Tom Hanks has won two best actor Oscars (for Forrest Gump and Philadelphia), proving that he's adept at both comedy and drama. He started acting onstage in high school, worked his way into television for a couple of years in the one-joke Bosom Buddies, and achieved movie star status early on with his leading role in Splash. A few weeks ago he became, at 45, the youngest person to receive the American Film Institute Life Achievement Award.

And, oh yeah, move over, Ron Howard; it looks like Hanks is the nicest guy in show business. At a recent junket for his new film, Road to Perdition, Hanks bounded from room to room and table to table, greeting everyone with a big "Hey, how are ya this morning?" and an enthusiasm that once again brought out that young-boy-in-the-man's-body he so brilliantly portrayed in Big.

But even though he comes across as bubbly, even carefree, Hanks is a guy who's spent a great deal of time studying the business that's won him fame and fortune. He knows a lot about its rewards and its pitfalls.

Still, he's not the least bit concerned about his venture into new territory with Road to Perdition, a moody gangster film set in 1930s Chicago, in which Hanks plays his first gun-toting bad guy.

"I'm not worried about people accepting me in the part," he says. "They either do or they don't. I trust that whoever sees the movie will become involved in what's going on. Beyond that, it's not really a marketing concern. It still comes down to the quality of the movie and the quality of the performance. I find that the audience is incredibly smart, and they make this organic decision themselves. And it's got nothing to do with any sort of strategy. It's whether or not they become involved in the story."

The story involves several layers of father-son relationships, with Hanks smack in the middle of two of them: He's the sort of "adopted" son of -- and hired hitman for -- mobster Paul Newman, and he's the father of newcomer Tyler Hoechlin.

Hanks insists he didn't take the part just so he could try something new.

"I think that if you're looking for a specific change of pace just for the sake of changing the pace, you're making an artificial, inorganic decision," he says. Then he puts on an impish smile and adds, "I didn't tell my crack team of show business experts, 'FIND SOMETHIN' DARK FOR TOMMY TO DO!' It wasn't like that."

Nor does he agree that Road to Perdition is an example of what the trade papers call counter-programming -- in other words, a serious adult movie opening at the time of the year when film fare is usually lighter (it premieres on the same day as Halloween: Resurrection, Reign of Fire and The Crocodile Hunter).

"If you're gonna let marketing drive the entire way the movie business works, I think it would be a demoralizing atmosphere for movies," he reasons. "You'd only see mindless movies from the middle of May to the middle of August, and you'd only see dark, depressing, serious movies from Labor Day to the week before Thanksgiving. And then all through Thanksgiving it'd just be happy puppet movies with a lot of bright colors and singing ponies."

Hanks may put a lot of thought into the business of making movies, but he finds that his level of involvement varies with each picture.

"One of the things I found is that you can be too involved," he explains. "The job of the actor, in many ways, is to stay aloof and separated from an awful lot of the Sturm und Drang that's going on. I think my job is to provide the director with whatever he or she really needs or wants from me. So when I eventually see the finished film, I see stuff that I've never seen before, and it's actually been reinterpreted in a completely different way. There have been aesthetic choices that the director has made that he might have come to late in the game or that maybe he had from the very beginning, but I never even realized it because I was being manipulated by the son of a bitch."

He smiles again, this time at the naughtiness of his mild oath, and the smile is still there when he's asked if, after all these years, acting is still a challenge.

"It's still fun," he says. "Something comes along and I still can't believe that they're asking me to do it, to play the role. I went into this because it's the best job in the world. The money's nice, the attention is more than anybody deserves. But it doesn't have anything to do with when you get there and you put on the clothes and you're pretending to be something else and you work with other people who are inspiring and intimidating at the same time. It's still a blast."

A Movie Night of Remembrance: The Woman King @ Magic Lantern Theatre

Thu., Dec. 1, 7:30 p.m.
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