JAMES PONIEWOZIK Namotu, Fiji
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, which opens this month in Europe, is shooting Hanks' emaciated, exposure-ravaged character, Chuck Noland, fleeing the island on which he's been marooned for four years after a plane crash. He pounds through the surf and raises the sail: the wall of a portable toilet that washed ashore. (The sight 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 1999's sweltering shoot on nearby Monuriki by an infected blister and then, over a year's hiatus, had to drop about 25 kg (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 they never actually 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 America's 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 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 4:05 ...'" 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!"
Before sundown, the Aftershock returns to base. It's a happy moment for the crew; everyone can pee now. "You have film you need to get off that boat?" someone yells. "We have urine we need to get off this boat!" Hanks hollers.
He meets me at sunset on the Namotu resort patio, decked with torches and stone idols, which lend our sit-down an odd Polynesian-honeymoon quality. "All the great stories are about our battle with loneliness," Hanks once said. "That's what I always end up being drawn toward." But, I suggest to him, it's more than that; it's a specific, homesick subgenre of loneliness. Captain Miller in Saving Private Ryan, Jim Lovell in Apollo 13, Hanks' man-children in Forrest Gump and Big and even Toy Story all share one universally sympathetic struggle: fate blows them off course, across oceans and space and time, and they just want to go home.
The pop-psych explanation is that this comes from his youth. A child of divorce, Hanks moved constantly as a boy. But he seems loath to talk about his personal motivations, and when I suggest this Hanks-as-Odysseus thesis, he responds in the most generous, droll, affable, Hanksian way that I'm full of crap. "They each have their voyages, but I guess I don't see that [similarity]. The danger of getting home was inherent in Jim Lovell's choice to go to the moon. I guess Captain Miller [fits], but I don't think he ever thought he was going to get home. The question for him came down to 'I hope I'm the same person if I get home.'"
That may be true. But it's also worth noting that looking at the day's footage, it turns out that even in that raft scene this morning, there was acting going on. Hanks drops oars, scrambles to his feet, flips up the toilet-sail, drops to a crouch and there's a familiar look in his eyes, less heroic than desperate and scared. It's exactly the sort of vulnerable bravery that drew people to Captain Miller. "Where does he go to get those moments?" Zemeckis asks. "I never ask him, he never tells me, and I never want to know." Still, Hanks recognizes that his connection with the audience is ultimately personal. "This part is the greatest distance that I've gone as an actor, but I'm no great chameleon," he says. "It's still me. I'm still very familiar to people that go to the movies."
That's as far as he'll go, though. Even castaways, it seems, don't mind having a moat around them sometimes.