Tom Hanks has played many real people throughout his career. Most recently, that list includes Ben Bradlee, the former managing editor of The Washington Post, who pushed the paper to publish the Pentagon Papers in Steven Spielberg's latest film, The Post. Here, the award-winning actor talks about the huge responsibility he felt in portraying the character, how he got into character, and more.
Tell me about your new film?
The name of the movie is The Post. It also features Meryl Streep, Bob Odenkirk, Tracy Letts, Bradley Whitford, quite a few people, directed by Steven Spielberg, written by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer, and it is about a week in the life of the American Constitution vis-a-vis The Washington Post, trying to acquire and then publish what then became known as the Pentagon Papers, which was a top-secret study that was commissioned to examine the entire length of the American involvement in the war in Vietnam.
It happened to come along at the same time that Kay Graham, who was just coming into a position in order to either run the paper, or let a bunch of men run the paper, had to make the decision. It was her decision, or not to possibly break the law, to possibly go to jail, to possibly be branded a traitor by the United States government for printing this study that was put together by Daniel Ellsburg.
So in one week a woman was tested, a newspaper was tested, and the American Constitution was put to a test.
Tell me about your character.
I played Ben Bradlee, who was the managing editor. He’s the guy who decided what was on the front page and in the news; what stories were to be covered.
The New York Times are the people that really broke the Pentagon Papers. And, the competitive blood inside Ben Bradlee began to boil and he did not want to be just the hometown newspaper in the sleepy little capital of the United States. He wanted to be a first-run newspaper. He wanted to break the most important news in the world, because he viewed himself as being the boss of the best newspaper in the most important city in the world, and that was Washington, D.C.
So trying to find the same papers that The New York Times had was a dilemma, but eventually they did and they had a very short period of time in preparing them for publishing.
The federal government had forbidden The New York Times to publish any more articles. I think they were shut down after two days under penalty of arrest.
And Bradlee and Kay Graham viewed this as the most basic tenant of American freedom; Freedom of the Press to print the truth. And here was something that was written down as an official study.
So for the Washington Post to go ahead on their own and print the Pentagon Papers was to fly directly in the face of the Justice Department and, the Nixon Administration, and the question was if they did it would they be prosecuted for willingly breaking the law.
It went to the Supreme Court and if the Supreme Court had voted six to three against the New York Times and the Washington Post, everybody would have gone to jail.
But they happened to vote six to three in favor of the first amendment of the constitution; Freedom of the Press. And it’s one of those movies that takes place in a week and it goes by in a minute and a half.
Throughout your career you have played many real people....
Too, too often. But, yes.
Is it a huge responsibility?
Ah. That’s the word in itself; it is a huge responsibility. Because any time you’re playing somebody who truly was alive, for good or for bad, that becomes a version of an official record of what happened. What motivated them, what obstacles they faced, and what are the details of, how they got through the particular struggle, or the episode.
I will say it’s a little easier playing someone who’s no longer alive, because you don’t have to meet them. Although I did meet Sally Quin, who was married to Ben, and I had to make that announcement that an actor always has to make when he’s playing somebody who actually existed. I said, "I’m going to say things he never said, do things he never did, and be places he never was. But, despite that, I’d like to be as truthful as possible.”
You can capture the DNA of a moment and a decision and a story, but if the film makers start deciding that what really happened is not dramatic enough. Or if the events themselves do not clarify their intent clearly enough, they need to jumble it up in order to make it more exciting, because it is, after all, only a movie. But then you’re running the risk of essentially printing a lie. And I just can’t stand for that.
There are moments where you have to make a decision, “Well, he really wasn’t here. He didn’t find this out now. But he did find it out three days later, so what do you do?” There’s a degree of leeway that you can allow yourself provided you are not turning good guys into bad guys, or you’re not turning knowledge into ignorance, or you’re not adding some sort of malevolence just in order to adhere to some sort of – “but the audience won’t understand!” I don’t buy that. The audience will understand everything if you just figure out a way to dramatize in an entertaining manner what really went on.
Did you have a key into Bradlee; like a shirt or the way he tied his tie?
I watched a lot of video on him and he had a couple of key gestures; he had a number of ways that he stood. He was a chain smoker. But [costume designer] Ann Roth put me in the most Ben Bradliest clothes, and somehow between the fit of the pants and the collars of the shirts, they do alter your stance.
Did you find that you started to walk like him off set?
No. Oddly enough once you take off that costume it’s like removing Superman’s cape; you don’t have the power to fly anymore.
Do you miss characters you've played when the shoot is over?
No, because they play themselves out they’re like bakery tickets. Every time you get something done, you know, that bakery ticket is taken and it’s gone, because you work your way through the entire arc of any individual character in the story and by the time you’ve finished it, even though you shoot it out of order, all the tickets are gone and it’s committed.
What I miss is, often times, is the camaraderie and the spirit of creativity that goes on that is almost always special on a movie. Sometimes it’s not, and you’re happy to punch the clock and head on home, but when it’s really a great group of people, and everybody understands the story you’re telling, and everybody feels as though they’re a part of the movie that you’re making, that’s the thing that you miss when it’s all over. It’s bittersweet when you literally say “goodbye.”
What was your first job, before you became an actor?
Selling soda at an Oakland A’s baseball game at the age of 14.
What was your first big audition?
The very first audition I had that for a bonafide, big-time show was for “Greece”, the road show of “Greece”, their Broadway 1950’s hit. I don’t think the movie had come out yet and there was going to put a touring company out on the road. I don’t really sing and I certainly don’t dance, but I went to the auditions and for three days in a row. I had such a bad cold that they kept calling me back until my cold was over. I sang a song called “I’m All Alone At the Drive In Movies" with a cold three days in a row, and on the fourth day I came back, sang without a cold, and they said, “Thank you very much.” And that was it.
Did you get depressed when you didn’t get the part?
No, no. I always felt that it was all a matter of timing and serendipity. I felt that I was better than 50 percent of the people there, and just as good as 45 percent of them, so that left 5 percent left over for the geniuses that you cannot touch. So the real swing was, “Am I the right height? Is my hair the right color? Am I going to look good with the other people that are on stage?” and, “Am I cheaper than anybody else who might take the job?”
There’s a lot of stuff that can enter into it. The truth is, you might be the second or third choice, which means you don’t get the job. But if the number one choice takes another gig then the number two can’t do the work because his wife’s going to have a baby, they’ll come around to you. So I was always just trying to make the top five.
Did you like the process of going to auditions?
Yeah. It was always exciting to be in the room and get the call. It was like a performance. It was like you had two minutes of a one-man show. It was always thrilling.
The trick was as soon as it was done you had to do yourself a favor. As soon as you auditioned you had to either go to Nathan’s and get a cup of fries, or buy a cheap pen and a notebook, or go to the bookstore and buy a paperback. You had to give yourself some sort of little treat after every audition so at the least you can say, “Oh, I bought that book after I auditioned for, “They’re Playing Our Song” and I didn’t get it.
You went up for a lot of musicals.
Well, I lived on West 45th Street and everybody I knew was in musical, but I stopped doing that after a while, when I realized that musicals weren’t for me.
What was the moment you knew you made it in Hollywood?
Oh my. I didn’t feel as though I made it until I realized that I could make my house payments for two years, and if my car broke down I’d be able to get it fixed. And that wasn’t until, uh, going to say 1983.