‘I embrace the mystery’: Tom Hanks on his obsession with space, from Stanley Kubrick to The Moonwalkers

Tom Hanks became obsessed with space travel at almost exactly the moment that he became obsessed with film. Listening to him talk, the two events – their ability to manufacture wonder – remain interchangeable in his mind.

The first awakening came when he went to watch Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey. “I can tell you the day,” he says. “It was a Sunday, it was kind of rainy and it was cold. It was the day the Oakland Raiders beat the Kansas City Chiefs, November of 1968.” He’d have been 12 years old.

Kubrick’s movie had a profound effect – “it blew the back of my head off” – because it was the first time he’d recognised that film might not just be entertainment; it might find new ways to tell a story. Along with the shock of stylistic innovation there was the subject itself: “It presented this romantic notion of a human being in this place void of life,” he says. “I had paid attention to the space programme prior to that, but I was not hooked by the artistry or the romance of it until I saw that movie.”

I’m actually seeing the whole Earth on my TV. I am on that planet that is in the picture!

The second epiphany came a month later, with the live Christmas broadcast from Apollo 8, which was orbiting the moon. “Whoa!” Hanks recalls, back in that moment. “I’m actually seeing the whole Earth on my TV. I am on that planet that is in the picture! Except I’m in the night part of it. And I’m at my mom’s house, and it’s Christmas. And we have a colour TV, but we’re looking at it in black and white. My cranium shifted then again somehow.”

He made attempts to approximate zero gravity sitting on the bottom of a little swimming pool in the back yard and breathing through a garden hose, but it would be a stretch to say that he had formed an ambition, at 12, to be either an astronaut or a movie star. “I had no ambitions to do anything,” he says. “except maybe to kiss Marie, in my school class, you know, or to make Dorothy laugh. I knew enough that you needed science to be in space and I wasn’t any sort of scholar. But what I did have, I guess, was an incredibly active imagination without realising that the stuff in my head was essentially storyboards for movies later on.”

Hanks, centre, with Kevin Bacon, left, and Bill Paxton in Apollo 13 (1995).
Hanks, centre, with Kevin Bacon, left, and Bill Paxton in Apollo 13 (1995). Photograph: United Archives GmbH/Alamy

Hanks had, as a kid, plenty of time to work on those internal storyboards (he dramatised those memories in his recent novel, The Making of Another Major Motion Picture Masterpiece, which traced a superhero blockbuster back to a comic book drawn by a kid in search of a father figure 70 years earlier). Hanks’s own parents split up when he was five; he lived with his dad, an army veteran who moved from job to job and town to town in California, working as a cook. Hanks recalls himself as the kind of boy who from the age of eight or so would be left to his own devices, travelling round Oakland on the bus, or going upstate in the holidays to stay with his mother. In his teens he continued to look for fixed points in the night sky, skipping school to catch any broadcasts about the Apollo programme long after the moon landing of 20 July 1969.

“The last one was Apollo 17,” he says. “And that was more than astounding because you saw both guys there a long way from the module. I just thought I’m fucking sitting here and these guys are out for a walk on the moon.” He was by now mostly alone in that amazement. “I’d try to call my mom or dad to come and see but they didn’t care: ‘Oh is that on again?’ They were too busy with their own miserable lives. Even at school no one was paying attention. I had like an individual one-on-one relationship with what was going on up there.”

* * *

Hanks is telling me all this in an upstairs office at Lightroom, the artist-led multimedia space in King’s Cross in London. We’re sitting in a pair of desk chairs beside a window on which the rain is hammering. Hanks flew in a couple of days earlier from New York – a trip he’d delayed because he was nursing a “horrible, horrible cold”. He’s here, though, because he is determined to have another go at exciting the world about the things that excited him at 12 years old. From next week Lightroom will feature 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.

When we have people over on a clear night I’ll say, would anybody like to see Saturn?

“I’ve made TV shows about [the moon landings],” he says. “I’ve done documentaries about them. I did the movie [Apollo 13]. We did an Imax version called Magnificent Desolation. But Lightroom brings another dimension to it. There’s only one place in the world that can do this.”

There is another urgency to the project. Having not returned to the moon for more than 50 years, astronauts will once again walk on the lunar surface in 2025 in order to establish a permanent base there as part of Nasa’s Artemis programme. (The first four on the Nasa mission have been chosen, including the first woman, Christina Koch, and the first person of colour, Victor Glover.)

Hanks draws some parallels between the context of their mission and that of Neil Armstrong’s crew in 1969. “Which year am I talking about? There is a war on which the entire world is focused. Air and water is being fouled by toxins that probably could kill us. Political divisions are making it impossible for families to have dinner together. The Middle East is in a state of terrible crisis…”

All that was happening back then too, he suggests, but for once the world gathered around its TV sets to witness some genuine human miracle. “When was the last time you turned on the news to see something good happen? 20 July 1969 was an example of a rare celebration of the best of humankind.”

Hanks has been talking to the Artemis crew for his Lightroom project. Does he feel their mission can have the same impact as the landings half a century ago?

“In all honesty, no,” he says. “But then, I was just down at Nasa before I came out here and the talk was whether we had found water on the moon. They say ‘we have evidence that there is water…’ and while that’s not quite the same thing as finding water, that’s still a big deal.”

Is Hanks a stargazer at home, I wonder?

“I look at the planets much more than I look at the stars,” he says. “I have a couple of telescopes. And when we have people over to eat on a clear night I’ll say, would anybody like to see Saturn? Not one of them looks through that telescope without saying: ‘Oh my god!’”

Hanks himself is an ordained minister – for a $35 fee – in the Universal Life Church, the free-thinking organisation that welcomes all faiths, whose guiding principle is the catch-all: “Do what is right.” How do his beliefs inform his interest in the heavens?

He smiles. “Well, my spirituality is: I’m gonna embrace the mystery,” he says. “I remember the first time I saw the Milky Way with my own eyes. I was at my mom’s house up in Red Bluff, California, went out to see my sister who was living out of town on an almond farm. There was no moon and there were no lights anywhere. And there it was: gorgeous. And it didn’t make me feel small at all. I felt magnificent. I would question the insecurities of anybody who looks up at the beautiful depth of the heavens and feels lonely.”

I catch myself thinking Hanks is an old mate. I’m looking at a face I feel I know up-close about as well as anyone’s

Hanks has been married to fellow actor Rita Wilson for 35 years; he has four children, two from his first marriage. “I always think if you want to have a good serious talk with somebody in your family or friends, stay out on a warm night, on a soft patch of grass. And just look up. You’ll see satellites passing… I was camping with some guys up in the Sierra recently and the International Space Station passed over us, so clear you could almost make out the solar panels. I said: ‘Gentleman, imagine. There are six human beings sitting up there. And they might well be eating chicken soup.’”

* * *

Talking to Hanks I catch myself thinking he is an old mate. I’m looking at a face I feel I know up-close about as well as anyone’s. Hanks has acted in 75 films in his 46-year career; I imagine that everyone reading this can bring to mind at least a dozen of them. He is the most reliably human of Hollywood stars, in part because he has so often embodied the best of American ideals on screen, just as the actor to whom he is most often compared – Jimmy Stewart – once did.

That capacity to present a range of ordinary men doing extraordinary things, was established in a run of films in the mid-90s that included his back-to-back Oscar triumphs in Philadelphia and Forrest Gump. Those successes guaranteed that for the first time in 1995, he was asked what movie he really wanted to make. He chose to do Apollo 13, a story that the studios were sceptical of (“We know how it ends”). His portrayal of the astronaut Jim Lovell – then the most travelled man in history – set the tone for the second half of his career. He knew Lovell’s type well, from careful study, beginning with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.

“I didn’t view these men as superheroes,” he says, “because they looked and sounded like regular guys. Buzz Aldrin was this balding guy, he could have been a dentist, Mike Collins looked like your biology teacher. And Neil Armstrong could have been somebody’s dad in the neighbourhood. They were not just brave, they were experts. I’ve talked to a lot of people that went up into space, both from that day, and present day, and all of them have some version of the line, ‘I just thought it’d be a really cool job’. So it was not a matter of hero worship. I was worshipping at the history that was being made.”

It seems Hanks saw something of a vocation in portraying those kinds of men, who embodied different aspects of “the right stuff”. He has been drawn to others – Captain Miller in Saving Private Ryan, Captain Richard Philips, hostage to Somali pirates, Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, who saved the lives of his passengers by landing his plane on the Hudson River; the television host Fred Rogers in A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood. One way of interpreting his career, I suggest, is that he has looked for roles that are the antithesis of our cynical times, that preserve some of the hope of the Kennedy era, that launched those Apollo missions…

He flinches a bit at that thought, resisting typecast. “I’m gonna say no to that,” he says. “Because I like to think that all the guys I play have gone through incredibly bitter compromise and failure. What I want is stuff that is complicated. For example, Sully saved everybody’s life, but – as he told me – his own life was absolute hell and torture until he was cleared by the National Transportation Safety Board for not being at fault. All that [torture] is not in the movie. But I played it all, you know? I’m completely torn up by the parts that I play.”

I sense he’s so used to being characterised simply as a nice guy that he’s slightly misunderstood my question. I have another go. I was thinking that there is always the determination to locate a real kernel of humanity in what you do (even in crooks such as Tom Parker in Elvis)…

“I’ll give you that, because I think that’s the human condition. When I was a young actor I was in a production of Hamlet. Every night, I heard Hamlet deliver his advice to the players, ‘your duty is to hold the mirror up to nature’. And every time I thought, wow, actually, that’s the job. Inside, I think we’re all this big amalgam of possibilities and trauma. We all have a chance to learn how to do the right thing or fail to learn how to do the right thing. I’m 67 friggin’ years old now. And I’ve been able to examine that again and again, in movies that are sometimes kooky and silly and in others that are writ so large that they have to be taken seriously. But inside all of those, I think are just people trying to figure out the same feelings: yesterday was a bitch, today is OK, and I got a good shot at things being better tomorrow. We’re all on that three-day spectrum, don’t you think?”

It would be good to think so, I say. How easy is it to hold on to that optimism facing another Trump-dominated election year coming up in the States?

“I am a lay historian. I have in my pocket many examples again and again of the electorate doing the right thing. And there are plenty of examples of that not happening.”

Which bit of history does he find most useful to understand the current fractured politics?

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“The great example in American history is Senator Joe McCarthy, who was a slug. He wanted power and headlines, but he had no morals. He stumbled upon this idea about communists in the government and he liked how newspapers picked that up. He turned that into two years of hell on Earth for an awful lot of people. He caused this pandemonium of conspiracy for his own ends – until somebody finally said to him live on national TV: “Have you no decency, sir?” History has told us that a lot can happen in 12 months. We can go from the difference between nobody landing on the moon and somebody landing on the moon. So I guess what I have is a belief in the process. I think there will always come a moment where someone says: ‘Have you no decency, sir?’ and the electorate will hear it.”

As he repeats that line, I’m struck by the sense that there is probably no voice better equipped to deliver a plea for decency than his. Never a man to fluff a good end-note, it also marks the last word (a fact announced by the arrival of a bowl of tomato soup – Hanks’s working lunch as he goes through some of the last tech issues with the Lightroom crew). He stays in character for a few more minutes though, chatting about our shared affection for the football team Aston Villa (he has been seen in the stands at Villa Park a few times in recent years – though he admits that he originally chose his allegiance because the club name “sounded like somewhere you might go on holiday”). “If you are thinking about hope,” he says with that grin, “just look at what we are achieving this season. Anything is possible! Up the Villa!”

In this, as in most things, I feel I have no choice but to share his faith.