BEVERLY HILLS -- It's a warm fall morning and Tom Hanks is bubbling over.
The 56-year-old two-time Oscar winner doesn't simply walk into a hotel suite, he bounds into it with the boyish energy he displayed a quarter-century ago in Big (1988). He's smiling, practically laughing, as he buzzes around the room, fiddling with the air conditioning and finally exuberantly throwing open the French doors onto the patio.
Yes, his new movie, the incredibly ambitious Cloud Atlas (opening Oct. 26), has received some great reviews, but there's got to be more to it than that.
What's up with Tom Hanks?
"The kids are out of the house," says the actor, who is the father of 35-year-old Colin, 30-year-old Elizabeth, 22-year-old Chet and 17-year-old Truman. "I'm telling you, all the kids are gone and it's the greatest thing that has ever happened to Mr. and Mrs. Hanks. Of course the greatest thing was having the kids in the first place, but...holy smokes!
"When the kids are gone, it's like you're dating again."
Hanks looks fit in a white shirt, dark slacks and a thin mustache that he has grown for his role as Walt Disney in the upcoming Saving Mr. Banks, a movie about the making of the classic Mary Poppins. He's here to talk about Cloud Atlas, and Cloud Atlas is a movie that takes some talking about.
Based on the bestselling novel by David Mitchell, the film has a huge cast and three directors in Tom Tykwer and Andy and Lana Wachowski. It tells six stories, all mixed together to explore the bigger meanings of life and human connections. Its lead characters include an elderly musician in 1930s Belgium, an investigative reporter trying to bring down a sinister energy company in 1970s California, an elderly book publisher stuck in a retirement home in contemporary London, a genetically engineered woman in 2144 Korea on the way to her doom and a goat herder living in the post-apocalyptic remains of Hawaii. Hanks plays six characters, including the goat herder.
The movie had to get outside financing because its distributor, Warner Bros., considered it too risky to put up the production money, given that it's a not-especially-commercial theme told in a three-hour movie with a remarkably convoluted storyline.
"I think it's as risky as Inception," Hanks says. "You saw that one the first time and said, 'How many movies are in this thing?'"
A creative risk
Hanks embraced the project precisely because it was unusual and risky, however.
"It's original and creative," he says. "I loved that it wasn't going to be simple for audiences."
As for playing six characters, Hanks says that it was a ball.
"They were all a lot of fun to play," he says. "I especially liked playing an actor in a TV movie. I kept asking, 'Is it a lousy TV movie? Am I a good TV actor?'"
He worked primarily with the Wachowskis, who he says were a calming influence amid a potentially chaotic shoot involving six complicated stories, hordes of actors and side-by-side sets with different directors on each one.
"They wouldn't let us panic or let us be freaked out about any individual choice," Hanks says. "I loved it that they were honestly happy to see us each day and the vibe was like they were letting us play in their rep company."
The film offers a bleak vision of the future, but also the promise of reincarnation and the gradual evolution of the human spirit, ideas that resonated for Hanks.
"I'm a historian by nature," he says. "I want dates and motivations. I've always felt, unconsciously, that all human history is the connection between person-to-person and idea-to-idea. For me this movie actually gives a vocabulary to that idea."
Hanks was born in California, the son of a chef and a hospital worker. His parents divorced when he was young, and as a result he moved often during a childhood that he has called "fractured." Acting filled a void for him, and he started doing community theater before opting for a career in television and film. His big break was the TV farce Bosom Buddies (1980-1982), in which he and Peter Scolari played men disguised as women in order to get the only apartment they can afford.
The young actor had made his big-screen debut in He Knows You're Alone (1980), but really made his first splash with, well, Splash (1984). The success of that Ron Howard fantasy led to such films as Bachelor Party (1984), Big, A League of Their Own (1992), Sleepless in Seattle (1993), Apollo 13 (1995), Saving Private Ryan (1998), You've Got Mail (1998) and Cast Away (2000). Hanks won back-to-back Oscars for his performances in Philadelphia (1993) and Forrest Gump (1994).
Almost as impressive as his two Oscars, by Hollywood standards, is his 24-year marriage to actress Rita Wilson. The two met when she guest-starred in an episode of Bosom Buddies, but did not become a couple until they co-starred in Volunteers (1985). They married in 1988, and remain together as spouses and as partners in their own production company, Playtone.
"Listen, I knew it from the get-go that she was my soul mate," Hanks says. "I met Rita Wilson and said, 'It's all over. Something is really different now.' I knew that I had fallen in love and things would be profoundly different from that moment on."