Saving Tom Hanks

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"IT'S STILL ME": Underneath the tan, the scars and the facial fuzz, a familiar face playing a regular guy in extremis

The scrawny man on the tiny log raft, drenched with salt spray and flailing on the oars, is learning the meaning of the word breakers. Most weeks, the beefy, cream-capped, electric-blue waves cresting over the reef carry hard-core surfers from around the world. But this morning they have a different job: to kick Tom Hanks' bony, tan butt.

The crew of Cast Away is shooting "the moment." Hanks' emaciated, exposure-ravaged character, Chuck Noland, fleeing the island on which he's been marooned for four years after a plane crash, pounds through the surf and raises the sail: the wall of a portable toilet that washed ashore. (The sight, I am assured, is meant to be inspiring.) "There isn't much acting going on today," apologizes director Robert Zemeckis, who teamed with Hanks on 1994's Forrest Gump. It's more like boxing. Hanks clambers, panting, onto the command ship Aftershock, barking, "Big ones! Those were great!" Like a prizefighter, he's wrapped in a towel. He takes a few slugs of Diet Coke, has a mouthpiece popped in--actually a set of prosthetic rotten teeth--gets his scars and scabs touched up and then swings overboard again. Perhaps out of patriotism, I avert my eyes from his skimpy loincloth. I mean, that'd be like checking out Thomas Jefferson's package.

The physical demands, Hanks says, aren't a big deal. This from a man who's chomped raw fish for the camera, was laid low for three weeks during last year's sweltering shoot on nearby Monuriki by an infected blister and then, over the year's hiatus, had to drop 55 to 60 lbs. (and grow a ZZ Top beard) and return for this rough, wet work. "People pay to do this stuff on vacation," says Hanks, 43, who earned his sea legs as a surfer.

What is rough, Hanks says, is carrying a major chunk of the movie solo. (Co-star Helen Hunt, who plays his girlfriend, isn't around for the scenes in Fiji.) "It makes you crazy," he says. "You're not sharing the storytelling lifting with someone you can react off of. It's almost like making a silent movie; you have to tell every aspect of the story physically, being totally alone." Well, not totally alone. The castaway adopts a piece of flotsam--a volleyball he names Wilson, for its manufacturer--as his best friend and foil. (Strangely enough, Wilson has the surname of Hanks' wife Rita, although, barring major script revisions, they never get that close.) "I've worked with kids and dogs," says Hanks. "Now I can add volleyballs."

America's clean-cut screen idol, emaciated, covered with sores, talking to sporting equipment and riding a toilet to freedom: Is that box-office gold or what? "It definitely took someone of [Hanks' and Zemeckis'] level to get this movie made," says screenwriter William Broyles (Apollo 13). Hanks hooked up with him to develop a pet idea: a modern desert-island story--the stuff of sitcoms and New Yorker cartoons--told 100% realistically. No Man Friday. No "bamboo bicycle that powers a generator," as Hanks puts it. "The influence of Gilligan's Island on our national psyche has been extremely powerful." To prepare, Broyles spent a few days with experienced survivalists on a remote Mexican coast, carving spears to catch sting rays, which he ate raw because he couldn't build a fire.

They gave Cast Away's protagonist a job that symbolizes interconnected, high-tech society: he's a Federal Express efficiency expert. "We took this guy who is modern man to the nth degree," Hanks says, "whose life had been computers and 747s and packages, and reduced him to lapping water that he's collected in a rainstorm from a leaf." Hence, says Broyles, the two-word title: "He is cast away. He has to cast away all the elements of civilized life to survive."

The toughest question to answer was, What happens to a man after four years alone? "Are the changes consciousness altering?" Hanks asks. "Or is he just the same guy, with his vision altered five degrees, and those five degrees make all the difference in the world? It's a bad analogy, but what do you learn as a cancer survivor? You've learned life is precious. Maybe you eat less red meat. It's not like you glow with an otherworldly wisdom."

Zemeckis and the other producers acknowledge that Cast Away, slated for a Christmastime release, will live or die on how well Hanks sells the harrowing solo act. From Back to the Future to Contact, Zemeckis is known for movies that rely heavily on special effects and complicated logistics. Here his special effect is the incredible shrinking Tom Hanks. Since he started slimming down, everyone wants to talk about the weight loss, which bores Hanks no end. "All it is is time and discipline," he says. "It's like, 'How do you get to work every day?' 'Well, first I take the 405...'" Still, you can't not notice it as he stretches on his raft like a leathery strip of celebrity jerky. The analogies leap up unbidden. Jesus? The Unabomber on hunger strike? Later, as we watch playbacks--a tight shot of a drenched Hanks rolling his eyes--Zemeckis offers another. "It's Moses! You're talking to God!" Hanks laughs at his woebegone image, his voice dropping to a thunder-of-Jehovah bass: "'Damn you!' That's Chuck Heston, baby! Chuck Heston Noland!"

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