Tom Hanks takes on six different characters in the notoriously complicated Cloud Atlas, including a seedy hotel manager in Edinburgh and a nuclear power plant worker in a 1970s San Francisco set in Glasgow. Confused? Well, the consummate professional loved every minute of it, finds Katie Wright
WHEN Cloud Atlas opens across the UK on Friday, cinema-goers in Scotland will enjoy a little local interest as the action unfolds. The film was partly shot in Edinburgh and Glasgow, and the streets of the latter double as San Francisco, while the capital retains its own identity with shots of the Scott Monument and scenes in the Old Town.
Tom Hanks and Halle Berry added a splash of Hollywood glamour to the landscape when they arrived here in 2011 to shoot scenes for the movie. While Berry was involved in the San Francisco-on-the-Clyde section, playing journalist Luisa Ray, Hanks adopted a Scottish accent with his portrayal of a slightly sinister character who runs a low-rent hotel in Edinburgh. Some reviews also credit Hanks with playing a thuggish Scottish author by the name of Dermot Hoggins, but this is down to confusion over accents: Hoggins is supposed to be Irish, although his brogue does mutate into Cockney at times.
And in another scene set in Scotland, escapees from an old folks’ home end up in a pub in the midst of a Six Nations rugby match. The fleeing OAPs enlist the help of disgruntled Scottish rugby fans – who have just watched their team lose to England – to start a bar fight to help them evade a nurse.
Confused? Don’t worry. Cloud Atlas was never meant to be easy. It is based on British author David Mitchell’s notoriously complicated best-selling novel, and although the film follows a single story, it is split over six different timelines spanning 500 years.
Intertwining historical plotlines in its assertion that all our actions have a consequence, even in the distant future, Hanks takes on numerous roles, including a doctor in the South Pacific in 1849, a nuclear power plant worker in 1970s San Francisco and a goatherd in 2321. It’s a range reminiscent of the polymath performer’s own varied career. Born and raised in Concord, California, Hanks’ dramatic interest originally lay in theatre, something the multi-character Cloud Atlas shoot brought to mind.
“Do you remember that period of time when every movie had explosions and some guy running away from it?” asks Hanks in that familiar, comforting voice. “It doesn’t mean anything any more.” He’s explaining why Cloud Atlas has far more going for it than just its “eye-popping” CGI effects.
“That’s all secondary to the mind games the film’s playing. I don’t think anyone’s going to say you’ve got to see this because of the special effects.
“It reminded me of starting out in repertory theatre a long time ago and you’d have a six-play season. In one production you’re playing the keeper of the dogs who says funny things, then in the next play you’re playing the Lord of Essex, and in another, if you’re lucky enough, you’d play Iago or Richard III.”
He says that when he first read the Cloud Atlas script he doubted that such an ambitious story could be pulled off: “It was the bodaciousness of what they were trying to do. It’s just the biggest thing imaginable. They had to explain it to us.”
“They” are writer-directors Lana and Andy Wachowski – the sibling team behind The Matrix trilogy – and German-born director Tom Tykwer.
“A lot of the time, screenplays speak for themselves but [with this one] I actually said, ‘You sure you can get the financing to make this?”’ Hanks says. But once the trio had him convinced, he was raring to go. “I went, ‘I’m in, I’m in! Let’s go!”’
Bringing together a stellar ensemble cast, Cloud Atlas also stars Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess and Hugh Grant, who each have at least six roles of their own. Add to that Susan Sarandon, Ben Whishaw and James D’Arcy with another four roles each, and it becomes clear why Hanks wasn’t certain such a complex narrative would work.
Each actor depicts characters of different sex, race and age, and they all faced lengthy sessions in the make-up chair. “The great thing about this is that we get to put on clothes and pretend to be different people we’re not. It was liberating fun every time,” says Hanks, who jokes that his distinctive features posed the biggest challenge for the make-up artists. “I think of all the actors in the film, I’m the most recognisable in all six incarnations, because you can’t change the shape of this head!”
Hanks thinks he probably spent more time in make-up preparing to play gangster-figure Hoggins than he did actually depicting him on set. But while Hoggins is only on screen for a short time, he still makes an impressive impact and was one of the characters Hanks would have enjoyed spending more time exploring.
“He’s the epitome of the worthless celebrity,” says the actor. “Someone who’s done something despicable and because of that becomes famous and rich – it’s a magnificent comment on our time.”
Despite being one of the most recognisable people in the world, Hanks has always shied away from the notion of celebrity’. After high school, he studied theatre acting and briefly moved to New York before relocating to Los Angeles, where he had his big break in the Big in 1988.
Box-office success and critical acclaim followed with 1990s romcom Sleepless In Seattle and hard-hitting Aids drama Philadelphia, which earned Hanks the Best Actor Oscar in 1994. He won again the following year for Forrest Gump.
It was little surprise he felt the time had come to step behind the camera, and in 1996 Hanks directed (and starred in) the 1960s pop vehicle That Thing You Do!
In embarking on what fellow actor-turned-director Ben Affleck recently termed a “second act”, Hanks has racked up successes to rival his earlier acting achievements. At the top of that list, he produced and starred in D-Day juggernaut Saving Private Ryan, which garnered 11 Oscar nominations, and was directed by Steven Spielberg. He and Spielberg teamed up again, this time as executive producers, on Band of Brothers, a critically-acclaimed TV series based on the movie.
As Hanks broadened his professional scope, the accolades continued to pour in. In 2002, he was named the youngest person ever to receive the American Film Institute’s Life Achievement Award, aged 45. That same year he produced the smash-hit romcom My Big Fat Greek Wedding, with his wife Rita Wilson.
While the milestone 60th birthday may be looming ever closer for Hanks, it seems he’s not lost any zest for life or his craft, and epic projects like Cloud Atlas show he has no intention of slowing down.
“I’ve seen the movie three times and I’ve seen more and more stuff that I’d missed every time. It’s hard because, the more we talk about it, the more I fear people will think this sounds like a symposium in college I fell asleep in.”
And while it may ask the big philosophical questions, Hanks is keen to emphasise that Cloud Atlas is very much “a fun, epic motion picture”.
Given his films have grossed more than £5 billion worldwide, this is a man who knows what he’s talking about.