Tom Hanks on working with Meryl Streep: Most exciting, magical days
LOS ANGELES—“Those were the most exciting, magical days I’ve had on a set in all my career,” Tom Hanks said about working for the first time with Meryl Streep in Steven Spielberg’s “The Post.” It’s almost hard to believe that three of cinema’s most talented figures haven’t worked together before.
Tom and Meryl, whom the former hailed as the “greatest actor to have ever been asked to perform on celluloid,” portray illustrious newspaper journalism personalities in Steven’s 1970s-set drama centering on the publication of the leaked documents of the Pentagon Papers that cited the US government’s involvement in the Vietnam War.
Ben Bradlee (Tom), the Washington Post’s hard-driving editor, and Katharine “Kay” Graham, America’s first female newspaper publisher, are depicted in Steven’s riveting film about the unprecedented battle between journalists and government over a cover-up that spanned the administrations of four US presidents.
Ben, who oversaw the publication of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s award-winning reports chronicling the Watergate scandal, died in 2014. Katharine, whose “Personal History,” a memoir of her two decades running the Washington Post, won the Pulitzer Prize, then passed away in 2001.
Excerpts from our talk with Tom Hanks:
Why did it take a long time for the three of you, Meryl Streep and Steven Spielberg, to work together? I don’t know. I wasn’t a good enough singer to be in “Mamma Mia!” (laughs). I was the boss (producer). I should have been able to make that happen, don’t you think? I had to convince my wife. Consternation, more than anything else.
I was never involved in something in which there was a part for Meryl Streep, and Meryl was never in anything in which there was a part for me. All I can tell you is that we read this script in February and started shooting it in May. We finished in July, and it’s coming out this December.
So, this was a rocket, and I think in no small amount because Steven saw a movie he wanted to make, which changed in the course of doing it. Meryl latched onto this moment when Kay Graham became Kay Graham. I would’ve played Ben Bradlee in this circumstance with anybody.
I had maybe five very specific two-hander scenes with Meryl in this. Only four made it to the movie, but those were the most exciting, magical days I’ve had on a set in all my career.
But, this movie was made on sets in which two people came in a room and said very adult things to each other, on three to five pages. And to be able to do that with the artist who I think is the greatest actor to have ever been asked to perform on celluloid—La Streep—I can’t say it was a dream come true, because I was terrified at the prospect of doing it.
When it was done, I felt as though I had been elevated by somebody who’s incredibly gracious. She was just like a member of the ensemble, meaning she was like every other actor who has ever been in a movie, but we all know she’s unlike anybody who has ever been in a movie.
Does this part have a special meaning for you? It does, and it’s for very selfish reasons. One is because I knew Ben Bradlee. I had dinner with him on a number of occasions. I met him through Nora Ephron. I’ve been friends with his wife (Sally Quinn) for a while. We got together and talked about Ben quite a bit. This was back in the ’90s, when we were doing a lot of work with the World War II memorial that’s on the Mall in Washington, DC.
So, I got to know Ben and Sally. Knowing the man, then reading his autobiography and seeing all the research that I did on him, it was familiar. I knew the guy. I heard his voice, his meter and cadence, and his personality in everything that I saw.
The other aspect is, I also worked with and was a great admirer of Jason Robards, who played Ben in “All the President’s Men.” I don’t want to be one of those actors who throws around words like challenges … but this was one of the greatest challenges.
I’m a key member of an ensemble that is meant to support the bigger, truer, more personal story that isn’t just about history, headlines and the record. It’s about a very private relationship between two people. And that gave me a type of leeway… it had to be something between mimicking the man and an interpretation of what he went through.
And Steven is a taskmaster. I asked his permission to go down a couple of avenues, which he let me go. There were other times when he’d come up to me and say, “Not so growly.” Because if you talk to anybody who knew Bradlee, the first thing they do is they talk like that. Steven said, “We don’t want that, but we want that. So, you’ve got to find the perfect mix to it.”
There’s going to be a generation of people who are going to ask the question, “What’s a newspaper?” I just removed from my phone every update that I got from the Washington Post, New York Times, New Yorker, Vanity Fair and National Review. I finally said, I can’t keep up with it because it’s a constant barrage of what’s the latest and what the headlines are right now.
The fact is, anybody can read the newspaper (print edition) probably easier than your phone, iPad and laptop. It’s almost like having an affection for typewriters—being someone who wants to get a hardcopy of the newspaper delivered to your doorstep.
Here’s what I don’t think will ever happen again. I think that there’s a generation that isn’t going to try to get an all-encompassing overview in one fell swoop of what’s happening because they know that all day long, they’ll be getting an update.
What the newspaper allows us is, we read the news in the morning over cups of coffee, then we let it stew for the rest of the day without updates, alerts and headlines that are blaring across the bottom of the TV screen.
What do you think of Mr. Trump? I will say that I believe there are people in our government who are ignorant about our history, foundations and institutions. And I think the current occupier of the White House is one of those people.
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