Tom Hanks swears. Not a blue streak, no, but it’s bracing to hear profanity from the man who has defined decency for three decades in Hollywood, playing white knights in Splash, Forrest Gump and Apollo 13. If he is grandma-friendly on screen, he is looser and less predictable in person — as his old friend Nora Ephron was reminded several years ago when she sent him the screenplay for a biopic, Lucky Guy. He took an instant dislike to his character, Mike McAlary, the muckraking columnist of New York City tabloids in the 1980s and ’90s.
“I told Nora that McAlary sounded like a real” jerk, Hanks said, using a more piquant word — and a perceptive one, since McAlary’s power came from his determination to be the biggest, baddest, bona fide ... jerk who ever dug into corrupt cops.
He reconsidered only years later, after running into Ephron while promoting his 2011 movie Larry Crowne. They got around to talking about Lucky Guy — she had turned it into a play, and Hugh Jackman had done a table reading — and Hanks asked to see the latest version. This time he felt drawn not only to McAlary’s swagger, but also his drive to become the next Jimmy Breslin [celebrated American journalist and author] and to be worthy of his own celebrity.
“Look, the title is Lucky Guy. It’s about somebody who is almost good enough to deserve what he achieves. And I understand that,” Hanks said during an interview on the stage of the Broadhurst Theater, where the play, his Broadway debut, has begun a 15-week run. “I still feel sometimes that I’d like to be as good as so-and-so actor,” he continued. “I see some other actors’ work, and I think I’ll never get there. I wish I could.”
Hollywood stars often come to Broadway to prove something to themselves or to audiences, though they rarely admit it. With Academy Awards for Philadelphia and Forrest Gump, Hanks is less hesitant. While he denied that, at 56, he is here because his film career has cooled — “I have two movies in the can. I have plenty to keep me busy” — he also appeared delighted that McAlary is pretty far from a predictable Tom Hanks part.
Will audiences buy him as unlikeable? Hanks is still a genial guy, who tends to cope with pressure by yukking it up. But he has also thrown himself into a role that calls for no vanity, his director and fellow actors say. He has a grey-flecked moustache, as did McAlary, and is trying to preserve the columnist’s rough edges.
“Anytime you go off to do something new, you’ve involved in a reinvention, and any actor who says otherwise is just trying to lower expectations,” said Hanks.
It has been a twisting path to Broadway for him and Lucky Guy, and a heartbreaking one. The sharp-elbowed McAlary, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1998 for his columns about the brutalisation of Abner Louima by police officers, died later that year from colon cancer, at the age of 41. Soon after, Ephron, a former reporter for The New York Post who cherished the tabloids of yesteryear, began to research McAlary’s life and spent years rewriting the script, at one point calling it “Stories About McAlary.”
Once Hanks signed on, Ephron began meeting weekly with the play’s director, the Tony Award-winner George C. Wolfe (Angels in America), to sharpen the central device — other journalists sharing and arguing over anecdotes about McAlary — so that the lead character came into sharper focus.
All the while, however, Ephron was quietly battling leukaemia (died in June 2012). “I had no awareness of the invisible timetable she was on. After she died, we were even more determined to do the play,” Wolfe said.
The popular Hollywood actor read many of McAlary’s columns and interviewed some of his old friends, coming away agreeing with a point Ephron once made about him. “Nora said Mac was good when he was covering the stuff he knew, cops and cop scandals, while other times he was clearly struggling,” he recalled.
Seeing those imperfections has helped him avoid turning McAlary into a classically uplifting Hanks role. Or, as Hanks puts it bluntly: “not to” screw “this up”.
Hanks first fell for theatre at Skyline High School in Oakland, California, playing the small role of the bus driver in Tennessee Williams’s The Night of the Iguana and the juicier part of Luther Billis in South Pacific. He made his first solo trips into San Francisco as a teenager, which he recalls as a rite of passage, to see favourite plays like The Iceman Cometh. But when Hanks decided to try his hand in New York, he quickly came up short.
“I lived around the corner from Broadway, but I couldn’t even get arrested,” he recalled. “I didn’t know how to dance, I hadn’t taken a voice lesson, and I wasn’t feeling confident.” Lacking an agent, he rarely got auditions; when he did, he invariably got out only a few lines or lyrics before hearing a producer yell, “Thank you!” from the orchestra seats.
Broadway tends to measure success by ticket sales and critics’ reviews, and the stakes are always higher when a star is involved. Buzz that Lucky Guy had only a $5 million advance in paid ticket sales — good but not great, considering the stature of Tom Hanks — prompted the play’s lead producer, Colin Callender, to say in a mid-February interview that the advance was $7 million.
The pursuit of the news might be easier to show on film, Hanks acknowledged, and he said a Lucky Guy movie was possible if the play is a hit. But as for anticipating the reaction to the production, he is relying on one of his best-known traits: laughing in the face of pressure.