Between them, they have five Oscars.
Steven Spielberg owns three statuettes — two for directing and producing “Schindler’s List,” one for directing “Saving Private Ryan” — and Tom Hanks has the back-to-back acting Oscars for “Philadelphia” and “Forrest Gump.”
Hanks confides with a laugh that most people assume that he also won for “Saving Private Ryan.” Spielberg chuckles when he says that many people think that “Saving Private Ryan” beat “Shakespeare in Love” for the Best Picture Oscar.
Only best buddies with five Oscars can laugh about not getting Oscars they probably deserved.
They have worked together as director and star on the aforementioned “Saving Private Ryan,” as well as “Catch Me If You Can” and now “The Terminal,” which opens Friday. They also co-produced the HBO miniseries “Band of Brothers.”
In their latest collaboration, Hanks plays a man from a fictional Eastern European country who arrives at JFK airport in New York City, only to discover that there has been a military coup in his homeland and his passport has been revoked. He can’t enter the United States and he can’t fly back to his war-torn country, so he must take up residence in the airport’s international terminal.
Spielberg, 56, and Hanks, 47, were dressed casually for this interview at the Four Seasons hotel in Los Angeles. They seemed at ease and in good spirits upon returning the day before from participating in the ceremonies in France commemorating the 60th anniversary of D-Day. They spoke freely about their longstanding working relationship, why they connected as friends and the significance of their new movie in a post-Sept. 11 world.
Get Out: Why does this partnership work?
Steven Spielberg: Because we listen to each other. We have a mutual respect for each other’s opinion. And we know a good idea when we hear one. So if Tom has a good idea, it’ll wipe out every other plan I had that day. And the same is true in reverse. It’s all about listening.
Tom Hanks: Whenever we’ve worked together, neither of us had to talk the other into doing it. All three times, we both said, “That’ll be great.”
Spielberg: There’s also no ego involved. If Tom brings me an idea, he can do it in my trailer or in front of the entire crew. I never think of myself as the authority figure. Ego is a barbed-wire wall that prevents the communication of good ideas. Some directors and some movie stars think only they should have the good ideas. We don’t have that.
GO: Tom, how is this movie different because Steven directed it?
Hanks: Other directors would walk into that huge set (built in a 747 hanger in Palmdale) and freeze because there was so much. Steven looked at it like it was a million Tinker Toys dumped on the ground to play with.
GO: So there’s no intimidation factor with him?
Hanks: He looks at it and sees a million possibilities. He sees things that other directors don’t see.
GO: And Steven, how is this movie different because Tom was in it?
Spielberg: Tom is the only American actor who could have played Viktor Navorski. In fact, if I think back to some of the great American actors of the ’30s and ’40s, I can’t think of many who could have played a foreigner as well as Tom. It’s not easy. Even Spencer Tracy had trouble playing a Portuguese fisherman in “Captain’s Courageous.” But Tom became Viktor Navorski the first time the camera landed on him, even before he spoke with an accent.
GO: What’s the basis of this friendship?
Hanks: Look, we’re in the same business, we live in the same neighborhood and we have kids who do the same activities, so even though I’m a little younger than Steven, we have the same responsibilities forced upon us. We have the same balancing act.
GO: But how did it start?
Spielberg: Probably through Rita and Kate (their wives).
Hanks: And there were some common friends, and then there was a Mother’s Day thing that we were all at. And it was like, “Hey, we have a lot in common.”
GO: Even though you had these things in common and respected each other’s work, did you like each other?
Spielberg: What’s not to like about Tom?
GO: Specifically, what do you like about him?
Spielberg: I like the fact that he’s got a self-deprecating sense of humor. And he’s the first person who ever spoke out loud something that I’ve always felt. He said, “I’m just so lucky to be in this business. I’m so lucky to come to work in the morning, read a script and work with people I like. I feel so fortunate.” His gratitude for his career is not very common in this business.
GO: That’s his work persona. What did you like about him as a guy?
Hanks: OK, now I know what you’re getting at. I think I can explain it. We both grew up in an alternative America. Not the America with Ozzie & Harriet and the white picket fence and the suburban high school where we all met at the malt shop. We grew up in an America where our parents were split up, we moved around a lot and sometimes we’d go to a new school where we’d feel like the odd man out until we could find something we could get passionate about that would give us something to do and exercise our brains. Otherwise we’d be lonely sad sacks. He found directing and did it from the point of view of being the only Jew in Scottsdale, Ariz., and I found acting and did it from the point of view of being the only guy in school whose father had been married three times.
GO: So beneath all the professional connections, you’re connecting on a gut level that started as kids?
Spielberg: We came from the same social DNA. I also think that sometimes it’s impossible to articulate the chemistry of friendship. You meet a lot of people but you only make friends with a few. Who knows why?
GO: I understand that this movie project began developing before 9/11. How did that day affect the final movie?
Spielberg: The only real difference was that we shifted it from airport security to Homeland Security. And that put us behind the eight ball because the government hadn’t finished the design for the Homeland Security patches. We had to invent them, and now they use those patches that we designed.
GO: Does this movie relate at all to the current world situation?
Spielberg: After 9/11, we don’t look at people the same way. All of us, privately and publicly, can be accused of profiling. Maybe it’s deep in our subconscious, although I don’t think it’s so deep. There’s a new fear button, and our fingers are often hovering over that button when someone passes who we have suspicions about. An international airport terminal is a miniature melting pot that forces you to face your fears. Maybe a movie like this can make us more trusting of strangers.
GO: Am I giving this movie too much weight to ask if it could have an impact on the real world?
Spielberg: Not at all. We discussed it while we were making the movie. I even called Tom once and said that maybe we should take this out of the shadow of 9/11 and set the time in 1989. But Tom felt that there was more gravity if we confronted the facts of today’s world.
Hanks: This movie asks the question, “Do we have the luxury of treating people as individuals?” It makes you think about whether we are ever going to get back to the America that welcomed people into this country. It makes you wonder if we are going to let ourselves be governed by our imaginations or our fears?