Tom Hanks reveals his festive side

RACHEL BANHAM His new film is a hi-tech action-packed extravaganza that’s set to awaken the childlike Christmas spirit in all of us. Tom Hanks told Rachel Banham about it.

RACHEL BANHAM

Multi-award-winning Tom Hanks seems to have the knack of picking the right movie at the right time.

From Philadelphia (which won him his first Oscar) to Forrest Gump (which won him his second – and became the fourth largest grossing movie in history), to Sleepless in Seattle and Saving Private Ryan, he seems to know just what will appeal to the masses, and when.

The Polar Express is no exception. In it Hanks takes on five roles – as an eight-year-old boy, his father, a train conductor, a mysterious hobo and Santa Claus – in an adventure film based on the children's book by Chris Van Allsburg.

It tells the tale of an unnamed boy who takes an extraordinary train journey to the North Pole on Christmas Eve.

“He was undergoing a crisis of faith,” Hanks says. “He was getting on board The Polar Express to find out if everything he believed was true or false.”

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Today, the Ballroom of London's Dorchester Hotel has been turned into a winter wonderland for the actor's visit.

Smartly dressed in a dark suit, pale shirt and striped tie, he sits between director Robert Zemeckis and producer Steve Starkey at a table laden with 'snow'. Two Christmas trees bedecked with lights twinkle at either side, and eight smaller trees in the centre complete the picture.

Festive accessories aside, the banter between the trio comes easily, and their camaraderie is clear. These men aren't strangers – the Hanks/Zemeckis partnership brought us Forrest Gump and Cast Away, and Starkey's professional association with Zemeckis goes back to 1986.

Hanks answers press questions quickly but clearly and, with a sharp wit and ready smile, he can go from making his audience laugh to seriousness in seconds.

It was he who originally acquired the rights to the children's book and, after about 18 months of trying various formulas, took the idea to Zemeckis.

Asked about his apparent intuition for choosing the right film, he says simply: “It's mostly seeing something that is unique and off the beaten path, that in some ways kind of goes against the grain of standard business philosophy.

“I honestly say I just pursue the things that I think are interesting to me and me alone – and I'm amazed when it turns out to be something that other people are attracted to as well.”

The Polar Express is visually enchanting for children, but also allows adults to reflect on the importance of the festive season.

“Christmas is a reward we give ourselves at the end of the year... it's a time of true solace and emotional replenishment,” Hanks says.

“There really is a sincere wish for peace on earth, I think. Everyone does truly feel that. Maybe it comes out on Christmas morning or Boxing Day or at midnight mass on Christmas Eve. But I think it's a moment, as human beings, when we all are momentarily bound together in something that is larger than ourselves. You don't have to be necessarily spiritual to feel it.”

American critics have lauded and lampooned the film in equal measure – some loving its impressive presentation, while others have criticised it and likened the virtual child characters to eerie mannequins.

But few could query its visual impact, or attention to detail. For an impressive scene involving dancing waiters on the train (all becomes clear when you see the film), a troupe was choreographed and rehearsed for a live action performance by Tony-nominated Broadway choreographer John Carrafa. The dancers were then captured digitally and integrated into the virtual train car.

Scenes of the train making its way to the North Pole, and the journey of a 'lost ticket' are nothing short of breathtaking. And Aerosmith's Steven Tyler, who appears as a partying elf, is another highlight. But for Hanks, it's the essence of the film that's most important.

“I think it really stems from the original book which is all about 'Christmas is what you yourself put into it'. It's a very elegant book, even at home, and I think adults get more out of reading this to their kids than kids get,” he says.

“It's from the perspective of a grown-up. The last line of the book – 'and the bells still ring for me'... this is powerful stuff and it's an important aspect of our lives. Even though there might be no empirical evidence for such a thing like the Christmas spirit, if you want it to be so, it is there.

“And that's why we made the movie in the first place in order to communicate that rather important, but very personal, idea.”

It was an idea that came at an, albeit worthy, price. The Polar Express was the first feature film to be short entirely using technology called Performance Capture. It meant the actors had to forego costumes for 'motion capture suits' – similar to divers' wetsuits but with some 60 'jewels' of light reflective material sewn on, so the digital cameras could record the movement of the body as three-dimensional dots – the seeds of the images in the virtual world.

“It's not the most flattering suit to wear. It shows off every fault. But everybody had to wear it so all of us looked just as ridiculous,” Hanks recalls.

“This was very liberating in some regards, fantastically so. The pace with which we were able to work, the speed with which we could imagine these things... and the freedom of not having to wait. This was really a magnificent return to a kind of acting that you do on stage more so than in films.”

But he admits: “I would have loved to have had a costume on some occasions – that was the hardest thing to get used to as actors. Without those pockets as the conductor and without the heavy overcoat of the Hobo and without the bathrobe and the slippers of the little boy... you had to remember an awful lot of stuff that was not there.

“But that's our job, you know? I can tell you that on regular movies I've been supposedly standing some place looking off in the distance and what I was really looking at was the crew parking-lot just on the other side. That's what we do for a living, and we just had to do it a bit longer and to a bit farther degree on Polar Express.”

It also meant the actors had to wear as many as 150 'jewels' on their faces and scalps, to capture every expression. And their application took nearly two hours.

“It really hurt when they nailed them in. The tack hammers are very small but the actual tacks themselves are very sharp,” Hanks says, before adding quickly: “I'm joking! They are, in fact, specially-manufactured reflective kind of light sensors. Each one costs like three bucks a piece. They had to be glued on in a very certain particular pattern – all very specific.

“And they had to test them constantly to make sure that they were working in order for the computers to read the data.”

Sets and props were designed at 160 per cent of normal size to allow adults to portray the children – Marvin Gaye's daughter, Nona, is the young girl and Peter Scolari and Eddie Deezen are the two other boys. All characters have their own lessons to learn during the trip.

“It really makes for a fun day. I mean... they're paying us to get together and pretend we're in second grade!” Hanks laughs. “That's a nice job – we do that for free.”

And it was made even easier by the Hanks/Zemeckis partnership. The director says there has never been a situation where they haven't seen eye to eye, and he admits he doesn't have the same experience with other actors he's worked with.

“We get to resemble each other after a while, which is really scary,” Hanks agrees. “We have that kind of give-and-take collaborative.”

Still the technology meant Hanks didn't see the film until Zemeckis had worked on it in the computer. He recalls how one day he walked through the control room and saw what the computer saw – white dots on a black background.

“And I knew it was Peter as the 'lonely boy' running in order to catch the train. It was a collection of maybe 300 dots on a black screen and yet he was already a human being, in that regard. So I had the physical evidence right away that the process worked, and that our true physical performances were being captured.”

Though The Polar Express is digitally rendered, it is not animated and not strictly live action. It's a film that has to be seen to be believed. It also has implications for the future – affording an actor the freedom to play anyone.

“You will no longer be limited by your size, shape, skin colour, gender – none of that is going to matter,” Hanks says.

“If you have the interpretation that the director wants for the role you can play any role. I could play Florence Nightingale, I could play Abraham Lincoln. Meryl Streep could do the same thing. That can be very exciting for any number of actors who never get an opportunity to play certain roles. This technology will allow that.”

It also allows Hanks to play Santa Claus – and he reveals it's not the first time.

“Before my eldest son was born I had a job playing Santa Claus in a little gingerbread house out at one of the shopping centres in Sacramento,” he says.

“Mind you, I was 21 years old and rail thin – so it's not like I was a traditional Santa Claus even then. I had essentially a square stomach because that was the shape of the sofa cushion that I had stuffed into my pants!

“I was let go after two weeks because there just weren't that many visitors to Santa's little gingerbread house.”

His four children are growing up now, but in the Los Angeles home Hanks shares with actress wife Rita Wilson, the festive season still adheres to a “very strict timeline”.

“We have got to get that tree on a certain weekend, we've got to decorate it over the week, we have to wear certain hats when we decorate the tree, we have to certain music playing...” he says.

“As the kids get older they all fight about climbing up the ladder. A big deal this year is that our old star at the top has finally given way – it doesn't exist anymore. So we are actually investing in a brand new star at the top of the tree. We hope it works out. If not, pandemonium will ensue well before the Christmas holidays. Just like the advent calendar – things have to happen on certain days – otherwise those kids go nuts.”

It's reassuring to know that even when you reach Hollywood's A-list, family life never changes. So can Hanks see his children encouraging their children to see The Polar Express? Will it be an all-time festive favourite?

“If we've done it right... the lifespan of a Christmas movie is very particular,” he says thoughtfully.

“In the United States, there is almost a religion that has sprung up around Frank Capra's It's A Wonderful Life. It would be great if we enter into that pantheon of high-level Christmas traditions.”

And with his track record, it's something Tom Hanks may well achieve. t

t The Polar Express (U) is out at cinemas now.

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