Tom Hanks on the “Greatest Job an Actor Can Have”

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Tom Hanks is masterful at performing both comedic and dramatic roles as well as many shades and hues in between—think “Splash,” “Philadelphia,” “Forrest Gump,” “Saving Private Ryan,” “Road to Perdition,” “Sully” and all the way up to his recent role in “Finch.” The Hollywood icon attributes much of his acting versatility to “the greatest job” he had early in his acting career. In an interview with Collider, Hanks spoke about this job, saying:

“My first job as an actor was in rotating repertory theater, which I think is the greatest job an actor can have because there is such a variety that is demanded of you. You don’t really have to make any choices. Years ago in 1977 at the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival, we did six plays a year—a comedy, history, tragedy, something contemporary, and something made up. So the job of the actor was to live up to the text—the expectations of what each individual play was. When you get into films and television, those are singular decisions that you make. The job is the job; the text is the text. And there has never been a circumstance where I thought it’s time to do a comedy, oh, it’s time to get serious or it’s time to get historical. It’s always about: What does the story examine by way of the theme that it’s talking about, and how do we get there? That’s just fun. I think in every comedy I’ve done, there’s been some serious moments, and in every serious movie, there’s been some comedic moments. That’s the way life is.”

While attending high school in Oakland, young Tom performed in school plays and then studied theater at Chabot College in California, transferring to California State University, Sacramento after two years. “Acting classes looked like the best place for a guy who liked to make a lot of noise and be rather flamboyant,” Hanks told New York magazine back in the ’80s. “I spent a lot of time going to plays. I wouldn’t take dates with me. I’d just drive to the theater, buy myself a ticket, sit in the seat and read the program, and then get into the play completely. I spent a lot of time like that, seeing Brecht, Tennessee Williams, Ibsen, and all that.”

While still a college student in the late 1970s, Tom became an intern at the Great Lakes Theater Festival in Cleveland. Besides acting, he learned set design, lighting, and stage management. The budding star also made several actor friends who would go on to be highly influential in getting his career up and running. Enjoying his time there, Hanks dropped out of college so he could continue being part of the Cleveland ensemble for three years.

Afterward, the unemployed young actor moved to New York City, selling his VW Beetle to pay for the move. Once in the Big Apple, he slept on the couch of one of his Cleveland theater buddies as he put down roots. His theater acting buddies also taught him how to do taxes, they typed a resume for him, and even co-signed on his first apartment lease. Soon enough, Hanks made his film debut in a low-budget horror film, “He Knows You’re Alone,” a small part—and landed a starring role in the television movie “Mazes and Monsters.” In time, Hanks, of course, would go on to win two Oscars and become one the most recognized and highest-grossing actors of all time.

There are no hard and fast rules about the ways actors must initiate a career in acting. Some who achieve great acclaim start in commercials, others in improv, some come from a modeling or dancing background—and the list goes on. But countless revered actors in cinema history learned the fundamentals of acting via the theater. Tom Hanks is among the Hollywood legends who honed their craft over the course of years in the collaborative, imaginative, and wonderful world of theater.

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