Colin Hanks: The Mentalist's Apprentice Colin Hanks currently stars in The Great Buck Howard as the assistant to a washed-up mentalist. He joins Fresh Air to talk about his role in the film and his career in acting.
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Colin Hanks: The Mentalist's Apprentice

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Colin Hanks: The Mentalist's Apprentice

Colin Hanks: The Mentalist's Apprentice

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TERRY GROSS, host:

My guest, Colin Hanks, stars in the new film, "The Great Buck Howard." Hanks' father, Tom Hanks, makes a couple of brief appearances playing Colin's father. Colin Hanks is on Broadway starring with Jane Fonda in the play "33 Variations," and in season two of "Mad Men" he played the young priest. Here is a scene from "The Great Buck Howard." Colin Hanks plays Troy, a young man who has given up law school in the hopes of becoming a writer. To make ends meet, he takes a job as the assistant to a washed-up mentalist who can no longer get bookings in Vegas and instead does a show in small town theaters.

In this scene, Troy is at a restaurant getting interviewed for the job by Buck Howard and Howard's agent. The agent is played by the sleight-of-hand artist Ricky Jay. The Great Buck Howard is played by John Malkovich.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Great Buck Howard")

Mr. JOHN MALKOVICH (Actor): (As Buck Howard) Young man, I am delighted that you are interested in this job. I'm very busy. I did…

Mr. COLIN HANKS (Actor): (As Troy Gabel) One thought kept racing through my mind as Buck talked. I had no idea who this guy was. And I guess that must have shown.

Mr. MALKOVICH: (As Buck Howard) You do know who I'm, don't you?

Mr. RICKY JAY (Actor): (As Gil Bellamy) You have seen "The Tonight Show."

Mr. MALKOVICH: (As Buck Howard) You have to say with Johnny Carson. Not the nitwit with who's on there now.

Mr. JAY: (As Gil Bellamy) Buck did "The Tonight Show" with Johnny 61 times.

Mr. MALKOVICH: (As Buck Howard) I think you are a magician, right?

Mr. JAY: (As Gil Bellamy) Buck's a mentalist. Magician is kind of a dirty word around here.

Mr. MALKOVICH: (As Buck Howard) I was a magician when I was three years old, but I evolved out of that. Not that I have anything against magicians, as long as they're dead.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JAY: (As Gil Bellamy) Look, Buck's been on the all big shows - Jim Nabors, John Davidson, Sally Jessy Raphael, Dinah - he was the co-host on Dinah many times. He has performed over the world. Las Vegas.

Mr. MALKOVICH: (As Buck Howard) But not lately.

Mr. JAY: (As Gil Bellamy) Your job would be to take care of all of Buck's travel and then to go on the road with him to ensure that the engagements were handled smoothly.

Mr. HANKS: (As Troy Gabel) It is a very demanding but ultimately rewarding job. For instance, in a few months' time we'd be very hard at work on a benefit that I started for sick children with my friend George Takei, who is perhaps best known for his portrayal of Sulu on the "Star Trek." He is a dear friend.

Mr. HANKS: (As Troy Gabel) This certainly wasn't the kind of job my father would have envisioned for me. But there was something kind of exciting about Buck. He told these long stories about a world full with his famous friends -Johnny Carson, Ed McMahon.

Mr. MALKOVICH: (As Buck Howard): The Captain and Tennille.

GROSS: Colin Hanks, welcome to FRESH AIR. Congratulations on the movie.

Mr. HANKS: Thank you.

GROSS: The character of Buck Howard is so washed up, as we heard that, you know, his claims to fame are - include having been a co-host on Dinah and being pals with the Captain and Tennille.

Mr. HANKS: (As Troy Gabel) Yeah.

GROSS: Did you even know all these references when you heard them?

Mr. HANKS: Yeah. I mean, I know the references for sure. I have vague recollections of those kinds of programs, and in the script it was just "The Tonight Show," but John really would improv quite a bit and really make Buck even farther than what he initially was and would come up with references like Dinah and Jim Nabors and stuff like that. And Ricky Jay of course picked up on that right away and it went running.

GROSS: So what was your role in getting this movie made?

Mr. HANKS: Well, really it was just sort of - Sean and I met. We spent a great deal of time trying to get financing for the movie, which was kind of a difficult thing to do because we didn't have a Buck Howard at that time. And of course if you don't have a Buck Howard, then you don't have your money, but you can't get money without having a Buck Howard. So there's a little conundrum there. And someone had suggested Playtone, which is my father's production company along with Gary Goetzman. And that wasn't necessarily my idea, and it wasn't necessarily something I was super-keen on, but obviously I know everybody there and I admire their tastes very much.

So I sort of said to Sean, I said, well, look, here's what we should do. We should send the script to them and just ask what they think, really, just, if they have any ideas, that'd be great, or if they know of anyone who would be interested in making the movie, that would be really great, but I don't want to go to them saying, hey, do you want to make this movie, because I just - I think that's, you know, not necessarily the easiest thing to do. It puts them in a weird position and I don't want to do that.

GROSS: Uh-huh.

Mr. HANKS: So we sent it to them just to say, hey, take a look at this, tell us what you think. And they ended up really loving it, so much so that my dad ended up reading it; he fell in love with it and said, We are going to make this and I'm going to play your dad. And I sort of went, Ah, okay, that wasn't my intention, I didn't really - I had never planned on that. But at the same time I couldn't say no.

GROSS: No.

Mr. HANKS: If someone of his caliber wants to be in your movie, you'd be an idiot to turn them down. And you know, obviously I've had about 31 years to prepare for the role, so that came pretty easy.

GROSS: Let's hear a scene from early in the film in which you and your father, Tom Hanks, appear together, and in this scene you've dropped out of law school and taken this job as the road assistant to he Great Buck Howard, the mentalist. But you haven't told you father you dropped out of law school and he certainly hasn't been told about this job. So one day, right after one of Buck Howard's shows, you're back stage and who should show up, but your father. And Buck Howard, on meeting him, congratulates him on having such a fine son, but your father isn't feeling proud. He's feeling really angry and betrayed. The scene starts with John Malkovich as the Great Buck Howard talking to your father.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Great Buck Howard")

Mr. MALKOVICH: (As Buck Howard) You know, Mr. Gable, I can imagine how you feel. My father didn't want me to go into show business. He wanted me to be an accountant. Obviously that wasn't my calling.

Mr. TOM HANKS (Actor): (As Mr. Gable) Yeah. Well, I'm not going to touch that. But if carrying your bags is Troy's calling, then I just wasted a lot of money on his education.

Mr. C. HANKS: (As Troy Gable) Dad…

Mr. MALKOVICH: (As Buck Howard) Troy, may I? You know, sir, I have a theory about that, I call it my onwards and upwards theory. Perhaps you noticed in the musical portion of…

Mr. T. HANKS: (As Mr. Gable) Listen, I'd like to talk to my son alone.

Mr. MALKOVICH: (As Buck Howard) Very well. I was merely trying to add a little perspective, as the Latins say.

Mr. T. HANKS: (As Mr. Gable) I think you've done that.

Mr. MALKOVICH: (As Buck Howard) Well, good evening. Troy, you can bring that and toss my salad when you get back to the hotel.

Mr. T. HANKS: (As Mr. Gable) That's a hell of a guy.

Mr. C. HANKS: (As Troy Gable) Dad, I'm sorry.

Mr. T. HANKS: (As Mr. Gable) I haven't heard from you in over a month. I had to call you friends like I was some kind of freakin' cop.

Mr. C. HANKS: (As Troy Gable) I know.

Mr. T. HANKS: (As Mr. Gable) I would have killed to go to law school, Troy. I would have killed.

Mr. C. HANKS: (As Troy Gable) I hated it. I wasn't happy.

Mr. T. HANKS: (As Mr. Gable) You think I danced out the front door every morning in my adult life, happy about where I was going to be spending my day? I don't know what you're doing here and I don't think you do either. But come on, you're smarter than this. You are. You are smarter than this.

GROSS: That was Tom Hanks, Colin Hanks and John Malkovich in a scene from Colin Hanks' new movie, which is called "The Great Buck Howard." You know, I'm wondering, like when you're acting opposite your father, did it feel like - oh yeah, this is how he is like my father; I could imagine him being just like that with me if he was angry? Or is he so in character that it was completely different…

Mr. C. HANKS: Oh no, he is so different…

GROSS: …than the Tom Hanks father person? Was it?

Mr. C. HANKS: So different, yeah. I mean this is - this is unlike any conversation we've had. I mean, he has always been really supportive of everything that I've done. So obviously just the words themselves are very different. But no, he's most definitely acting.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. C. HANKS: It's not - it's not like him at all, in fact. It's interesting. This is, you know, pretty much what Sean McGinly did, you know. As he says, the first 15 minutes of the movie is really exactly what Sean McGinly did. He quit law school, he didn't tell his family, and he moved to Los Angeles because he had this notion of being a writer, and the only job he can get was working for a mentalist.

GROSS: Did he work for the Amazing Kreskin? Because he's thanked in the credits.

Mr. C. HANKS: He did, yes.

GROSS: Oh.

Mr. C. HANKS: But we embellish quite a bit. You know, we wouldn't say that - you know, the handshake is most definitely - we definitely lift it from Kreskin, that's for sure.

GROSS: Oh man, that's the kind of handshake where they - every time he shakes somebody's hand, he nearly pulls their arm out of the socket.

Mr. C. HANKS: Yeah. And…

GROSS: It's so vigorous and long.

Mr. C. HANKS: And that's exactly what it was like. I met the man for the first time the other night at the screening here in New York and he nearly took my arm off.

GROSS: My guest is actor Colin Hanks. He stars in the movie "The Great Buck Howard." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Colin Hanks. He stars in the new film "The Great Buck Howard," and he co-starred in season two of AMC's "Mad Men." Now, I want to talk to you about your role on "Mad Men," the AMC series about advertising executives in the early 1960s. And you played not an advertising executive but a young priest who takes a special interest in a young woman in his parish named Peggy. Peggy works at the advertising agency and she has gone from a secretarial position to copywriting position. I'm leading up to a clip here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. C. HANKS: Okay.

GROSS: And she's the only woman to have risen like that. But she has a secret. She had a baby out of wedlock and gave it up for adoption. She has been helping you, the priest, with some church business and has agreed to use office machinery to make copies of a flier for a church event. And you've come to the advertising office to pick up those copies. So let's hear that scene. Peggy is played by Elisabeth Moss, and my guest, Colin Hanks, plays the priest.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Mad Men")

Mr. C. HANKS (Actor): (As Father Gill) Peggy, do you have something you need to talk about?

Ms. ELISABETH MOSS (Actor): (As Peggy Olson) Excuse me?

Mr. C. HANKS: (As Father Gill) Well, I've noticed that you don't take communion and I don't think it's too much of a leap to ask if there's something you need to talk about.

Ms. MOSS: (As Peggy Olson) No.

Mr. C. HANKS: (As Father Gill) God already knows whatever it is, Peggy.

Ms. MOSS: (As Peggy Olson) Well, then I don't need to talk.

Mr. C. HANKS: (As Father Gill) Well, I'm here, right now.

Ms. MOSS: (As Peggy Olson) Father, don't take this the wrong way, but I don't think you'd understand.

Mr. C. HANKS: (As Father Gill) God is bigger than what we were raised on.

Ms. MOSS: (As Peggy Olson) Father, you don't have to live life like the rest of us. Maybe you're lucky.

Mr. C. HANKS: (As Father Gill) I've lived life. I wasn't born a priest.

Ms. MOSS: (As Peggy Olson) Of course not.

Mr. C. HANKS: (As Father Gill) You know, when you distance yourself from the church, you are distancing yourself from everything. That's why it's called communion. It's not just being with God, it's being with people.

Ms. MOSS: (As Peggy Olson) I know that.

Mr. C. HANKS: (As Father Gill) Then why are you pushing everyone away?

Ms. MOSS: (As Peggy Olson) I'm not.

Mr. C. HANKS: (As Father Gill) There is no sin too great to bring to God. You can reconcile yourself with Him and have a whole new start. You're a smart, beautiful young girl. You have so much to offer. Do you feel you don't deserve his love?

GROSS: That's Colin Hanks and Elisabeth Moss in a scene from the AMC series "Mad Men." Colin Hanks, I think it's so interesting to see you playing a priest, a young priest who knows that he has to service the spiritual and other needs of a community, many of whose members are much older than he is. And he is also, I think, struggling with certain emotions slightly beyond priestly emotions that he is feeling for - for Peggy, as we kind of heard in the scene that we just played. Did you find yourself going to church just to kind of…

Mr. C. HANKS: No.

GROSS: …get in spirit of the role?

Mr. C. HANKS: No, not so much.

GROSS: I don't even know what religion you were born into, if any.

Mr. C. HANKS: I'm not a very religious person, no. But you know, more than anything else, what was interesting was - is that, you know, obviously it's Roman Catholic but pre-Vatican II. So that was really the thing that was most interesting to me, was that we were dealing with a church that was about to go through, for lack of a better phrase, evolution and change. And they were about to make very drastic changes within the church and how the church reaches out to the community. And so with Father Gill, here is a young man who is a priest and is going - trying to find this new way to bring young people into the fold, and he sees something in Peggy that he, you know, he felt that God brought him there for Peggy.

And what's interesting is that, you know, we never really discussed whether there were any other ulterior motives for Father Gill, but interestingly enough that sort of people brought that to the relationship. You know, really he is just sort of fighting for her soul and any other feelings that he has is secondary. But a lot of people were really wanting that to happen, which I found very interesting.

GROSS: Well, let me just interject here.

Mr. C. HANKS: Yeah.

GROSS: As somebody who thinks there's something else going on here, it's not necessarily that I want that kind of relationship to happen…

Mr. C. HANKS: No, no, I - no, yeah.

GROSS: But I just do feel like he is feeling stirrings from Peggy, that he -that he's very uncomfortable with and he doesn't know what to do about it. And he's may be not even fully aware of it because he doesn't want to be aware of it, but that they're there. So…

Mr. C. HANKS: It's possible.

GROSS: And maybe - maybe you don't know, because you have to be so inside…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. C. HANKS: Well, they…

GROSS: …of him. But that's the way it's coming across.

Mr. C. HANKS: Yeah. Well, hey, that's okay. I like people being able to look at it and come up with something on their own.

GROSS: Absolutely, yeah, I'll bet you do.

Mr. C. HANKS: That's exciting.

GROSS: Yeah, yeah. My guest is Colin Hanks and he's starring in the new movie "The Great Buck Howard," and he is also Father Gill on AMC's series "Mad Men," and he's currently on Broadway in the new show "33 Variations." Now, I know your parents divorced when you were how old?

Mr. C. HANKS: Well, so young that you go by grades, not by age.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Right.

Mr. C. HANKS: You know what I mean? So third grade.

GROSS: Were you on your father's sets a lot, and was it - if so, was it fun to be there?

Mr. C. HANKS: Yeah. Oh yeah. I mean, I've got a lot of memories going on a lot of different movie sets. And there wasn't like a crazy allure to it. From me, I just saw it as what a great way to spent time with my dad, you know, so I can go with him to work. How many kids can do that? Not many. You know, it's always bring your kid to work day, or it can be. And so even though I was spending time with him while he was at work, there was a lot of downtime. And so there's is a lot of laughing and playing gin rummy and stuff like that, and there was always interesting people.

And since some of those movies have since become, you know, such huge iconic movies, it's kind of hard to properly describe. But at the time it was just, you know, another sort of day at the office, for lack of a better phrase.

GROSS: Colin Hanks, thanks so much for talking with us, and good luck with your new movie and your Broadway show. Thank you.

Mr. C. HANKS: Thank you.

GROSS: Colin Hanks stars in the new film "The Great Buck Howard," and he's on Broadway starring with Jane Fonda in "33 Variations." You can download podcasts of our show in our Web site, freshair.npr.org.

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