He learns to create fire, and fend for himself on a desert island for Cast Away, but Tom Hank's next challenge could be coming up with a unique acceptance speech if he succeeds in claiming his third Best Actor Oscar at the Academy Awards.
The award show vet has already won the Golden Globe for Cast Away, where he plays a FedEx employee left stranded on a desert island after a plane crash. Hanks was also named best actor by the New York Film Critics for the role.
For the Oscar, he's in a category packed with diverse performances. There's Gladiator's Russell Crowe, Ed Harris for Pollock, Geoffrey Rush who plays the Marquis de Sade in Quills and Javier Bardem as Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas in Before Night Falls.
Hanks brings one particular good luck charm to the event. For Cast Away he was directed by Robert Zemeckis, a pairing that last resulted in Oscar gold for Hanks in Forrest Gump.
Struggling With Solitude
Hanks's stint at island living brought both physical and mental challenges. He told Good Morning America’s Diane Sawyer that the film is ultimately about isolation.
“Once Chuck has figured out how to stay alive, his battle is no longer against the elements, it’s about desperation,” Hanks has said. “It’s about a different brand of loneliness that is very different from being home on a Saturday night with nothing to do. He’s completely removed from any of the distractions that fill up our lives. That’s where Chuck begins to crack, and begins to lose the battle of his own desperation.”
The cast includes Helen Hunt as his girlfriend, although Hanks's main co-star is the volleyball he nicknames Wilson. Not exactly the splashy sort of star you might expect in a big budget Hollywood movie, but Hanks says it was essential that he sweat it out alone on that island.
“Well, we had a philosophical credo that said we’re not going to suddenly have one of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit models show up for a photo shoot, or something. Or drug-running pirates weren’t going to land in a seaplane in the lagoon, you know … We said we’re going to take this so far that the audience has no recourse. They’re stuck on the island with them — with Chuck — no matter what happens to him.”
One of the things that happens to him in the film is a physical transformation, as audiences watch his hair and beard grow out and his waistline trim. To achieve his different looks, the film was shot in two parts over the course of 16 months, with a one-year hiatus within that time. Hanks reportedly lost close to 50 pounds in the time off, so as to achieve the proper shipwrecked look.
His preparation for the movie also included reading actual accounts of people who had been in similar situations. That’s how he learned that the toughest aspect of these situations wasn’t the prospect of physical death.
“It was despair,” Hanks says. “There are a lot of, like, logs and diaries that have been found of people who were shipwrecked or cast away on islands, and they can actually battle the elements for a while. They could figure out how to make fire and find water and eat food.
“But there is a spirit of hopelessness that seems to overtake them, and when they go, they go mad — they go nuts … and of course it’s because their health is failing them, but I also think that the connections we have to the world are very tenuous, and always built on our connections with other people. And they had none, so I think it’s an infinitely fascinating realm of order to tell a story.”
Facing His Own Demons
Hanks may not have fared as well on the island as his Cast Away character. The father of four is on his second marriage, to Rita Wilson, and says he's no loner.
“Well, I can’t say that I’m a lonely man, but… I don’t do solitude very well. So much so that I think, you know, three days of — of really not having, you know, the family around will send me around the bend, I think.”
And he's also not as confident as you might expect for someone who is among the top in his field. Despite all his success, Hanks still harbors an element of self-doubt that seems to live with the best artists.
“I think there’s always a distance that I’ve failed to go, somehow …” he says. “It’s always a failure of imagination: I didn’t think of another permutation to that idea, or I didn’t carry it through … I eventually got lazy and said, oh, that’s good enough, because we have to shoot it anyway.”
Suffice it to say, there aren’t too many people on the other side of the screen who share that sentiment.