ATLANTA — Tom Hanks has played two real men in films this year, but the experiences were worlds apart. In “Captain Phillips,” he played Richard Phillips, a man who might have continued to work and live admirably but privately if his shipping vessel, the MV Maersk Alabama, had not been attacked by Somali pirates in 2009.
In “Saving Mr. Banks,” Hanks plays Walt Disney, one of the most famous and recognizable figures of the 20th century, a man whose influence as an artist and businessman continues to shape huge swaths of popular culture nearly 50 years after his death.
Hanks spent time with Phillips, which provided the Oscar-winning actor with first-person insight into the man and his mannerisms.
But Hanks said playing Disney was not necessarily more difficult. It just required a varied approach.
“No, it was just different,” Hanks said during an interview at Atlanta's St. Regis Hotel in October. “Never a bigger challenge, because it's a vacuum that you slowly fill up. There was a ton of material that I could seek out. It's not more of a challenge. It's a different challenge.”
“Saving Mr. Banks” is the story of how Disney persuaded P.L. Travers, author of the “Mary Poppins” novels, to let his company adapt her character for the screen. Played by Emma Thompson in the film, Travers spent two decades thwarting Disney's efforts to make “Mary Poppins,” which eventually made it to the screen in 1964 and garnered five Oscars, including a Best Actress award for Julie Andrews.
Disney's persistence is seen on two levels in “Saving Mr. Banks”: the charm offensive that Disney mounted to get Travers to change her mind, and the determination of a man who usually got the answer he wanted. Hanks had to portray both sides of the man, but he also had to show how they intersected.
“As far as seeing Disney himself, it was mostly him performing as Walt Disney, you know?” Hanks said. This meant watching the Mickey Mouse magnate as host of “The Wonderful World of Disney” or footage of him greeting people at Disneyland.
“But I found a substantial amount of interview footage that was him just talking, that was him not ‘presenting himself,' as well as a lot of anecdotal stuff,” Hanks said.
Fortunately for Hanks, “Saving Mr. Banks” takes place at a time when Disney was extremely visible. The original Disneyland, opened in 1955, became a kind of symbol of post-World War II optimism and American idealism, and apart from Mickey Mouse, Walt Disney was the theme park's chief ambassador. Until his death in 1966, Disney maintained a high public profile, and because of this, there are still people who could give Hanks insight into the man he was portraying — something that might not have been captured on film.
“You also have to take into account the Disney as he is in the film,” Hanks said.
“Disneyland has been running for five or six years. It's a huge cash cow, and he is an established artist/industrialist,” he said. “We were working with people who would come by and visit the set who knew Walt and would talk about him as if he were still around.”