Tom Hanks: I want to play normal people who go through extraordinary things

He’s one of the world’s most respected actors – but even Tom Hanks isn’t immune to feeling intimidated on set. As Sully soars into cinemas, the actor tells Susan Griffin about the pressures and rewards of playing true-life characters

Tom Hanks and Aaron Eckhart in Sully – Miracle On The Hudson
Tom Hanks and Aaron Eckhart in Sully – Miracle On The Hudson

TOM Hanks recently received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America's highest civilian honour, with the departing President Barack Obama paying homage to all the accolade's recipients for affecting him in "a very powerful, personal way".

For Hanks, a man with more than 80 screen acting credits to his name, plaudits are always appreciated, but it's the knowledge that his work has resonated with an audience that drives him.

"Any time you do work that is remembered beyond its opening weekend, you feel like you might've made a contribution to the zeitgeist," explains Hanks (60) in that inimitable and familiar voice.

"It means the film has worked and touched a chord. That's all anyone who does this for a living is hoping for. The accolades are nice, and it's a fine party to go to – listen, I never turn down free tickets to the pancake breakfast," he adds with a grin. "But what it means is your ripples in the pond are bigger, there's resonance to what you did, and that's where the reward is."

From classics like Splash, Big, Sleepless In Seattle, Philadelphia and Forrest Gump, to Apollo 13, Saving Private Ryan, Cast Away and The Polar Express, Hanks's CV reads like a roll call of timeless movies that you can sit down and enjoy time and time again – unless you're Hanks that is.

"I know there's a long record of work, but I don't go back and revisit these things," says the five-time Oscar-nominee (he won for Philadelphia in 1994 and Forrest Gump in 1995).

"I saw them once and they don't change, they remain as they were," he adds of his films. "It's not like looking at photographs of the kids when they were younger; it's more like, 'We did that and we had a good time'."

For Hanks – who has four children (a son and daughter with first wife Samantha Lewes, and two sons with his wife of 28 years, Rita Wilson) – it's not about ruminating on the past, but pushing forwards.

"Well, it has to be," states the star, who's also produced and directed. "If you're lucky enough to be invited back and make more movies, a number of things have to happen. You have to get older, you can't be in the same circumstance, and you have to explore other things," he explains.

In his latest movie, Sully, he plays Chesley 'Sully' Sullenberger, the veteran pilot who successfully landed a plane on New York's Hudson River on January 15 2009, moments after a flock of geese flew into both engines on take off.

It could have been a tragic disaster. But as a result of Sully's actions, all 155 people on board survived, and Sully was world famous within hours of the remarkable feat, with the incident dubbed the 'Miracle on the Hudson'.

"I actually met him and his wife Lorrie completely socially just a few weeks after the event," says Hanks, recalling their introduction at an Academy Awards party.

"We chatted for a little bit and I said, 'How are you handling all of this?' Because he was like a combination of Elvis and John Wayne – he would enter the room and everybody would start whispering."

In fact, while Sully was being heralded a hero by the public and media, an investigation was unfolding that threatened to destroy his reputation and career, as well as that of co-pilot Jeff Skiles (played by Aaron Eckhart in the film).

"This was a very pragmatic man who understood the realities of what he'd done and what it meant," says Hanks. "He'll never say he's a hero, but knowing with confidence that he could make that landing? That was a heroic thing he did. And he paid a price for it."

Hanks had planned a well-earned break after six years of steady work, including 2016's A Hologram For The King and Ron Howard's Inferno, when the role of Sully was presented.

"Sometimes you read something that is so stirring and at the same time so simple, such a perfect blend of behaviour and procedure," he reflects.

"Now I'm as competitive as the next actor, so I knew I wanted at least a shot at it. Sure, I was beat, but I felt like I couldn't pass up the chance."

Hanks, despite all his experience, admits "you're always intimidated" to play a real person – something he's done a number of times in the likes of Apollo 13, Charlie Wilson's War, Captain Phillips, Saving Mr Banks and Bridge Of Spies.

"You say to yourself, 'I'll never sound like him, I'll never look like him'. Hopefully I can embody some aspect, capture some part of his personality, whomever the person may be. And then you go to work."

Much of the film, which was directed by Clint Eastwood, was shot on location in New York.

"It seemed like everyone knew we were making this," says Hanks, who grew a moustache and lightened his hair for the role. "There was definitely an air of goodwill, and because I had the shock of white hair? Oh, man, did I get a lot of, 'Hey, Sully!' and, 'Way to go!' shout-outs."

Hanks also needed to convey Sully's rapid-fire thought process, which enabled the pilot to control the seemingly uncontrollable.

Early on in production, Hanks recalls Sully arriving for a meeting armed with a script, which was "noted, underlined, highlighted, dog-eared, paper-clipped".

"He had a lot of things he wanted to tell me about what was wrong with the script. By-and-large he was right, but it was small potatoes, stuff that could easily be vetted out," says the actor. "The thing I thought was going to be the true task at hand for me was to communicate the experience and the gravitas [of Sully's internal thought process].

"We're professionals, this is what we do, but that doesn't mean what we do is easy, it takes a small amount of work and some degree of fear. We didn't feel like our lives were at stake, but our professional reputations were, so we went for it tooth and nail."

For Hanks, the power of cinema is to be able to see some aspects of yourself mirrored on the big screen, and the opportunity to portray the 'Everyman' is one he cherishes.

"I don't have an intimidating persona, I look how I look and I sound how I sound, so I think I'm kind of limited as far as an actor goes, but with an opportunity to play normal people who go through extraordinary things," he notes.

"That stuff happens every day, and when you can find a movie that's able to capture it in a glamorous manner, then sign me up."

:: Sully is released in cinemas today.