In Road to Perdition, Tom Hanks, 45, portrays a 1930s hit man who is the surrogate son of an Irish mob boss, played by Paul Newman, 77. The two Oscar winners recently sat down in Chicago with Time's .
Did you two know each other before the movie?
NEWMAN: I didn't know him at all. Joanne [Woodward, Newman's wife] played his mother in the movie Philadelphia. She said he's devoted to the work. That he is excessively responsible. There was a scene that we played where I was on the set for 19 hours and all the action was taking place around this table. Tom's character was sitting on a chair over there in a corner watching. Every time theysaid actors on stage, he was over there, off camera. He only had one line to say in the entire scene, and he stayed there for 19 hours.
HANKS: For me, the first day, the first time, the first take-forgive me, Paul-but I had an out-of-body experience. I hadn't felt that since the first time I went on the Johnny Carson show. From now on, the world's a different place for me because I'm on film with Paul Newman. Paul can do anything he wants. If he wants to call me "kid" and never learn my name, fine. If he wants to do one take and walk away, fine. If he wants to come in with two little lapdogs and talk to them all day long, he could have done that too. Because he's Paul. But here's a guy who's just part of the ensemble and trying not to feel as uncomfortable as we all do. I thought our work together was seamless. It's all about getting over self-consciousness.
[To Newman] Do you do that too?
NEWMAN: We respected each other's isolation. We didn't do a lot of stuff before scenes.
HANKS: It was like playing catch-but he was way over there.
NEWMAN: We respected each other's territory. He pissed on his tree, and I pissed on my tree, and then someone yelled "action."
HANKS: We were two dogs snarling at each other, and our chains only went so far.
In that scene when you're playing a duet on the piano, you really conveyed that these two men have a father-son bond.
NEWMAN: That was originally an Irish dance, but neither Tom nor I have any gift for foot motion. They said, Can you dance? I said, "Go and look in my wife's closet and check her shoes, and you will know immediately that I can't dance." It went from dancing to this very simple, breezy, one-finger piano exercise.
HANKS: It's a luxurious trick of the cinema. We're actually doing something as opposed to just standing there and emoting. If we had had dialogue about each other, it would have been so saccharine. What I'm assuming about the scene is that's the call that I've heard since I was 8 years old, and it's time to go sit down at the piano and play this tune with quote-unquote Dad. We knew it was going to be that moment that speaks volumes about our relationship and our past history.
NEWMAN: It was fun. I play a little boogie-woogie, but Tom doesn't play any piano at all, so he had to learn from scratch. We worked at it together. We rehearsed on one of those little electric keyboards.
What kind of relationships did you have with your own fathers?
NEWMAN: Mine was a distant relationship. I don't know that we ever connected as father and son. But just the fact that his sporting-goods business survived the Depression was a testimony to his integrity and to his honesty and to his reputation. That really stuck with me. One of the great anguishes of my life is that he didn't see my success. He thought I was a ne'er-do-well. He would have taken some pride in my success. He knew what that struggle to survive amounts to.
HANKS: My dad had a totally different personality and character than mine. He was a very shy man who was not good at communicating. I was willing to pretty much do anything. As I got older and was appearing in school plays, my dad sat there and said, "How does this kid get up and do this?" It was the first time I felt he had an admiration for one of my qualities, because it was a quality that he didn't have. By the time I was actually doing something that was quite astounding to him, it was too late for us to relate to one another in a different way. We never shared any bona-fide heart-to-hearts.
NEWMAN: When my brother and I went into the war [Newman was a radio operator in WW II], my father wrote us every single day, each one of us. Every day for three years, he wrote us a letter. If you go back and look at the letters, they were distant. There was no familial kind of sense to them. But there was an obligation to somehow remind us that there was somebody back home that was thinking about us.
Tom, you came from a broken home. Did you try to give your sons more stability?
HANKS: My oldest son [actor Colin Hanks] is 24. Throughout the vast majority of his youth and adolescence, I did not have a clue as to how to be a father or a parent. I was at that point in my career where it was all about getting work. My daughter and he lived with their mom [Samantha Lewes]. With my younger kids [with wife Rita Wilson], now that I'm 45, it's of paramount importance to me that they have much more concrete security and stability. I have much more ability to provide that for them now. With my older kids, I simply wasn't able to do it.
Because of your fame, do you both feel an obligation to be socially active?
HANKS: Responsibility is the word I would use. Because if guys like me don't do it, who's going to? Sure it's an obligation, but the Jeffersonian anarchist in me, the 1960s spirit of the Peace Corps, the Bobby Kennedyđesque young Democrat that I've always considered myself to be is the guy who says, "Don't curse the darkness; light a candle."
NEWMAN: I was pretty quiet until the Vietnam War. Then I became very active in that 1968 campaign. My highest single honor is that I was No. 19 on Nixon's enemies list. All the other actors were so jealous. But volunteerism is the best part of America. There's a much more personal kind of gluttony that exists today that didn't exist then. You can see it in business ethics.
Did you create the Scott Newman Foundation out of that sense of activism? [Newman's son Scott died of a drug overdose in 1978.]
NEWMAN: It was simply the recognition of unacceptable neglect. [Director] George Roy Hill said, "Luck is an art. People watch luck go by them, and they're so blind they never reach out and grab it." You could say the same thing about grief or loss. Something runs by you that you should recognize. You watch it go by, and you say it'll turn out all right. And then something happens, and it doesn't turn out all right at all. And you look back at all the signals you should have seen along the way. Which is easier, acting or directing?
NEWMAN: I think directing is a lot easier. Because you're constantly going. In acting, especially if you've got a huge emotional thing, you shut it off, you turn it on. You go back; you have a hot dog; you've gotta get it back on again. It's like being a stud in a whorehouse. "I've been doing this since 9 o'clock in the morning, and here comes this broad through the door again." It's very, very difficult to turn it off and start it up again. When I'm directing, the day goes much quicker for me.
HANKS: I always felt when I was directing that I was the only guy on a runaway stagecoach with a team of horses. I found myself always questioning myself, always testing a choice of shots. I remember I was doing an episode of Band of Brothers, and I saw all those guys, all the actors, over there. I said, God I wish I was over there. Instead I've gotta go out and worry about what we're shooting this morning and this afternoon, and try to get one more shot in.
If you could redo any of your performances, which one would it be?
NEWMAN: Almost everything up to 1978, I think. I hate to look at those. The worst, of course, is The Silver Chalice [the 1954 biblical epic directed by Victor Saville]. The other failures were minimal compared to that disaster. Virginia Mayo was in it, and Jack Palance was in it, and a couple of camels. I'm a sculptor, and I'm seeking enlightenment.
HANKS: Let's get it on dvd.
NEWMAN: I had to ride a camel. Have you ever tried to ride a camel?
HANKS: I can't say I've ridden a camel.
NEWMAN: The gait is very uneven. Just try to hit a mark on a camel. We were all in terrible disarray.
HANKS: I was on The Love Boat, for crying out loud. I wish I could have another crack at that. I played Gopher's old college buddy. I was the one guy on The Love Boat who didn't get lucky. But when I did it, I thought it was the greatest thing since sliced cheese.Paul, you usually don't go to the Oscars even when you're nominated [most recently for Nobody's Fool, in 1994]. Why? [Newman makes a face like he's just taken a swig of lemon juice.]
HANKS: I think he just answered your question.
NEWMAN: I don't understand why competition has to exist between actors. Some guy starts with a marvelous character, and the script is all there. All he has to do is show up. Another guy digs it out by the goddamn roots with a terrible director and turns in this incredible performance. And someone says one is better than the other. That's what's nice about car racing. It's right to a thousandth of a second. Your bumper is here. That guy's bumper is there. You win.
HANKS: Just going there, win or lose, you're praying, please, keep me from doing something so stupid that it haunts me for the rest of my career. That's either falling down or making a joke that's not funny. Or trying to be serious and sounding sappy. If you can't handle that pressure, don't go.
What's the secret to a long marriage, which both of you have?
NEWMAN: I never know what she puts in my food.
HANKS: Mine is, I know I'm a lucky man-but she could have done better.
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