Tom Hanks developed a strong interest in space exploration around the same time he became passionate about filmmaking. According to him, both experiences hold an equal capacity for creating a sense of awe and fascination.
The initial realization occurred when he attended a screening of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. “I remember the exact day,” he recalls. “It was a Sunday, dreary and chilly. It happened to be the same day the Oakland Raiders triumphed over the Kansas City Chiefs in November of 1968.” He would have been 12 years old.
Kubrick’s film had a profound impact – it was mind-blowing – as it was the first time he realized that film could be more than just entertainment; it could also explore new methods of storytelling. In addition to the shocking stylistic innovation, the subject matter itself was compelling: “It portrayed this romantic idea of a human being in a desolate, lifeless place,” he recalls. “I had been interested in the space program before, but I wasn’t captivated by the artistry or romance of it until I watched that movie.”
The second realization occurred a month after the first, during the live Christmas broadcast from Apollo 8 as it orbited the moon. Hanks remembers being amazed at the sight of the entire Earth on his TV screen. He realized that he was currently on the planet shown in the picture, although he was in the dark side of it. It was Christmas and he was at his mother’s house, watching the broadcast on their color TV but seeing it in black and white. This experience caused another shift in his perspective.
At the age of 12, he attempted to experience zero gravity by sitting at the bottom of a small pool in his backyard and breathing through a garden hose. However, it would be inaccurate to say that he had a specific goal in mind, such as becoming an astronaut or a movie star. He explains, “I didn’t have any goals, except maybe wanting to kiss Marie from my class or make Dorothy laugh. I was aware that science was necessary for space travel, but I wasn’t a particularly studious person. What I did have was a vivid imagination, although I didn’t realize that the ideas in my head were essentially storyboards for future movies.”
During his childhood, Hanks spent a lot of time creating storyboards from his imagination. He later incorporated these memories into his novel, The Making of Another Major Motion Picture Masterpiece, which follows the origins of a superhero movie back to a comic book created by a young boy looking for a father figure 70 years prior. Hanks’ parents separated when he was just five years old. He primarily lived with his father, an army veteran who frequently changed jobs and locations in California while working as a cook. Hanks remembers himself as an independent child, often taking public transportation around Oakland or visiting his mother during school breaks. Even in his teenage years, Hanks remained fascinated with the stars and would skip school to watch broadcasts about the Apollo program, long after the monumental moon landing on July 20, 1969.
“The most recent mission was Apollo 17,” he recalls. “It was truly incredible to see both astronauts so far away from the spacecraft. I couldn’t believe I was sitting here watching while they were walking on the moon.” At this point, he was the only one still in awe. “I would try to call my parents to come and see, but they didn’t care. They were too caught up in their own unhappy lives. Even at school, no one was paying attention. I felt like I had a personal connection with what was happening up there.”
Tom Hanks is sharing all of this information with me in an upstairs office at Lightroom, a multimedia space run by artists in King’s Cross, London. We are currently sitting in desk chairs next to a window where the rain is beating down. Hanks had arrived a few days prior from New York, but had postponed his trip due to a severe cold. He is determined to reignite the world’s interest in the things that fascinated him when he was 12 years old. Starting next week, Lightroom will showcase The Moonwalkers: A Journey With Tom Hanks.
I’m aware, sitting there, that Hanks is professionally capable of making you believe in almost anything, but still, despite the remnants of his cold and the dark grey London morning, he seems convincingly thrilled at the prospect of narrating this experience. He’s been over a few times to see the fabulous David Hockney show that has been at Lightroom since it opened in February. “I wasn’t prepared for the 1,000% immersive aspect of it,” he says. “The volume [of the hangar-like room] is so big and there are so many images that are going on all around you… all this emotive information gets pounded into you.” He sees it as a new frontier for art and entertainment.
“I have created television programs regarding the moon landings,” he states. “I have produced documentaries on the subject. I also directed the film Apollo 13. Additionally, we created an Imax version titled Magnificent Desolation. However, Lightroom adds a new element to it. There is only one location in the world that can accomplish this.”
The project has a pressing need. After a gap of over 50 years, astronauts will revisit the moon in 2025 to set up a permanent base as part of Nasa’s Artemis program. The first four members of the Nasa mission have been selected, including the first female astronaut, Christina Koch, and the first person of color, Victor Glover.
Hanks highlights similarities between the current mission and that of Neil Armstrong’s team in 1969. “Which specific year am I referring to? It is a time of global war, with pollutants contaminating our air and water to the point of potential harm. Political conflicts are causing families to struggle to share a meal together. The Middle East is in a dire state of turmoil…”
According to him, the events of that time also occurred, but it was a rare occasion for the entire world to come together and watch a true human miracle. “When was the last time you watched the news and saw something positive happen? July 20, 1969 was a unique moment to celebrate the best of humanity.”
Hanks has been discussing his Lightroom project with the Artemis crew. Does he believe their mission can make a similar impact to the landings 50 years ago?
To be completely truthful, his answer is no. However, he recently visited Nasa and was discussing the possibility of finding water on the moon. The discussion was centered around evidence that suggests the presence of water, which is significant even though it’s not the same as actually finding it.
I wonder if Hanks is an avid stargazer in the comfort of his own home.
He mentions that he spends more time observing planets than stars and owns a few telescopes. During gatherings on a clear night, he offers the opportunity to view Saturn and is always met with awe from those who take a peek through the telescope.
Hanks holds a position as an official religious leader, which requires a payment of $35, in the Universal Life Church. This organization promotes open-mindedness and accepts individuals of all religions, with the overarching principle of “Do what is right.” How do these beliefs influence his fascination with the sky?
He grins. “My belief is that I will accept the unknown,” he states. “I can recall the initial instance I gazed upon the Milky Way with my own eyes. I was at my mother’s residence in Red Bluff, California, and had gone outside to visit my sister who was residing on an almond farm nearby. The moon was absent and there were no sources of light in sight. And there it was: breathtaking. And it didn’t make me feel insignificant in any way. I felt extraordinary. I would doubt anyone who looks up at the stunning vastness of the sky and feels isolated.”
Hanks has been wed to fellow performer Rita Wilson for 35 years. He is a father of four, with two children from his previous marriage. He believes that having a serious conversation with loved ones is best done under the stars on a warm night, lying on a soft patch of grass. He enjoys looking up and spotting satellites passing by. During a camping trip in the Sierra, he and his friends were fortunate enough to see the International Space Station passing overhead, so clearly that they could almost see its solar panels. Hanks was struck by the thought that there were six human beings aboard the station, possibly enjoying a bowl of chicken soup.
TWhen talking to Hanks, I find myself considering him as a familiar friend. I am gazing at a visage that feels intimately familiar, perhaps even more so than anyone else’s. Throughout his 46-year career, Hanks has appeared in 75 films, and I believe that most people can easily recall at least twelve of them. He is the quintessential relatable Hollywood celebrity, in part due to his frequent portrayal of the embodiment of American values on screen, much like the actor he is often likened to – Jimmy Stewart – once did.
His ability to showcase ordinary individuals accomplishing extraordinary feats was demonstrated in a series of films during the mid-90s, including his consecutive Oscar victories for Philadelphia and Forrest Gump. These achievements ensured that in 1995, he was asked for his preference in film projects for the first time. He chose to work on Apollo 13, despite initial skepticism from studios due to the well-known outcome of the story. His portrayal of astronaut Jim Lovell, who at the time held the record for most space travel, set the standard for the latter part of his career. He had thoroughly studied individuals like Lovell, drawing inspiration from figures like Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.
The speaker states that he did not see these men as extraordinary individuals because they appeared and spoke like ordinary men. Buzz Aldrin was a balding man who could have been a dentist, Mike Collins resembled a biology teacher, and Neil Armstrong could have been a father in the neighborhood. They were not only courageous, but also highly skilled experts. After speaking with numerous individuals who have been to space, both during the time of the moon landing and in present day, they all expressed a similar sentiment of wanting a “cool job.” Thus, the speaker’s admiration was not for the individuals themselves, but for the significant historical event they were a part of.
Hanks has a talent for playing characters who represent various elements of “the right stuff,” and it seems he has found a calling in these roles. From Captain Miller in Saving Private Ryan to Captain Richard Philips, who was taken hostage by Somali pirates, to Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, who safely landed his plane on the Hudson River, to his portrayal of television host Fred Rogers in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Hanks is drawn to characters who embody hope and positivity in a world that is often cynical. It could be argued that his career choices reflect a desire to preserve the spirit of the Kennedy era and the Apollo missions.
He flinches slightly at the idea, refusing to be typecast. “I have to decline,” he states. “I prefer to believe that every character I portray has experienced difficult compromises and failures. I am drawn to complex roles. For instance, Sully saved everyone’s lives, but – as he shared with me – his own life was filled with suffering and torment until he was cleared by the National Transportation Safety Board of any wrongdoing. All of that pain is not depicted in the film. However, I portrayed it all, you know? I am deeply affected by the characters I play.”
He is accustomed to being labeled as a kind person, so he may have misinterpreted my question. I will try again. My thought was that there is always a desire to find the true essence of humanity in one’s actions, even in individuals like Tom Parker in the story of Elvis.
“I agree with this sentiment, as I believe it reflects the human experience. In my youth, I was involved in a production of Hamlet where I heard the famous line, ‘your duty is to hold the mirror up to nature’ spoken by Hamlet to the players. This statement always resonated with me, as it captures the essence of our purpose. We are all complex beings, shaped by our experiences and traumas. We have the opportunity to learn and grow, or to fail in doing so. At 67 years old, I have had many opportunities to reflect on this in various roles, some more lighthearted and others with serious undertones. But at the core, I believe we are all just trying to navigate through our emotions and experiences: yesterday was tough, today is manageable, and tomorrow holds potential for improvement. Ultimately, we are all on a journey of self-discovery and growth.”
I believe it is important to have this mindset. However, it may be challenging to maintain this positive outlook with another election year dominated by Trump approaching in the United States.
I am an amateur historian. I possess numerous instances of voters consistently making good decisions. However, there are also many instances where this does not occur.
Which part of the past does he consider most valuable in comprehending the present divided political climate?
The senator known as Joe McCarthy is often cited as an infamous example in American history. He was driven by a desire for power and publicity, with little regard for moral principles. He latched onto the idea of communist infiltration in the government, which gained traction in the media. This led to two years of chaos and suffering for many individuals. His actions fueled a frenzy of conspiracy until he was finally confronted on live television with the question: “Do you have no sense of morality, sir?” History has shown that a lot can change in a year, such as the monumental achievement of landing on the moon. Despite this, I have faith in the democratic process and believe that there will always be a moment when someone speaks out and the public will listen.
While hearing him repeat those words, I am struck by the idea that there is perhaps no one better suited to make a plea for decency than him. He is always one to deliver a strong conclusion, and this moment signifies the end (as indicated by the arrival of a bowl of tomato soup – Hanks’s lunch as he goes over final technical issues with the Lightroom team). He continues to stay in character for a few more minutes, discussing our mutual love for the football team Aston Villa (he has been spotted at Villa Park a few times in recent years – though he confesses he initially chose his allegiance because the club name “sounded like a vacation destination”). “If you’re thinking about hope,” he says with a smile, “just look at what we’re accomplishing this season. Anything is possible! Up the Villa!”
In this situation, I am compelled to have the same beliefs as him, just as I do in most other things.
The exhibit “The Moonwalkers: A Journey With Tom Hanks” will debut at Lightroom in London N1 on December 6 and will be on display until April 21.