Hanks backs film as personal project

Survivalist saga 'Cast Away' represents seven-year idea for actor

— Tom Hanks walks into a subterranean room of the Four Seasons Hotel with all the fanfare of a busboy. He has no entourage. He does not crackle with "I'm here" energy.

He holds a tall Starbucks coffee and orders an egg-white omelet with American cheese. If he were at home in Malibu, Calif., on this morning, he might be surfing.

Here at breakfast, Hanks is just as unassuming as a wave-rider before he begins a one-day, three-city promotional blitz for his survivalist saga "Cast Away."

We chat about surf movies such as "Big Wednesday" and train travel.

Hanks is a nice guy. Who has not heard that ad nauseam? And he does possess the "aw-shucks" aura of Jimmy Stewart. But he is not entirely modest. He points out his hubris in developing "Cast Away," which stars him, a volleyball named Wilson and a photograph of Helen Hunt, who plays the girlfriend left behind.

Hanks invested ego, talent and a bankable reputation in a tale of one man's battle against despair. He calls it his most personal project.

"Sometimes I can be at home alone with everything going for me, and I can feel some brand of heartbreaking loneliness," he said.

In "Cast Away," Hanks plays Chuck Noland, a FedEx systems engineer whose obsession with time is rendered meaningless when his cargo plane crashes on an uncharted island in the South Pacific.

Noland's mastery of the basics � shelter, food, fire and water � serves as the backdrop to a Big Question that only an actor with Hanks' clout can address in a mainstream movie: How long can an isolated man survive a tug of war between loneliness and sanity?

Imagine the studio suits adjusting their collars when Hanks pitched the idea. But when America's Cuddly Middle-Age Guy Next Door suggests, Hollywood often listens. Otherwise, Hanks can wait. "I got plenty of bleep-you money," he said.

He also has best-actor Academy Awards for "Philadelphia" (1993) and "Forrest Gump" (1994) and a sizzling track record of eight straight hits. Recently, a pudgy Hanks spun a mystical yarn about death row, "The Green Mile," into a $137 million pot of gold at the box office. One publicist joked that Hanks could make a porno movie, and families would still flock to see him.

Hanks took six years to cultivate his "Cast Away" idea with screenwriter William Broyles Jr., and then a production delay of a year between the early scenes and island scenes so Hanks could lose 40 pounds.

That is far longer than it took Richard Hatch to manipulate his way to victory on CBS's "Survivor," the hit series in which contestants voted each other off an island until one remained.

"I didn't see 'Survivor,' but there's no sneezing at something that enters the national consciousness," Hanks said. "This is, 'How is Chuck Noland not going to crack up?' as opposed to, 'Who's going to get thrown off the island this week?' "

"He completely understands the medium," said director Robert Zemeckis, who also worked with Hanks in "Forrest Gump." "He understands the whole movie. He's not just working on his part, ever."

Hanks directed himself in a featured part in the sweet rock 'n' roll movie "That Thing You Do!" in 1996.

Lately he has become a more visible figure on the labor front. Hanks participated in public protests and contributed $100,000 to the Screen Actors Guild during the now-resolved strike against commercial makers. He is optimistic that a threatened union strike against studios on May 30 will be averted.

But even Hanks has to hedge his bets. His next movie, "The Road to Perdition," in which he plays an assassin tormented by the murder of his wife and child, begins filming in February and should give director Sam Mendes enough time to finish editing by the strike deadline. Mendes directed last year's best picture, "American Beauty."

That Hanks' "Perdition" role even sniffs of villainy marks another departure. He thinks that trying to stick to a perceived persona can be more damaging than the persona itself.

"If you start paying attention to the iconographic image, you're going to be in trouble because you're going to do the same thing over and over again," Hanks said.

"I never took a job I didn't want," he added. "Well, maybe that 'Love Boat' episode I could have passed on, but, hey man, it was 4,000 bucks!"

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