On Wednesday afternoon, Tom Hanks, freshly arrived in Philadelphia, was about to step over to the University of Pennsylvania's Irvine Auditorium, where he would charm a packed house.
Right now, though, all he could talk about was typewriters.
"The oldest typewriters I have," he said, "from the late teens and into the '20s, old Royals and Remingtons — they still work perfectly and easily. The action is crisp; it's like playing an old Steinway."
I mentioned owning two World War I-era antique machines, and Hanks knew the makes, the models … and (this is true; I do not lie) he even called me back on Thursday morning to relay the address, number, and store manager's name at Philly Typewriter on Passyunk Avenue. "You have a national resource right here in Philadelphia!" he said. "Now go get those typewriters fixed." It was breathtaking, almost like hearing kids talk about their favorite pets.
Almost, because Hanks is not childish. (Called "optimistic," he said, "I'm OK with that, I guess, as long as you don't mean some goodie-two-shoes thing.") He is a man with the common touch and many passions, a man who pays attention, seeks out what makes us human. And that includes the objects around us.
Jason Freeman, producer and editor at the Free Library of Philadelphia, was his interviewer Wednesday night, and he said later, "He obviously is a great storyteller. And before in the wings, I must have talked to him for 30 minutes about history. The things he's into, he knows so much about the space program, World War II history; get him talking about Apollo or the Gemini missions, he is encyclopedic about the things he loves."
Hanks had come to Penn in the Free Library-hosted event to talk about things he loves, including his 2017 collection of short stories, Uncommon Type (Random House, $27.95), many of which revolve around typewriters. He tells how the collection came to be, and it sounds like one of his stories: slightly wacky, with a protagonist (in this case, Hanks) who stumbles into his own future.
"So I'd written this one story, ["Alan Bean Plus Four,"] that got published in the New Yorker," he said, "and my editor, Peter Gethers, said, 'Would you like to do some more stories?' I asked, 'How many do you need to make a collection?' Remember, I'd written exactly one story at that point. And he said, 'About 15.' That took me aback a little. But then I thought, I probably have about nine more in my head, and I bet I could get another five … and my next question was, 'About how long should they be?' And he said, 'However long or short they need to be.' The thought, of that freedom alone, really let me get started."
Important objects and passions abound in his stories. "Alan Bean" is drenched with Apollo lore. In "The Past Is Important to Us" — which Hanks says "emerged from a conversation with a friend about 'Where would you go if you had a time machine?' " — we travel back to the 1939 World's Fair. In "Three Exhausting Weeks," two friends buy an antique Flexible Flyer wagon for a friend. "Now, I never had a Flexible Flyer growing up," Hanks said, "but I had a friend who did, and I thought he was the luckiest kid on the face of the earth."
What he said next is totally Tom Hanks.
"The things around us are more than symbols or articles of nostalgia or collectible kitsch. The most important decision we made as kids was our choice of lunch box we'd be taking to school. Would it be a plaid lunch box? A Batman lunch box? A Hogan's Heroes lunch box? That lunch box was going to be a talisman you took to school, something that said, 'This is me. I'm a Fireball XL5 lunch box. I'm a plaid lunch box.' I can remember how important, in my big family, it was that each of us had the same size glass with the same amount of milk and the right amount of Bosco. That was the quality of our lives, the DNA of our personalities."
Speaking of objects, in a 2019 movie Hanks will don the most famous sweater in TV history: the red button-up cardigan of Mr. Rogers. He's acting the role of the TV pioneer for an upcoming biopic. The biggest challenge for him and director Marielle Heller (whose most recent film, the Melissa McCarthy-starring Can You Ever Forgive Me? opens in theaters Friday), he said, was "the preexisting ideas about who he was, about his motivations and purpose. … [And] the way in which he has become a caricature, his voice, his body, his choice of clothes." To get past all those assumptions, he and director Heller had to immerse themselves in the man.
One particular discovery helped him shape his performance. "He was completely without caffeine in his system," Hanks says. "He had no coffee or tea. He drank hot cranberry juice. That let him relax, speak slowly." As ever for the actor, motivation was all. "We forget that his show was not meant for us, not meant for adults," Hanks says, "but for beings so new in this world, they were afraid of things like going down the drain. He came to each child as if he or she was absolutely unique, whose need was to feel safe and taken care of."
Perhaps not surprisingly, motivations – understanding them, figuring out how to embody them – turn out to be among Hanks' supreme passions.
"The kind of books I like to read, the stories I like to write, the movies I prefer to see and act in," he began, then paused. " … I find too easy the kind of antagonist/protagonist, obviously good/obviously bad-guy structure you see in a lot of literature and films. I like my art to have understandable motivations in all characters … in my stories, there's no one who's really wrong in any of them, but there's divorce, sure, infidelity, breakups. … Yet something helped them make it successfully to the next day, often a grand and supreme triumph."
Was writing more solitary than moviemaking? "In the mechanics, the writing, sometimes, yes," he said. "But part of making movies is completely solitary." And here is where you heard Hanks' passion for his art: "Whatever role I'm playing, I have something constructed in my head, no matter how much we work together – and I can't and don't explain it to anybody, all I can do is I just do it, and show it to them. If it comes out, I did my job well."