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Tom Hanks opens up on age, acting and filming Saving Private Ryan on Curracloe beach in Wexford

The acting legend on channelling his inner grump in A Man Called Otto, and what the movie says about American men’s ‘pandemic of loneliness’

Paul WhitingtonIndependent.ie

It’s the voice that gets you first. Warm and earthy, broad and good humoured, with lively hints of irony, it seems to sum up all that is best about America, and you think to yourself, that’s Woody. I hear him before I see him, standing at the rear of a hotel room at London’s Corinthia Hotel, talking to his co-star Mariana Treviño. If Tom Hanks doesn’t turn out to be charming and affable, I’m going to ask for my money back.

Of course, he is. As soon as he hears my accent, he says to Treviño, “Mariana, you really need to go to Ireland!”, before launching into stories of his time in Wexford shooting Saving Private Ryan. More on those in a moment, but we’re here to talk about Otto, the epically grumpy curmudgeon Hanks plays in his latest film. Based on a novel by Fredrik Backman, and a 2015 Swedish film, A Man Called Otto has transplanted the story to a midwestern American city, where all is not well with its protagonist, Otto Anderson.

Tom Hanks with his wife Rita Wilson. Photo: Eric Gaillard

His wife has died, he’s been forced to retire and all he has to cling to now are the rules and regulations of his little housing estate. He makes daily patrols, chides neighbours for parking on the kerb and not displaying their residents’ permits. But it’s not enough, and Otto is in the middle of his first suicide attempt when he is rudely interrupted by his new neighbour.

Hispanic wife and mother Marisol (Treviño) is a force of nature, and sees glimmers of warmth through Otto’s frosty exterior. She refuses to give up on him, and their unlikely friendship forms the story’s backbone.

The first thing that strikes you as you watch the film is the fact that Hanks is playing totally against type, inhabiting a person whose bitterness is palpable, and hasn’t a kind word to say to anyone. Does he have a hidden inner grump he could tap into to help him?

“Oh my Lord yes,” he says. “The first thing I say is, ‘Now let me get this straight’, and that means I’m getting angry. Then the second thing I say is, ‘Why would it work for me?’, and that means I am angry. In a car, when people don’t use their turning signals, or something very basic, this sets me off in a way where even I have to stop and say, ‘Calm down, you know, you’re in a car by yourself!’ And what about people driving fast through the neighbourhood? Oh man, I wanna have a rock and throw it at them.”

Several years back, he was watching the Swedish film adaptation of Fredrik Backman’s book, A Man Called Ove, when he and his wife Rita Wilson simultaneously had the idea of recreating the story in an American setting. Wilson co-produced this film.

“The thing that got me,” Tom says, “is that this nadir Otto is in I thought was very American. The cynicism of separation seems to me almost like a default position in America. You know, I’ve got mine, stop devaluing what I have worked so hard for, this is my house, I paid for it, you’ve moved across the street and now I’m not going to get the same price on my house, and so on.

“Otto has all that, and he’s isolated himself, he has no faith in the future. When his wife was around, the next day was always something to look forward to, but now she’s gone. And the last thing he wants is somebody pounding on his door, saying ‘I want to ask you something’. But it’s what he needs.”

There’s a lot of death in A Man Called Otto, from his beloved wife’s to his own series of tragicomic suicide attempts — it all sounds decidedly un-American.

A Man Called Otto co-star Mariana Treviño as Marisol

Treviño, who has joined us, describes how in Mexico, death is seen as part of life. “In our culture,” she says, “with the Día del Muertos and all, there’s this fearlessness almost, you know, a not being afraid of fear itself.”

I explain how death in Ireland also tends to be confronted head on. In the US, says Hanks, things are different. “Yeah it’s just about the last thing you’ll talk about. You’ll invest maybe in a montage of [a deceased person’s] life, but then after that it’s avoid, avoid, avoid. You might talk about what they did, but you don’t continue the conversation. I think in countries like yours you remember them as if they were alive, it’s like you almost remove the tragedy of death along with it. But not in America.”

Otto is terse to the point of catatonia, and we only find out why he’s so bitter and withdrawn towards the end of the film, when he finally confides in Marisol. He’s given up on life, is old before his time, and as an actor Hanks was not afraid to embrace the character’s age, and exhaustion.

“I think it’s liberating, to tell you the truth,” he says. “Look I’m 66, and in the past I’ve often played somebody much younger than I should have been. In this film, the audience finds out all that Otto has been through, and you have to show that. But look, you can get older and you can feel embittered because you feel you’ve been cheated out of something, or you can feel lucky that you have learned all the things not to do, what not to worry about, and I mean, do we dare call that wisdom?

“And what was beautiful about Backman’s novel and David Magee’s screenplay is that the unpeeling of Otto and Marisol’s back stories is the thing that brings us together. Frederick, our producer, said that no one is a stranger once you learn their story, but Otto holds it all in until the last 15 minutes of the movie. And when you hear it all you go, well of course, that explains everything.”

Where Marisol insists on the importance of community, Otto leans towards Margaret Thatcher’s dictum that there’s no such thing as society. This philosophy, Hanks reckons, tends to be self-fulfilling.

“I’ve read that, over the last few years, there is almost a pandemic of loneliness in America that’s hitting men in their 50s. And there might be a lot of reasons for this, but one is that you get into your 50s, and men feel as though they have not become the version of themselves that they saw. Why is that? One is because they don’t have any friends: they have superficial connections, but they don’t have that other guy they can talk to and say, ‘You know I’m really depressed right now, I think I might need some help’.

“Men don’t do that unless they’re in 12-step programmes, and I think that is Otto, and when he finally confesses and says ‘I want to tell you about the great love of my life that was taken away from me’, that’s the thing that embitters him, as opposed to thinking ‘Well, I had a wonderful love in my life and I could still linger on that’.”

In Saving Private Ryan with Matt Damon and Ed Burns

That pandemic of male unhappiness could also be a result of rigid thinking about high expectations, and what used to be called the American dream.

“We have commercials every 15 minutes on American television that say, ‘You’re lacking, you’re lacking this thing, you’re lacking this sensibility, you’re lacking this car, this soap, those teeth, whatever. You’re fat, here’s a way of solving that. Don’t accept yourself as you are’, you know, and that’s something that, if you’re alone and you’re being fed that, then you’re gonna conclude that you’re not the person you should be,” he says. “And that’s sad.”

Hanks is one of the finest screen actors of his generation, perhaps the finest, so good in fact that few notice quite how brilliant he is. In everything from Philadelphia and Sleepless in Seattle to Captain Phillips, Bridge of Spies and The Post, he has underlined his excellence, so it might surprise you to know that he still gets anxious every time he starts a new film.

“Petrified. As soon as you read something and say ‘Oh, I think I have to do this’, that’s the first thing — you realise, I cannot say no to this one. Then you find out that you are doing it, and you start carrying it around in your head, and I’m always afraid that the first three days of shooting are going to prove that there was something unworkable in the mix, and guess what, it’s you!

“But I think we all go into the first days of shooting with this great amount of faith, which is, let’s just get over this hump and all will be well. And when you can get to the point where you can just play, oh thank God. But you don’t know if that’s going to happen or not; there are so many things that can get in the way.”

Treviño gives me her version of what Hanks is like on set. “He’s this very giving actor,” she says. “Whatever he has, he puts it out there. The first time I met him, I walked into this restaurant and I was so nervous because I’m meeting my idol. Tom had his back to the door when I walked in, and he turned around and said my name, and he gave me this beautiful hug. I’ll always remember that.”

Hanks does not enjoy watching his films, but he does have fond memories of making them, and few more so thanSaving Private Ryan, much of which he shot around Curracloe in Wexford with Steven Spielberg.

“As the crow flies, Wexford’s not all that far from Dublin, but on those narrow back roads it can take a long time to get to where you want to go. But very, very beautiful,” he says. “When we were there, the local businesses were advertising, and saying ‘come on in, you’ll have a drink with the Ryan crew!’ And I thought to myself, why not?

“I remember once I was sitting in a car because I was going to have a look at some [footage], outside a church or community hall where they had set up the projector, and this kid came by. He was in his wellingtons and he just had a stick and he was driving a couple of cows. And he comes up and he sees me in the car and I thought, ‘Oh, obviously he’s recognised me’. And I rolled down the window and I said, ‘Hey, how are you doing?’, and he says, ‘Are you with the film?’ Tom says ‘fillum’, working his way steadily in the general direction of a respectable Irish accent. “So I said, ‘yeah I am’. And he looked at me and said, ‘Well, enjoy Wexford’. That’s Ireland for you.”


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