Tom Hanks Says Self-Doubt Is 'A High-Wire Act That We All Walk'
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Today, we start our end of summer series featuring some favorite recent interviews. We begin with Tom Hanks who plays Captain Sully Sullenberger in the new film "Sully," which opens next week. I'll just do an abbreviated recitation of his films - "Splash," "Big," "Sleepless In Seattle," "Philadelphia," "Apollo 13," "Toy Story," "That Thing You Do," "Saving Private Ryan," "You've Got Mail," "Charlie Wilson's War," "Captain Phillips" and "Bridge Of Spies."
He's won two Oscars. His production company, Playtone, also has a long list of credits, including the recent film Hanks starred in, "A Hologram For The King," which was released when I spoke with him in April. It's adapted from a novel by Dave Eggers.
Hanks plays Alan Clay, a middle-aged American businessman who's sent to Saudi Arabia where the king is planning to build a new city in the middle of the desert. Clay's job is to convince the Saudis to let the company he works for provide new state of the art IT technology and support for this new city. In this scene, he shows up at the desert location to find his IT team is being housed in a large tent with no food, spotty Wi-Fi and no one to complain to.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A HOLOGRAM FOR THE KING")
TOM HANKS: (As Alan Clay) The king is not coming today, so you guys can just relax.
DAVID MENKIN: (As Brad) Shouldn't we call corporate, and let them know the conditions here are untenable?
HANKS: (As Alan Clay) No, Brad, we should wait until I talked to Karim al-Ahmad at 3 o'clock.
UNIDENTFIED ACTOR: (As character) Do you know why we're not in that building?
HANKS: (As Alan Clay) Well, maybe all the vendors are in here, and maybe we're just the first.
MENKIN: (As Brad) Kind of weird being Relyand and being out here.
HANKS: (As Alan Clay) It's a brand new city. It's uncharted territory, and we are the trailblazers.
CHRISTY MEYER: (As Cayley) Where are we supposed to eat?
HANKS: (As Alan Clay) Guys, come on. We are in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia with the deserts and the camels and the sheikhs and the tents.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHAIR BREAKING)
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, screaming).
HANKS: (As Alan Clay) Oh.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Oh, my God. Are you OK?
HANKS: (As Alan Clay) Yeah, don't you know they can only kill me with a golden bullet. Golden bullet, you know? You get it? It's "Lawrence Of Arabia."
MEYER: (As Cayley) Who?
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
GROSS: Tom Hanks, welcome back to FRESH AIR.
HANKS: Wonderful to be here, Terry.
GROSS: So what was it about the Dave Eggers novel that made you want to adapt it into a film?
HANKS: Well, first it's the dilemma that Alan Clay is in, which is a dilemma, I think, of our time. If you're going to sum it up in one word and one word only, you would say, Alan Clay is dealing with China. The fact that China has taken away the companies that he's worked for, the living that he used to make, and it's representative then of all the other failings that he's experienced in his life. He's divorced. He's got a kid. He can't afford college - college for her. And he's now taken whatever skill set he had, which is really, basically, selling things, and he is going to have to go off to a place as alien on the planet Earth as I think Mars is in the solar system, the kingdom of Saudi Arabia - accent on kingdom.
GROSS: So what did you identify about this person, who is emotionally and geographically alone and lost, who's lost his confidence? It's kind of the opposite of the position we think of you as being.
HANKS: Well, you know, I have been alone in a lot of hotel rooms around the world for long periods of time in which I know I have to get up in the morning and create something that I may have an instinctive ability to do or may fail miserably at. I do recognize that sensibility of 3 o'clock in the morning in a foreign land in which you have to have a passport in your briefcase in order to allow yourself entrance and exit. That is one aspect of it, too.
The other one is, I think, something that is real to all of us, the shark terror of a loss of confidence in ourselves. No matter who we are, no matter what we've done, there comes a point where you think how did I get here and am I going to be able to continue this? When are they going to discover that I am, in fact, a fraud and take everything away from me? It's a high-wire act that we all walk. And I do this in the work that I do because there are days when I know that 3 o'clock tomorrow afternoon, I am going to have to deliver some degree of emotional goods. And if I can't do it, that means I'm going to have to fake it. And if I fake it, that means they may catch me at faking it. And if they catch me at faking it, well, then it's just doomsday.
GROSS: So you're shot in the desert of Morocco. What were some of the things that went wrong in the desert?
HANKS: Well, you have your average sandstorm. That's a fascinating thing.
HANKS: That literally comes in like they know it on the weather. They say tomorrow there will be a sandstorm that will last for 18 hours. And, sure enough, in the morning, there is a thick orange cloud, and there is the finest particles of sand, more like chalk or flour that seeps in through every crack in the window and underneath every door sill. I went back to my hotel room. We were shooting out in the middle of the desert near a place called Tan-Tan, Morocco, but we were very much out in - as deserty as you could possibly ask for. Everything in my room was covered with a fine layer of golden slash orange grit, so that wreaked havoc with some of the eyeballs of the crew and some of the sprockets of the machinery.
There is that, which is, you know - it's kind of an adventure, actually, in order to be a part of. There was also the - Morocco is not unlike Saudi Arabia in that it is also a kingdom. A king runs the place, so it has the patina of being a recognizable - almost a nation with, you know, Western customs. And, you know, there's Burger Kings and things like that are there - Pizza Huts. But it is also still very much a - an Islamic nation. My hotel room had a view of the biggest mosque I believe in all of North Africa, if not maybe the second biggest mosque in the world there in Casablanca.
Now, you think, well, that's an intimidating prospect. But we ended up shooting in it (laughter), so we used it as a location for one of the - a couple of the scenes from our movie. So right there it's like - it's a mosque - are we allowed to be there? Well, in fact, yes, you are. And, in fact, you can bring your movie crew and shoot a scene in there.
GROSS: So the film is produced by your production company, Playtone. Why did you start your own production company?
HANKS: I didn't want to be the actor who just sat at home and waited for the phone to ring. I was very lucky that Jonathan Demme directed "Philadelphia," and through that, I met the man who is now my producing partner, Gary Goetzman, who has worked long and hard with Jonathan on all the movies that Jonathan has made.
Jonathan said, well, if you really want to do something, why dont you guys start producing? You should get together with Gary and produce some stuff and make it. And from that union came - from that suggestion came "That Thing You Do," which was the first thing I wrote and directed as a film. And that then began a constant state of creativity.
GROSS: So not only did Playtone, your production company, come out of "That Thing You Do" - the title came out of it, too - because in "That Thing You Do" - it's a movie about a band. And you play an A&R guy from a record label who signs the band and tries to kind of bring them into the big time. And how did you come up with Playtone? You wrote the script.
HANKS: I did.
GROSS: How did that become the title for the record company?
HANKS: I was trying to come up with what was the blandest, most odd...
HANKS: ...Kind of like merchandising-hit-thing, and there used to be a record player that you could buy for kids, and every kid wanted. It was called a close-and-play record. You would just put a record on the turntable, you would close the lid and somehow, magically, the needle would land in the groove. And so I took that and turned it into Playtone. But I never thought anything of it until I saw what the graphic artist did with the name. When you make a movie as a director, they'll throw you all this reference material. They say, hey, you need to pick out a logo for the company Playtone so we can start putting it up on the walls and use it in the stationery and what have you. And as soon as I saw the logo that they had I said, oh, well if I ever form a company, I got to call it Playtone.
GROSS: Yeah, yeah. So I love that film. I wonder why you never wrote and produced another theatrical release again?
HANKS: Well, in fact, I made another movie called, "Larry Crowne." But there is value in the affection, I think, that a filmmaker has for the subject matter. And 1964 was a very, very powerful year for me because I was a conscious being who witnessed the - as any kid did, I was 7 years old - at the assassination of John F. Kennedy. And I was confused for months by what had happened to the country, but also by the demeanor of every adult that was in my life. There was a sadness. There was a crippling mystery that had gone on because of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. There were still dark clouds and furrowed brows of my dad and the teachers and their friends and every adult that I knew. And to be 7 years old, it was like a vibe, an eggshell vibe, that was part of daily life, and I was uncomfortable by it. And I was saddened by it, and - but I was also mystified by it.
Then on February 11 of 1964, The Beatles were on television, and it all went away before the first commercial break of "The Ed Sullivan Show." To see these guys on TV, in which everybody on the planet stopped what they were doing in order watch it, 1964 became, I think, the most joyous year of my life. And it was all because of them and everything that followed. So when I began having these stories rattle around inside my head, I selfishly wanted to recreate that same joy that I experienced as a 7-year-old kid in February and March and April and the entire summer of 1964.
GROSS: But you wrote it from the point of view of, like, teenagers in a band.
GROSS: And they're at this turning point of their lives 'cause they're teenagers entering adulthood or maybe college or maybe the military and maybe fame. And, like, you don't know, through most of the movie, which direction this is going to go in. And you're the person who's kind of, like, experienced in it. You're the A&R guy. So why did you choose to do it from the point of view as a band? I assume you love music, in part because of this movie and also, like, your company has produced the telecasts of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductions.
HANKS: Right. Yes, yeah.
GROSS: (Laughter) So...
HANKS: Gary - my producing partner, Gary, is a - he's got all sorts of gold records from when he produced records for people like Robert John, "The Lion Sleeps Tonight." He's done, like, Smokey Robinson records. So he's well-versed in the music business. Some time in - not too long before I started writing the movie - I heard the saga of a drummer by the name Jimmy Nichols. Do you know the name Jimmy Nichols at all?
GROSS: No, I don't.
HANKS: Well, here's the deal. Jimmy Nichols was, you know, a hired hand-drummer in the British music scene. And when The Beatles did their Asian and Australian tour, Ringo Starr got sick - tonsilitis or something - and he could not make a certain number of dates in Australia and Japan. So he became the drummer of The Beatles for a section of their tour. Jimmy Nichols, live from the Budokan with The Beatles.
And I saw photographs of him, and I saw a little bit of footage of this guy picked out of total obscurity to play drums between three of the most famous musicians in the world at the time. John, Paul and George were up front, and Jimmy was playing the drums, and I just thought, what did that guy experience for a few months?
HANKS: You know, he was put in the same clothes, he rode in the same cars, he was on the back of the same trucks. He was treated like one of The Beatles because...
GROSS: And I don't know his name (laughter).
HANKS: And you don't know his name. And I just thought, well, that is a brand of serendipity that might be the backbone in order to put into this movie that I wanted to make that was about music, that was about growing up. So what happens in "That Thing You Do!" is Guy Patterson has to replace the drummer in The Wonders because he broke his arm. And it's because of that serendipity, that circumstance, that he ends up having six of the greatest months of his life. So it was taking something that had happened in real life and turning it to my own devices.
GROSS: We're listening back to the interview I recorded last April with Tom Hanks. There's more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Tom Hanks. What was the first record you ever bought?
HANKS: Well, I never bought 45s. The first record I actually bought was an LP named "Aerie," as in an eagle's nest aerie, by John Denver (laughter). So I didn't buy - I didn't get around to that 'til - I was not a - the radio gave me all the musical satisfaction that I need - needed. The big deal for me was getting my first AM/FM radio - was by a company called Sun Mark. It was made in Korea. And that now is actually - it is now known as Samsung, but it was called Sun Mark at the time. And to have a radio of my own next to my bed where I could go back and forth between my favorite stations at Oakland and San Francisco - that was the bigger deal for me.
GROSS: Did you ever put it under your pillow and pretend to be sleeping when you were actually listening to the radio?
HANKS: My parents were so disinterested in what was going on in my bedroom that I didn't have to pretend anything. I could stay up as late as I wanted to.
GROSS: (Laughter) Is that a good thing or a bad thing?
HANKS: Well, actually, no, it was a very good thing. I mean, my parents were so - my dad was married to the love of his life, finally. It took him three marriages to get there. But when they landed together, they were so busy having fun and dealing with their own Sturm und Drang that I could have been a tenant who lived downstairs.
GROSS: (Laughter) Oh, gosh.
HANKS: I just came and went on my own accord, and they never said boo. There was one time in high school, I had the flu and I spent two weeks at a friend's house. And when I finally came home, my dad said, where have you been? I said, oh, I had the flu. I slept at Kirk's (ph) house. He was like, oh, I figured you'd take care of yourself. So that brand of freedom is not - it wasn't a cruel brand of disinterest, but they were just very busy doing other things.
GROSS: Oh, that's hilarious (laughter).
HANKS: Yeah, it - that along with Attention Deficit Disorder made me what I am today.
GROSS: (Laughter) Did you have Attention Deficit Disorder?
HANKS: I think - don't all American boys my age or all Americans have some degree of an Attention Deficit Disorder. Understand, I knew what time it was by what was on television. I don't think I - there was a clock in our house, and I never had a watch. Because if "Love Of Life" was over, it was time to go to school. If the Hogan's era - when the "Hogan's Heroes" hour was halfway through, I knew that dinner was going to be ready upstairs. And because of that, about every 12 minutes, when the commercial came on, my attention went somewhere else, and I think I still have trouble - I have to be utterly hypnotized by something to truly concentrate on it for anything more than 20 minutes at a time.
GROSS: What did you want to watch? What were your favorite TV shows that made a lasting impression on you?
HANKS: "Then Came Bronson." It was on for one year. It starred Michael Parks as a iconoclastic reporter who gives up everything and rides across the country on a motorcycle. It was like a one-man version of "Route 66." It was...
HANKS: ...It was a very odd television show that was on for one season on NBC, and I just thought it was the hippest thing in the world because sometimes there'd be no dialogue in one of the shows. It was not like an episode of "Mannix" or "Medical Center" or "Gunsmoke." It was something else.
GROSS: So you were probably too young to have seen the real "Route 66" in its time?
HANKS: I remember it vaguely, but I was too young to appreciate it. When I was really young, it was "Fireball XL5." It was "Mayor Art." And I actually - in Oakland, Calif., KTVU channel 2 was on an independent station, and it started running a - very intelligent movies on Saturday nights and Sunday. It was called the Premiere Movie, and there all of a sudden I'm seeing a marriage Italian-style on channel 2, you know, with commercials on it.
HANKS: I remember seeing Kurosawa's the "Seven Samurai" and "Les Strada" on TV, and I'd - look, these things all went over my head, but without a doubt this was counter-programming that hit a very fertile audience, which was my brain. And I think actually the time I spent alone watching television when I was in, you know, fifth - from fifth grade on, that was really quite an education for me because I was alone. And I was - for 20 minutes at a time, I was very concentrated on the subject matter.
GROSS: So in a lot of your movies, you portray men in life and death situations, you know, war in "Saving Private Ryan." You produced "Band Of Brothers," also about World War II. You were Jim Lovell in "Apollo 13." You were the captain of a ship taken over by pirates in "Captain Phillips." You're finishing production on a movie called "Sully" in which you play the pilot who remarkably landed - made an emergency landing on the Hudson River after birds flew into the engines of the plane, disabling the engines. So these are men with like nerves of steel under pressure. Do you feel like you have ever been tested like that in your own life?
HANKS: I think, first of all - they are not men with nerves of steel. The thing that has attracted me to all of those characters is they are fighting the terror that is inside them. For example, in all the reading and all the - much of the research I did for "Saving Private Ryan" was the terror that men in command felt in combat. And I have this verbatim from a number of people is that they were afraid of making the mistake that was going to get other people killed.
Now, that's a huge burden of command, and it's something that you have to fight and tamp down, and you can't even begin - you can't allow yourself a moment of hesitation. And that faith in oneself is a very - that's the difference between success and failure, and it's not easy to do. And all of these guys have some degree of accomplishment, but it's been learned and earned at the same time. You know, no one is made a captain of a cargo ship without, you know - without an extraordinary amount of experience behind them. And that brand of of terror or loss of your own self-confidence, look - that's something that everybody goes through at some point. I have - my life has never been in jeopardy ever once.
But the artistic, creative process of one is still based on your ability to fight down those doubts of yourself, and you have to move forward. You have to move forward with a degree of confidence, and you cannot sweat too much the possibility that you are making a wrong mistake. It sounds almost like a paltry comparison to a lot of the characters that I've been able to play in these big movies, but, you know, that type of a battle of self-worth is something that everybody goes through at some point.
And the fact, look - I'm not a muscle-bound guy. I don't strike fear in the hearts of everybody, you know - when I have to, I try to unleash some sort of inner charm monster in order to get out of any uncomfortable circumstance.
HANKS: So that's about the only decent self-defense mechanism I have that I'm any good at it. But for all the characters I play, I think - I would like to think that the audience is able to get the same thing that I seek for from an audience, which is the question of seeing a movie and then go what would I do? What mistakes would I be afraid of making in the same circumstance?
GROSS: We're listening back to the interview I recorded with Tom Hanks last April. After we take a short break, he'll talk about the different parents and different religions he grew up with. Here's the title song from his film "That Thing You Do." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THAT THING YOU DO")
THE KNACK: (Singing) You don't mean to be cruel. You never even knew about the heartache I've been going through. Well I try and try to forget you girl, but it's just so hard to do. Every time you do that thing you do. I know all the games you play, and I'm going to find a way to let you know that you'll be mine someday...
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview I recorded last April with Tom Hanks. He plays Captain Sully Sullenberger in the new movie "Sully" which was directed by Clint Eastwood and opens next week. Hanks is famous for a range of roles from romantic comedies to heroic figures in films like "Bridge Of Spies," "Captain Phillips," "Apollo 13" and "Saving Private Ryan."
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
GROSS: You've had your wars, in terms of movies, you've never fought in one in real life. When you were introduced to war, through your parents' generation and through TV movies, what was your reaction to the possibility that maybe one day you'd have to fight in one?
HANKS: I get this question a lot because, yeah, I - not only do I go to it in my work, but I also read about it constantly, about the war and the war years - is because when I was a kid - I grew up in Alameda, Calif. I spent a lot of years there.
And the Alameda Naval Air Station meant that most of my friends were in the Navy, their dads were in the Navy, their parents were dealing with that. And this was during Vietnam, so I had - my schoolmates all had dads on the USS Ranger and the Iwo Jima and the enterprise, aircraft carriers and what have you. And they were all in the Gulf of Tonkin, and they were flying missions in this war that was going on.
That was in parallel to the reality that a couple of teachers that I had, and also an awful lot of the adults, is that they talked about the war in a - literally - a three-act structure. And they described their lives, they told stories about their youths that were divided up into act one, before the war. Well, you know, before the war, I lived in Los Angeles. And before the war, my dad was a farmer. And before the war, I was enrolled at Mills College.
Then they will tell stories about act two of their lives, which is, well, that was during the war. And that was during the war meant, is that we were in stasis. We didn't know what was going to happen. I found myself - my dad found himself studying hydraulic engineering for the Navy in Pocatello, Idaho. And then was shipped off to some place in the South Pacific. And during those five years, the future was a big X. It was a mathematical formula that had not been seen through.
Then they go on with the rest of the lives, and it's act three. And it was always, well, you know, that was right after the war. Well, after the war, I became a dry cleaner. And after the war, I got my teaching credential. And after the war, you know, I got married and had kids or after the war, so and so had developed a terrible alcohol problem and was never the same when he came back.
GROSS: So in terms of growing up surrounded by people who'd been in the war and whose lives were divided by before, during and after the war, what did that leave you with in terms of what war means and whether you really were, like your parents said, really lucky to be spared?
GROSS: Or did part of you think, that sounds like such an incredible, life-changing experience, I hope to have something that dramatic in my life some day?
HANKS: I never hoped to have something that dramatic in my life.
HANKS: But I what I did recognize is that something like that - and I guess it's all relative for all of this - might have been good for me. And I use the word good in the form of, it would've been transforming for me. Let me tell you - when we were doing "Forrest Gump" in South Carolina, which is right next to Parris Island, you know, Camp Lejeune, south - the Marine Corps training camp.
I got Captain Dale Dye, who was our adviser, took myself and Mykelti Williamson and Gary Sinise, and we went off and we toured Parris Island. And I saw guys who were probably anywhere from 12 to 15 years younger than me going through their boot camp. And it is hot, and they are miserable. And they're getting yelled at, and they look like they're scared and exhausted.
And I could not help but think, you know, that would have been good for me if I had been an 18-year-old who had joined the Marines and had to go through 13 weeks of boot camp. Without a doubt, that would have been a transformative experience for me that, you know, I think about that, sure, all the time.
GROSS: That might be true, if you lived, if you had all your arms and legs when it was over...
GROSS: ...If you didn't become an alcoholic, if you didn't have post-traumatic stress disorder.
HANKS: The story that has to come out, now, is all of what you're talking about. That yes, of - I've talked to guys with missing limbs, and I visited with a bunch of wounded guys a while back. And there was two guys that had lost limbs, and they were still in wheelchairs. One guy was going to be in the hospital for probably about another three years, missing two arms and - two legs and an arm. And I was talking to another fellow who was in the same condition, suffered the same wounds, but he was going to be getting out in a couple of weeks.
And I said, well, what's the difference? And you know what the difference was between the two of them? Infection. And I thought, so let me get this straight, this isn't just about the fact that an IED took off your limbs and almost killed you. It's about that same IED picked up germs and microbes from the dirt and the dust of Afghanistan or Iraq, and put it so deep inside you that your body is now fighting centuries-old infections that still might kill you because we haven't figured out a way in order to make - itself infection-free.
Look, it's a lot easier and it's a lot happier in order to talk about, and then they won the war and went home and became dry cleaners. But it's something else that when those infections are inside you, how in the world does somebody come back from Afghanistan after three tours and just pick up right where they left off? I think that - boy, you're in the high country when you're talking about that kind of stuff that rattles around inside your brain.
GROSS: So I remember the first time you and I talked in 1988 when you were on FRESH AIR, you were talking about how in the early days of your career, you read parts as the weird guy, the insecure guy who compensated for his insecurity by being funny. And you said they were pretty one-dimensional characters.
How did you make the transition from that kind of role to playing these, you know, kind of, like, courageous men, like the men we've been talking about, courageous men who might have been scared inside, but they rose to the occasion?
HANKS: I enjoyed the confidence of actually, Penny Marshall. I had made two movies with her. The first one was "Big," which, you know, (laughter)...
GROSS: You're an overgrown boy in that.
HANKS: ...I played an overgrown - 13 years old, which your listeners might recognize from today's interview, as a matter of fact. But then we - I fell into a movie called "League Of Their Own" in which I was playing, essentially, a washed-up big leaguer. And after I'd had that experience, I was still in my mid-30s. I had an awful lot of opportunities and offers in order to go off and make a certain type of film, which is, you know, some brand of light comedy, some brand of, you know, quasi-romantic drama that all ended up being under the rubric of, will I ever find the person of my dreams?
And it was a lucrative living, without a doubt. And there were some people that were going to be exciting to work with. And I had stacks and stacks of versions of those movies that were kind of just versions of other people that I'd played before. And after playing Jimmy Dugan, the washed up baseball player, in "League Of Their Own," I don't think I have an awful lot of moments of clarity in regards to anything, but I did sit down with my crackerjack team of showbusiness experts - a guy named Richard...
HANKS: ...And I said, you know, I just don't want to play these guys anymore. And I said, no, for quite a while. I said no for about a year to things that I could've done instead. And the end result of - out of that, literally, that conversation, came the sort of the first movie of my modern era, I think, which was "Apollo 13." And then along - going to that, I think I established a degree of credibility so that other people were willing to throw their lot in with me and trust me in order to take other films to their fruition.
GROSS: Well, I think we need to take a short break here. So let me reintroduce you. My guest is Tom Hanks. We'll be right back after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Tom Hanks. So I want to ask you something about your childhood. When you were young, your parents divorced.
HANKS: A lot (laughter).
GROSS: Yes. I'm talking about the first divorce, right.
HANKS: Yeah, they pioneered the marriage dissolution laws for the state of California. It was like, when I went to school, I was divorced. I was - you know, the only people who had divorces were, like, Elizabeth Taylor and Zsa Zsa Gabor and my mom and dad.
GROSS: (Laughter) I know what you mean. It was pretty taboo back then.
HANKS: Yeah, yeah.
GROSS: Yeah, so what year was this?
HANKS: My parents separated when I was 4 or 5 - 1960, '61.
GROSS: Right. OK. OK. And you went...
HANKS: For the first time.
GROSS: ...You went with your father...
GROSS: ...And that was really unusual back then. Did your father insist on taking the kids? Did your mother reject having you, or did you get to choose yourself? Like, how did that work out?
HANKS: No. It was - it literally came down to this - just simple. There was only one way that it could economically work. My mom and dad - God bless them - you know, they were together for a while. But when it was (laughter) - when it was time for them to divide, boy, did they know it. They needed to break up, and they did.
We were not traumatized by the reality of them getting the divorce. We were just confused by the geography of it all because my mom could not afford to have four kids. My younger brother was born. She could take care of the baby. And my dad - he - at that time, he had to go off to Reno and establish residency for six weeks. But - and he had a job, so he could afford to take the three of us. And so off we went, and we ended up living with a lady, and she had kids. And they ended up getting married, and they were married for a couple of years.
And it was not painful other than it was occasionally lonely because I was the youngest of the group, and, you know, everybody else went off to school. And I was left to my own devices for a couple hours every day. But, really, it was just confusing because - look, Oprah was not on TV at that point, and nobody over the age of 27 knew how to communicate their feelings or explain to their children what was going on all around them, so we just kind of...
HANKS: ...Like, went with the flow, and we moved around an awful lot. And, by the time I was 10 - I was actually kind of proud of this, as a matter of fact - by the time I was 10, I had lived in 10 different houses.
HANKS: I'd had 10 different homes, two sets of families, a bunch of stepbrothers and stepsisters, and now, my dad was starting all over again with a woman who turned out to be the great love of his life - his - my - how do I put this - my second stepmother? Yeah, my second stepmom and her kids. And, of course, then we - that happened right in the teeth of the beginning of the 1960s, so we had all of that in order to go through, as well.
GROSS: Well, having several families also exposed you to several religions. I think I have this right - that your mother was Catholic.
GROSS: Your stepmother became a Mormon for a while.
GROSS: You had an aunt who was a Nazarene. Did you try all those religions yourself?
HANKS: We were forced to in a couple of circumstances. I was the only one in my family who did not get a first communion because my parents broke up before they could put me in the catechism. But I remember masses in Latin. But we - I thought, of course, well, that's what church is. But then these guys, literally like the "Book Of Mormon," they came around in white short-sleeved shirts and black ties, and they rode bicycles. And they convinced my dad's second wife that being a Mormon was just the greatest thing in the world. And my dad said, you know what? If you - Winnie - that was her name - sweet lady. He said, if you want your kids to be baptized in the Mormon church, you go right ahead, but no way are my kids going to go through that.
So we just kind of, like, sat around and enjoyed some good Mormon family home evenings that were choreographed by, you know, Elder Paul and Brother Bob and a few other people who knew magic tricks with coins and were really funny. And, all the time, my dad would sit in the living room with his hands around a can of beer that were...
HANKS: ...Holding the label to himself. Then we lived - when we lived with my aunt, my dad was separating from his second wife, and we went and lived with his sister. And my dad grew up in a very, very strict Methodist household that had been transformed for his sister then into the Nazarene church. And that was - they didn't speak in tongues, but it was a very strict, fundamental, Christian social circle that we lived in.
We went to church. Church on Sundays was, like, two hours. Bible school was a very prescribed thing. Dinnertime was the parson coming over with - and he would - parson, would you do the honor of us asking the blessing? My sister and my brother and I would roll our eyes because that'd mean that guy was going to talk for 40 minutes. You know, he'd have his head bowed and the operatic voice would come out. Dear Heavenly Father, we ask bountiful blessings on the Hanks family. Here we are. He would talk for - and eyes closed, the food's getting cold, we're all hungry. We didn't quite really understand what was going on.
GROSS: So you were exposed to several religions as a kid. And now, is there any that you practice? Is there any kind of faith or religion through which you kind of contemplate the great mysteries?
HANKS: I am a Chrismated Hellenic in the Greek Orthodox Church. I do like, on occasion, going to Sunday services. Nothing is really expected of you in the Greek Orthodox church. You don't sing. You don't have hymnals. You might take part in some of the same choral chants that goes on. But I go, and I like to ponder the great questions of the universe when I go. And, I think, I embrace it as cleanly as I do because of the background that I had in all these other theologies that came at me.
And every single one of them were presented to me as the only way to go. This is - we are the only ones that have this right. And when you have had four versions that are very, very different from each other of this brand of spirituality and theology, and four of them have all said we're the only ones that matter. Well, you kind of think at the age of 13, 14, well, you know, it's not the only one (laughter). You could say you're the only one, but not according to the people that were in charge of me when I was 6...
HANKS: ...Or the people who came around the house when I was 9.
GROSS: So something about your health - you've publicly said that you not long ago were diagnosed with type 2 diabetes...
GROSS: ...Which means, you know, having to regulate your diet. Are you obsessive about your body when something goes wrong or can you just kind of keep that in the background and not worry about it?
HANKS: I wish I was obsessive about it. And I don't worry about it because you always kind of feel normal. Type 1 diabetes is a very serious thing. Type 2 diabetes, I think for me, it's like a lifestyle malady. I knew that I grew up with a horrible diet, the American diet of candy bars, milkshakes and hamburgers and fries. But I was still surprised when after many, many visits to the doctor and being told I don't like the level of your blood sugars, young man, Tom, you've got to do something about these blood sugars. And when I was told, my doctor said, well, congratulations. You made it.
HANKS: And I said what? What did I do? He said you now officially have type 2 diabetes. And I - all I could think of - well, what did I do? Well, what I did was I ate very badly, and I didn't take any of that stuff seriously. Now, look, I'm going to be 60 years old this summer. It's time and order. I want to be around for at least another 20 years, so I've gotten much more rigorous about what I eat and how - the exercise that I get.
And the truth is, luckily for me and I think for a lot of people that do have type 2 diabetes, you can control it with what you put in your body and how much you sweat out. I've been told by my doctors if you weigh exactly these many pounds, you will not have type 2 diabetes, which is the horrifying and dangerous conceit of putting my fate in my own hands, which means I'm just going to have to pony up and start taking it seriously. I'm lucky, of course.
GROSS: You're putting this in the future tense as if you hadn't started doing it yet.
HANKS: Well, no, I've been doing it for the last five years, but with varying levels of concentration.
GROSS: Tom Hanks, it's just been fabulous to talk with you. Thank you so much.
HANKS: I've really enjoyed it, Terry. Thanks for having me.
GROSS: Tom Hanks recorded last April. His mother died last month. Hanks tweeted she was the difference in many lives, many lives. Our end of summer series featuring some favorite interviews continues tomorrow with Sarah Paulson.
Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews the soundtrack for the new Netflix series "The Get Down." It's set in the late '70s. It's about hip-hop, graffiti art disco and other cultural trends of the time. This is FRESH AIR.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.