Hanks sails forth
Tom Hanks in a scene from Captain Phillips. Picture: AP/Sony - Columbia Pictures/Hopper Stone/SMPSP

Tom Hanks is all smiles as he strolls into the meeting room at Los Angeles' Four Seasons Hotel. It's not unusual. Hanks has built a reputation as one of nicest and hardest-working actors in Hollywood.

This is the first day of a publicity blitz for his latest film, Captain Phillips, which will take him across the US and abroad. Later this year, he will make a similar tour for Saving Mr. Banks, which will keep him so busy that he doesn't have another acting job on the schedule this year.

Dressed entirely in black, his hair is cut short, with only a few strands of grey along his neck giving away that he's 57 years old.

It would seem logical that an actor who has won two Oscars would pick his next job at his leisure. That's not the case for Hanks, who looks at many factors - the writing, interest by the studio, what director or other actors are involved - when deciding what he will do next. It's not that he's picky but Hanks doesn't want to put his time and energy into a project that may never get made.

"You don't go to the harbour and get on a boat that's not going out to sea," Hanks says.

That analogy might have been spawned by all of the water work he did while filming Captain Phillips.

The film is based on the true story of the attack in 2009 on a cargo ship by a group of Somali pirates, the first such assault on an American ship in two centuries.

As Hanks has done in so many films - from Saving Private Ryan to Cast Away - he takes on the role of a man who seems to be living an ordinary life but is pushed to do amazing things because of outside circumstances.

Director Paul Greengrass says no one is better at playing "the ordinary man" than Hanks. He says Hanks being cast to play Phillips was one of the major reasons he signed on to direct.

"He's not playing some superhero. He's not playing some guy with special powers. He's just a regular guy. Tom Hanks is the greatest actor for playing the everyman. Tom proves yet again - although it really didn't need proving again - that he's one of the great, great American actors of all time because he embodies the best of us," Greengrass says.

Captain Phillips is Hanks' latest role based on a real character. He had such parts in Apollo 13 and Charlie Wilson's War. Saving Mr. Banks has him playing Walt Disney.

Hanks sarcastically reacts to the mention of all the reality-based roles, saying: "I've got to get out of this line of work and start playing fake people."

Although both of his upcoming roles are reality based, Hanks' approach to each was different.

"Phillips is alive and Walt Disney is dead," Hanks says. "Phillips is a concrete source of everything: what he thought, what he did, what he's like, what the job is like. With Walt Disney, we are dealing with some degree of iconography.

"In one, I'm playing a historic figure in a very specific setting in which the scenes are specifically constructed. With Richard Phillips, we are trying to capture the essence of what was going on in his head."

Hanks sat down with Phillips twice - along with reading his book - to size up the man. What struck him most was his sense of humour. Hanks is convinced that it was the one factor that helped Phillips survive the ordeal.

"He's a very happy-go-lucky guy," Hanks says. "I would describe him as almost jolly. He's funny, bemused by everything. But when he's on the ship, it's all deadly serious."

Much of the filming was done off the coast of Malta, an experience Hanks found physically challenging. He's no stranger to uncomfortable shooting environments, having spent hours in an aeroplane used to replicate zero gravity while filming Apollo 13. Asked if he ever thought - while studying theatre at Chabot College in Hayward, California, or California State University, Sacramento - that having an acting career would mean stomach-churning events, Hanks says he has never looked at any such requirements as a negative.

He recalls how the first time he had an acting scene outdoors - in Splash - he thought it was the coolest thing to go to work in Speedos and a T-shirt.

Hanks has played mostly dramatic roles in recent years. During the early part of his career, he leaned towards comedy with movies such as The 'Burbs, Turner & Hooch and Dragnet.

Those days, Hanks laments, are sadly over because the majority of comedies today feature young casts doing outrageous things.

He feels like he's reached an age - unless Woody Allen calls - where comedy is behind him. His main comedy outlet now is the Toy Story movies. And he's OK with the dramatic direction.

"Comedies are hard because they have to be funny. And if they aren't funny, there is no substitute for that," Hanks says. "Look, I've done enough. I'm 57. I just see what comes down the pike and see if I can figure it out or not."

Hanks does very dramatic work as Phillips and is already getting Oscar buzz - a fact he has learnt to take with a grain of salt.

Despite all the success he's had, Hanks remains the same humble and approachable person who became a professional actor in 1980 with the low-budget horror film He Knows You're Alone.

He credits his slow climb up the fandom ladder with keeping him grounded.

"I was fortunate because I was able to work a long time without any kind of celebrity heat. I was just a guy on TV for a while. Then I was a guy in movies for a while," Hanks says.

"Then I did enough work that the attention became bigger. I feel bad for anyone who is 'an overnight success'. The worst thing you can imagine is that you deserve it somehow. If you are an overnight sensation, you might think that. You can't put too much importance on it."

The West Australian

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