After starting his career – and achieving a high level of success – as a comedic actor, Tom Hanks famously reinvented himself as a dramatic performer with 1993’s Philadelphia, and scored back-to-back Oscars as a result. In the intervening years, he has worked several times with another multiple Oscar winner, Steven Spielberg, with whom he joins forces again for this fall’s Bridge of Spies. He spoke to the press about the role as a recent junket for the film. A copy of his comments follows.
Question: Do you see your character here as maybe a bookend or another chapter in men you’ve played before who are similarly heroic?
Tom Hanks: I don’t view this as a bookend to anything because every movie starts fresh and has to exist on its own in its auspices. The interesting thing that happens when you play somebody real is you have to have meetings with them if they’re alive and you have to say, “Look, I’m going to say things you never said and I’m going to do things you never did and I’m going to be in places you never were. Despite that, how do we do this as authentically as possible?” Much like the boss [Steven Spielberg], I was fueled by no pre-conceived notion of James Donovan. I knew nothing about the man. When you’re coming across the guy who is an awfully good insurance lawyer that then ends up being part of such a momentous six days in history… I’m a selfish actor. I’ll lunge at that opportunity, regardless of anything else I’ve done prior.
Q: was the heart of this character for you?
TH: The key to the guy for me, he wrote an awful lot about his own life. He wrote a book about his experience with Rudolf Abel that goes so in depth into the trial I felt like I was a court stenographer. It just goes on and on and on, this motion and that motion. I ended up not reading it all but look, you look for some degree of superstructure of how it is and outside the fact that he’s got a smokin’ hot wife, you look for something in the past. That he was a prosecutor of the Nuremberg war crimes – that means he wasn’t the type of soldier that went off and wanted to kill as many Nazis as possible. He was the guy who wanted to nail as many Nazis as possible using the letter of the law. That’s a different kind of man. When you take that into account, it pays off in the screenplay, for example I thought at one point his arguments to the Supreme Court about Rudolf, I thought “oh, come on, let’s not gild the lily here, let’s not turn this into more of an operatic moment than necessary” but it turns out that it’s exactly what he said to the Supreme Court. It’s a factor that emboldens itself to the process of making the movie. And it’s never wrong playing a guy who’s got a smokin’ hot wife.
Q: You have Spielberg here, but you also have a script by the Coen Brothers. How was it working with their words and Spieberg’s direction?
TH: This is the second time I’d been in anything that the Coens had done—I call them Joe and Nathan. Their dialogue scans if you know what that means. It ends up devolving into almost a percussive give and take that’s different than other motion picture dialogue, in which it is mostly text as opposed to subtext. There’s a number of great examples of it throughout, but that first scene, which is essentially an insurance negotiation, I think that’s them to a T. There is a – I don’t want to put too many roses on what they do – but there is a cadence that is individual to each character that the dialogue scans in a way. A lot of times you read screenplays in which one very specific thing is happening in the scene and both characters sound the same after a while, they lock into the antagonist/protagonist thing and that just never happens with this. It seems as though somebody is either rocking back in their heels in a Coen brothers scene while another person is making arguments you can’t even begin to imagine. It’s pretty cool when you get to wrap your heads around that.
Q: The right to counsel plays a huge role for this man. Did you do any research into that legal precedent? Maybe consulted with people who defend, say, men and women at Guantanamo Bay?
TH: It ends up getting quite fascinating because, and I mean this, immediately after I read the screenplay, I did what everybody does: you just Google the guy you’re going to play. I Googled James Donovan and there was an awful lot, and a lot of it was repetitious, but I came across a piece on YouTube in which the real Donovan, when he was defending Abel, was interviewed at the courthouse and he literally stated the reason why he took the case and the reason why he carried it all the way to the extremes of the Supreme Court. He said, “You can’t accuse this guy of treason. He’s not a traitor. He’s actually a patriot to his cause. Only an American can be a traitor. Only an American can commit treason against their own country. He’s just a man doing his job in the same way we have men doing their jobs over here.” As soon as you start assassinating and, let’s extrapolate, as soon as you start torturing the people that we have, well then you give the other side permission and cause to do the same exact thing and that’s not what America stands for, at least not what America [stood] for at the time when I took ethics in school and I read my Weekly Reader and I learned the lessons of our forefathers. As soon as you start executing anybody you think has gone against your country, well, you’re not that far removed from the KGB and the Stasi. That’s not what America was about. This is what Donovan took with him from the get go. You can’t deny it.