas Day.

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