Tom Hanks credits his success to an ability to say ‘no’. If only more people would follow their instincts and only do work they believe in
One of the reasons I became a journalist was so that I could legitimately ask strangers intrusive questions. I have a great curiosity about human beings, especially those who create movies. I want to know what drives them, what keeps them up at night, what fires their imaginations and what makes them successful. For me, the best interviews are those that become life lessons. I come away with insights that propel me to do better.
One such was Tom Hanks’, whom I recently interviewed at an event called ScreenSingapore. The hybrid movie convention included workshops, masterclasses and red-carpet premieres. The showstopper was the Asia premiere of Larry Crowne, a film that Hanks has directed, co-produced and co-written. He also plays the lead role of Larry, an affable man whose life falls apart when he is fired from his job at a departmental store. The 50-plus Larry then decides to reinvent himself by going to college for the first time. He takes a class that changes his life—of course, it doesn’t hurt that his teacher is Julia Roberts.
In 2009, at a Lincoln Center Tribute to Hanks, Roberts described the actor like this: “Tom can walk into any room and truly make you feel comfortable, make you feel like you have something interesting to contribute, like there’s a reason you’re on the planet. And that’s a true gift. That isn’t acting, and isn’t dinner-party games. It’s heart and it’s compassion and it’s soul.”
Hanks is, without argument, the nicest Hollywood actor I’ve interacted with. His enthusiasm as he met journalists was boundless. He seemed genuinely interested in the questions and answered thoughtfully. He was funny and engaging. Actors on media junkets often seem to answer by rote—it is difficult to stay peppy over 20-25 interviews—but Tom didn’t seem mechanical or rehearsed.
But for me, what truly made Tom Hanks special was his take on life and making movies. Years ago, when he was asked to explain his success, he said that the biggest reason was that he had managed to say ‘no’ to the wrong things. I asked him what that meant. He explained it like this: “When you reach a certain point where they actually believe that you alone can sell tickets, opportunities come in to make big movies. Movies that have directors that you wanted to work with or you get to play an archetype that you have always wanted to play. All those things are attractive, but they don’t actually add up to a theme worthy of having a movie made about it. At the end of the day, it’s not enough. Those films are hard to say ‘no’ to because it’s just so attractive. But I have been lucky in that I have been able to pay my rent, so I have been able to say, ‘I don’t get it.’ And if you don’t get it, how can you go off and take on the burden of working all those months and years and then coming off and then embracing it and talking about it, if you don’t like it in the first place. I don’t know how to do that.”
Only do work that you believe in. It seems simple, and yet most of us, out of greed or insecurity, don’t follow this. We participate without passion, which eventually reflects in the material we produce. But when a two-time Oscar winner, whose films have grossed almost $4 billion globally, speaks about the importance of being earnest, you tend to listen.
According to boxofficemojo.com, Hanks is the number one movie star on the planet in terms of grosses. And he got there by saying ‘no’. Point noted.