Exclusive Interview With Tom Hanks on Disney's 'Pinocchio'
In this exclusive interview, the legendary Tom Hanks talks about starring in Disney's live-action remake of 'Pinocchio', and the challenges of embodying this classic animated film.
With all of the recent live-action versions of Disney classics like ‘The Lion King’ and ‘Aladdin’, it seemed like only a matter of time before one fan-favourite would take the spotlight. On September 8th, Disney’s Pinocchio will hit Disney+ across Egypt, and we have high hopes for the reimagined masterpiece - especially considering the dream team that’s bringing it to life.
Geppetto - the beloved toymaker who builds and treats Pinocchio as if he were his own son - is played by none other than American icon Tom Hanks. As soon as Hanks got wind that Director Robert Zemeckis - who most famously directed Hanks on ‘Forrest Gump’ - was signed on for Pinocchio, it was a no brainer. According to Hanks, the opportunity to work with the visionary filmmaker once more was a prospect that even he couldn’t refuse.
There’s nothing we can say that most of you wouldn’t already know about Tom Hanks, whether that’s as a smooth-talking cynic in ‘Sleepless in Seattle’, or a dramatic figure in ‘Captain Phillips’, or as the leading plaything in ‘Toy Story’ (and in naming a few, we’ve arguably skipped over some of his most famous films). But seeing him work once again in tandem with Zemeckis, the innovative filmmaker responsible for technically astounding movies like ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’ and the ‘Back to the Future’ series, compels us to dig just a little deeper into what might just be Disney’s most special live-action adaptation yet.
In this exclusive interview, Tom Hanks shares his experiences behind the scenes of this magical film, allowing us to get an inside look through the eyes of one of the most definitive actors of our age.
How did you come on board on this project?
I got wind that Bob [Zemeckis] was circling around ‘Pinocchio’. And I waited for a while and then asked him, “Are you really going to direct ‘Pinocchio’?” He said, “Yeah, I'm thinking about it.” I said, “If you don't have a Geppetto, and you can withstand doing something with me, let me know.” But Bob is one of these filmmakers who cannot do something that has been done before. I said, “Why don't we just do this, Bob?” And he said, “Well, anybody could do that.” He always has to do something where he can monkey around with the creative process of doing it, and he's never not challenged me with some sort of task that is brand new to the filmmaking process. No small amount of which was how Pinocchio himself was going to be in this movie.
So I came to it because of the idea of Bob, first of all, taking on this fascinatingly treasured classic of everything that Disney's ‘Pinocchio’ means—"When You Wish Upon a Star,” “Hi-Diddle-Dee-Dee an actor's life for me,” “I Got No Strings to hold me down”—plus the new stuff that was going to come out of it. These great classics have a chance to not just be updated, but I think to perhaps reflect the different times.
Why do you think the original animated ‘Pinocchio’ is such a classic?
Well, I think it's because it's dark. Walt understood that the dark aspects of “fairy tales” are very important to the storytelling apparatus that greets both young people and old people. Pinocchio chooses to be led astray by Stromboli and everything else. He actually leaves the safety of this house and this father who loves him and goes off and is in danger. When Pinocchio starts growing those ears because he's turning into one of the asses, then is turned into a beast of burden, that's a scary thing to go through. I think that, along with the threat of Monstro, which in itself is pound for pound one of the best sequences ever put down on film, and then the magic way in which he and Geppetto escape him, is dark stuff and rightly so. It's part of the descent into Hades that a hero has to go through, and Pinocchio does. So it was a deep throw for the world in 1940 and was matched then with the one-of-a-kind never-before-seen artistry of the Disney studio and the Disney artists. I do think from a visual perspective and sequences-wise, ‘Pinocchio’ was his masterpiece.
Talk to me about how you and Bob came up with your version of Geppetto.
We have a responsibility to not just change things for the sake of changing things. So the look of Geppetto is not that far from what he looked like in the animated version. My moustache and all that stuff represented the traditional version of what Geppetto is recognizable as, but it still has to work in real space in real time. Bob and I talked about the fact that Geppetto's a happy man, but there's been loss in his life. He's missed out on the joys of being alive, of having a family. Did he have one long ago in the past? Yeah. But how long ago was that and how tragic was the loss? The truth is, Geppetto's older. He's not in his late twenties. He's well past middle age. So we talked about the idea that he’s been alone on his own, servicing other people and delighting other people with his handicrafts for, what, two and a half decades? That's an awful long time to have no company for breakfast and dinner except a cat and a goldfish. The yearning of Geppetto, wanting to be a part of something bigger than himself, a part of a family, that was the whole bit. You can't just make a real-life version of what the animated film was. It has to be deeper, and it has to have more baggage on it.
So right from the get-go, you have Geppetto in his own stew, so to speak, and it's not a happy stew. Was there a particular thing about Geppetto that took more time to figure out or solve? That once he went on the road, there was the investment of it. When Geppetto sent Pinocchio off to school, on one hand, he's delighted that Pinocchio was going to school. But on the other hand, he had just gotten Pinocchio. So there is a concern, a worry. I think in the original movie there's a jumping to conclusion that everything is going to be okay. But I don't think we could do that in this day and age. You can't be a parent and just send a kid off. You're going to worry. You're going to worry that they're not going to make it back. You're going to worry what they're going to and what they're going to go through. And that impacted the quest to go find him. Geppetto wasn't going off just to rescue or find him. He was going off to combat the worst fears that he has, which is that his surrogate son is going to disappear on him. And if that happens, he'll be alone again.
Geppetto had this brief window on what it was like to be a dad and have a family and for it to be yanked out from underneath him would have been unbearable.
What's it like working with Bob again?
Well, Bob's a fabulous challenge and part of it is hilarious, but also part of it is like ‘do you know what you're going to do?’ There's always the requirements for what is going to be the special effects that you can't even keep your head straight on what's going to be needed and then comes that moment in a Bob movie where he says, “Okay, here's what you have to imagine.” And the things you have to imagine are so complex that it's a stretch for the acting process, the performance process. I had to do some things on this as Geppetto in which I wasn't even remotely doing anything close to it, and yet I had to pretend.
I learned long ago working with Bob is that unless you're extremely well versed in the technological things that are going to happen after the fact, it can really screw you up. Like just drowning, just swimming in water or spinning something. Then it's like, “Okay, here's what we have to do Tom. We have to suspend you upside down, which won't look like it when we have it. You have to have a mouthful of this water, then have to spit it right there. But you can't spit it that way. You have to spit it this way.” And you have to wait for a very specific moment when you do it. Now let's do it 17 times ‘til we get it. At one point I had to place in my head, a fish, a cat, a cricket and a wooden boy. I had to do it all, and with the Blue Fairy on occasion.
On our second or third day there, my brain just got exhausted. I said, “Bob, can you just give me a minute in order to put all these mental images in my head and in the right place?’ and he gave me the time. I always knew that there was going to be this counterpoint in the scenes where there was no actual Jiminy Cricket off-stage to talk. Sometimes it was just literally a laser pointer. That's the technology that goes into it. But knowing that it was going to be there, knowing that it was going to be Joseph Gordon-Levitt, knowing the stuff that he was going to be doing as the conscience of Pinocchio.
All good children’s stories have a moral. What do you think the moral of 'Pinocchio' is?
Aren't they always, “To thine own self be true?” Isn't that pretty much what it is? You have to ask yourself what is and what isn’t important. And then you have to make that choice in order to pursue that. Pinocchio's a blank slate at the beginning of this. But he learns everything that I think a connected and caring human being, a real boy, needs to learn over time so that the moral of the story is there's no connection that has the potential to be stronger than that as with your family. But that cannot come about unless you know yourself. I think Geppetto is very much in touch with who he is, what he lacks, what he's good at, what he once had, what he's lost, and he's learned all the lessons. But he's an old man. Pinocchio is young. So he's a kid. But he accumulates that knowledge, and out of that knowledge, he knows what is right, what is wrong. And he becomes true to himself from the school of hard knocks. A lesson of the movie is pay attention when you're enrolled in the school of hard knocks and try to come out of there with at least a bachelor's degree.
What do you hope audiences get out of this film?
Well, isn't that the question of all cinema in the first place? I think there is no substitute for an audience seeing something they did not expect from a movie., When you are just taken to places beyond your expectations, that's the magic of cinema. And it's not just about what you saw. It's about what you got involved in. The emotional beats of a movie are what make the movie. It's not just how it looked or how great the music was or how cool the fight scenes were or even how scary Monstro was. It's about the emotional connection.
I've had people come up to me and mention the tiniest details of a movie that I haven't thought about in a million years that weren't even the things that we were going for. And they'll say they always remember where they were, what they were doing when they saw it, what the circumstances were, and it's astounding how truly important this emotional beat was that they were not expecting from a movie, and they carry it with them for the rest of their days. I know I do. And that's what you aim for. For example, it's going to be very rewarding if just that opening wish of Geppetto's carries emotional weight. Very important, very satisfying.
But if something else that we never anticipated becomes the most important point in the movie, that's the high country there, man. That's when the faith that we all have in making movies and going to the movies pays off, when something unique happens. And what's great about it is it's undeniable, and sometimes it's only undeniable to that one person who happened to see the movie in a certain circumstance and happened to be open to this one very particular dilemma. But that means it's going to stay with somebody for the rest of their lives, and great movies last forever.
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