Tom Hanks talks about his animated holiday film, The Polar Express

Tom Hanks is used to making family films, including the G-rated Toy Story series. His latest, The Polar Express is another G-rated family film, but for the press, he joked about trying to pull a hard R.

“I kept trying to say as the hobo, ‘What the f*ck are you doing here?’” Hanks remarked. “It was funny. Then I did it once and I forgot to say ‘F*ck,’ and the next thing I know it's rated G. I think Eddie Deezen was going to cut loose with some foul language. ‘I tell you this. This is a big motherf*cking train. This is the greatest f*cking train I ever rode. Jesus, this hot chocolate tastes like horsesh*t. Jesus Christ.’ Forgive me my language.”

Getting back to the point, Hanks reflected on has become a career in CGI animated films. Though he’s closely associated with Woody the cowboy in the Toy Story series, playing five characters in The Polar Express became an even greater reflection of himself. “The aspect of looking at yourself in the Toy Story movies, it’s a little puppet,” Hanks said. “He sort of looks like me, but his head was nine-feet-tall. The difference between that and The Polar Express was extraordinary because The Polar Express really is me as opposed to some rendering of a character that supposed to be me.”

Hanks plays the conductor of a train to the North Pole, which looks the most like him, a hobo on top of the train, Santa Claus himself, and the young boy who rides the train on a quest to believe. The ability to play all these characters, through the use of motion capture technology, invigorated Hanks’ sense of craft.

“I found that it is actually a return to a type of acting that acting in films does not allow you to do. It was exactly like rehearsing a play in the round. You don’t have to worry about lights, angles, rails, cameras, over the shoulders coverage. We essentially did a great series of 10 or 15 minute plays in which we did it real, we did it all in real time, and when we were done Bob [Zemeckis] had everything that he needed to. So, as far as being an actor goes, it was a blast.”

Hanks sees the technology expanding to provide actors the chance to play characters that they could not ever play in real life because of physical differences. “If Meryl Streep can perform the greatest Genghis Khan in history, better than anyone else can play Genghis Khan, Meryl Streep can play Genghis Khan. And if James Earl Jones can play the greatest Mickey Rooney in The Mickey Rooney Story, James Earl Jones can now play Mickey Rooney in The Mickey Rooney Story. It’s an extraordinary opportunity for actors to no longer be limited by size, weight, color of hair, gender or race. That’s actually really great news.”

Of course, that kind of performance is still a long way off technologically. “The fact is it’s right now still pretty prohibitively expensive and it’s very, very difficult for the computer to capture, for example, the essence of a man kissing a woman. All those dots would meet in the face and all of a sudden the computer would go nuts and it would be one big head. So there’s not even a way to do that yet. So what this allows from a filmmaker’s point of view is, literally, if they can imagine it, there’s a new way in order to film it, and it’s a little easier and a little more costly than some of the other ways.”

Having been a part of several technologically risky movies that succeeded, from Forrest Gump to Cast Away, Hanks can confidently shoot down anyone who says The Polar Express won’t make back its investment. “Every one of these movies is an incredible risk. Every one is. At the end of the day who is going to care? If they don’t care, we’re in big trouble. Down through history people were walking and saying, ‘Let me get this straight. You’re going to make a movie about a baby monkey and you’re going to do it with a little clay figure and you’re going to do it one little shot at a time. What a stupid thing. No one’s going to care about that.’ And the movie is King Kong. Or George Lucas is making some rock-em, sock-em space thing with guns and robots. Everybody says, ‘Nobody’s going to care about that.’ And it ends up being Star Wars. The only thing that is going to matter is the story. The aspect of how expensive it is or how technologically difficult it is, that’s just the aspect of we had to figure out how to make the movie. And that’s the way we ended up making the movie. Is it a big risk? Yeah, of course. We could lose our shirts and people could lose their jobs if the movie stinks. But that would be the same thing if it was me and Nona Gaye driving in a car talking to one another. If that movie stinks too we’d be in just as much trouble.”

The artistic challenge for Hanks was finding away to make his five characters believable, so that the technology allowing him to play them would not go to waste. At one point, it was suggested he play more, but he recognized his own limits.

“When Bob [Zemeckis] explained it enough to me so that I could understand the process we were doing would make it possible for grown-ups to play the kids, that opened up a lot of opportunities for one aspect of it. But then came, where are all these adults coming from? And what they are, in my sensibilities, is they’re all the caregivers. They’re all the authorities in this boy’s life and he imagines them as variations on himself and variations on his uncles and variations on his father. As well as the great mystery of how he would have imagined Santa Claus needed to be himself. Santa Claus to this boy was not this roly-poly accountant that came down the chimney every day. He was this huge, muscular man that had to lift up this massive package, this sack of presents. He had to be a big, strong guy. Bob at one point said, ‘I think you should play every role in this movie because then we could do it. You could play every role!’ But I said, ‘Well, wait a minute. There’s girls in this movie. I’m going to play every elf?’ He said, ‘Yeah, it’ll be great.’ There’s only so much that I can internally grasp as an actor and on the day of tests that we did I played five or six or seven roles in the course of that day, and I said, ‘Bob, I’m exhausted here.’ So in my mind, I had a track on the five characters that I played. I could understand the differences between them all and I understood how they related to the boy and I understood what the boy’s perceptions of them were. And it was just a circumstance where it was doable. It was possible without having to do it in the way, like say for example, Jerry Lewis made The Family Jewels or something like that.”

Hanks stars in The Polar Express, opening November 10.

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