In his long, distinguished and rather versatile career, Tom Hanks has been the star of many career-defining films. But he has been the star of only two franchises — one simply features his voice (Toy Story) in a celebration animation franchise, while the other (Da Vinci Code trilogy) is a live-action juggernaut. The latter has seen him play Robert Langdon, a symbologist, a much-loved character created by bestselling author Dan Brown in three films so far — over the span of a decade.
We caught up with him somewhere between his promotions for his latest, Inferno and gatecrashing a wedding in New York’s Central Park and asked him about the film and how he gets it right with his roles ever so often.
Excerpts from our conversation…
As Robert Langdon, you’ve played the same character for a decade now. How do you maintain consistency in character as well as approach the same character differently as an actor?
Inferno is our (director Ron Howard’s and mine) fifth movie together and all of them start off at the same place. We ask ourselves ‘Is there something here we can crack? Because otherwise, I’d rather stay at home and play with the kids than go off and make a movie that isn’t going to confound and challenge us every single day. And it’s always about the material. The truth is I wouldn’t be involved in it if it didn’t strike my fancy from the get-go. I’m very selfish too, because Robert Langdon is a fabulous character to play. He’s got no baggage, he’s smart and in all of these stories, he gets immersed in something that propels him all the way through. It all comes down to procedure and behaviour that is laid out for me by either Dan Brown or David Koepp.
My approach to playing Langdon hasn’t changed, the only thing that has changed is that we have gone through an establishment of some behaviour from the first one. When we made The Da Vinci Code, I was probably intimidated by him because I was trying to constantly manifest this concept of the professor who lived alone and got called in as the expert. And in Angels & Demons, he was the guy who would come in and explain things and figure it out at the same time. But that gives way here (in Inferno) to what Dan Brown has created — he doesn’t know where he is or what he’s doing or why he’s there and why he’s got these needles stuck in him (when he wakes up in hospital).
So, both Ron and I come to the story with an understanding of the way Langdon thinks, what he would do and would not do and what drives him. So we didn’t have so much to imagine and create, but we did have a lot in order to protect. Because Langdon is a very specific guy — there’s stuff that he’s not afraid of and there’s stuff that he is horrified by. So this time, it’s more about now as opposed to what happened in the past as it was with the two previous films (The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons).
Do you read Dan Brown’s novels before reading the adapted screenplays or vice versa?
Yes, we do read the novels before getting into the script stage, but we haven’t done all of the Dan Brown books. There was another book (The Lost Symbol) where Ron and I got together and said ‘OK, well, I don’t know what the new territory is there’. We don’t have to do all these movies — we’re not under contract, we only do them because we think ‘Hey, there’s something really great, look what we get to do here’. And I think that with Inferno, Dan Brown is dealing with a very specific authentic theme — it’s not about something that happened thousands of years ago, but it’s about the future of the world. Plus, what David (Koepp) and Ron did with this is to load it with other stuff that is not even in the book so they get to discover brand new things as well.
How was it working with Irrfan Khan?
He’s a tremendous actor and I’ve been a fan for a long time. I’m just beguiled by his magic eyes. He has a physicality to him that is so specific and endearing. His value is his artistry. And when I spoke to him about the movie, he specifically asked about the role of Sims. Irrfan does not fit the description of the character as written in the book, but his case for himself, his creative ideas about playing Sims, completely won me over and he’s an absolute pleasure to work with and is incredibly intelligent.
There is talk of an Oscar nomination for Sully. How important are awards to you?
That’s somebody else’s responsibility. I don’t have to do anything like that.
How do you always get it right when picking scripts? What’s the secret?
In the beginning of my career, I was thrilled to know that someone was asking me to be in a movie and I thought that was all that was required and as long as they keep asking, it will continue to fall into place. I had to become dissatisfied with my own process around six movies in, where I was feeling I was not bringing to the work anything other than my instinct and I realised I was getting older and had to re-examine my approach. As you get older, you have a different set of chops and perspective and, believe it or not, a different wisdom. Every five years, I went through a process of examination of myself as a man and as an actor and thinking, ‘I’m 36 or 38 years old now and I don’t want to play the young man who’s trying to figure out life.’ Instead, I want to play a man of bitter compromise, I want to play someone who’s been through something. So, it’s a never-ending process of examining where you are in life as a human being and then transposing that, so it can reflect in your work somehow.