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After 3 movies, Spielberg and Hanks have become the best of buds

June 18, 2004

By PHILIP WUNTCH / The Dallas Morning News

Tom and Steve are talking movies – one in particular.

The Terminal, which opened Friday, is the third teaming of star Hanks and director Spielberg, following 1998's Saving Private Ryan and 2002's Catch Me If You Can. Film lore has always maintained that the mega-star and mega-director are best buds, the Pacific Palisades answer to Butch and Sundance, or at least Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn.

At the time of Saving Private Ryan, Hanks put that rumor in perspective.

"Our wives are the ones who are really great friends," the actor said in 1998. "But the two of us are definitely friendly. We have children the same age, and we both love movies."

Merrick Morton
According to director Steven Spielberg, Catherine Zeta-Jones said that her role in the movie The Terminal is the closest she has played to her real personality.

Apparently six years and two more movies make a difference. Talking on the phone simultaneously, they seem like soul mates who finish each other's sentences. As all movie maniacs know, love of cinema can create a bond.

Example: The Terminal's action occurs in an airport, and the multinational employees comprise a microcosm of the world. At one point, Mr. Hanks compares the movie's supporting cast to "those great character actors who played all those pirates in Captain Blood," referring to the 1935 swashbuckler that made Errol Flynn a star.

Even over the phone, you can sense Mr. Spielberg beaming at Mr. Hanks' reference, and it's easy to imagine them spending hours rapping about their favorite movies. But it's more than loving movies.

"The same things are important to us," says Mr. Spielberg. "This might sound pompous, but both of us try hard to lead stable lives. We both come from broken homes, and we want to have stable adulthoods."

But is stability possible in a profession as chancy as moviemaking?

"Kate and our children have given me a wonderful life away from the camera," the director says of wife Kate Capshaw. "But each new film gives me an entire new life professionally, and I wouldn't trade that feeling for any other job, no matter how stable."

In The Terminal, Mr. Hanks plays a traveler who arrives in New York only to discover that his passport is invalid because his Eastern European country has been overthrown in a military coup. He must now live penniless within the confines of the airport, surviving by his own wits.

"As Tom connected with all the other characters in the movie, I felt like I was connecting, too," Mr. Spielberg continues. "I grew up Jewish in a community where there were not many Jews. I understood what that guy was going through, and I felt like it was a whole new life for me, too."

Mr. Hanks also insists that he knows what it's like to be a stranger in a strange land.

"I'm 47 years old, and for the first 46 years of my life, I felt that way," he says. "Maybe not consistently, but the feeling still comes over me. It doesn't take much. I can be driving along, thinking that I've got all my anxieties whipped, everything all wrapped up. But, hey, I live in California, and every California resident considers it a birthright to drive too fast. So a cop stops me. I get out my driver's license and then realize I don't have proof of insurance. Suddenly I feel like I'm from another planet, a complete alien in a strange world. I'm blubbering, and the cop looks at me like I'm an idiot."

Despite such easy displays of angst, their new film has a strong sense of warmth. Never before has an airline terminal seemed like such a reassuring beacon of hope.

"I wanted the airport employees and travelers to truly represent the melting pot that is America, which makes the terminal sort of like Ellis Island," Mr. Spielberg says. "Post-9-11, this is a positive spin on the fact that these great airline terminals give us the opportunity to meet people from all over the world."

The terminal was built from the ground up in Palmdale, Calif., specifically for the movie.

"It was the greatest place to make a movie," says Mr. Hanks. "Movie sets are usually dusty and have a sense of isolation. This was well-lit and airy. And there were always plenty of people to talk to. Every single restaurant and food takeout place that you see in the movie was operational. I had all the Chinese I could ever hope to eat."

For Mr. Spielberg, striking the set when filming was completed was the saddest part of making the movie.

"It was the second biggest set I'd ever worked on, following the space station in Close Encounters," he says. "It took six months to build and four weeks to tear down. It was the source of the Nile for the movie."

The Terminal is Mr. Hanks' first film since the Coen Brothers' The Ladykillers, a boisterous comedy that alienated some longtime Hanks devotees with its strong language and brass story line.

"I have absolutely no regrets about making The Ladykillers," Mr. Hanks says. "The Coens are daring, bold, crazy filmmakers, and I would have felt like a wussy if I hadn't done the job. Fargo and Raising Arizona are still my favorite Coen Brothers movies, but I have no regrets about The Ladykillers."

In The Terminal, nothing the actor says or does will alienate anyone, but he denies that he ever considered the idea that it might balance The Ladykillers. "I don't think about things like that. I choose my roles strictly by instinct."

The Terminal also strikes a balance for leading actress Catherine Zeta-Jones. Best known for playing feisty (The Mask of Zorro) or venal (her Oscar-winning Chicago), she now gets to play a wistful flight attendant whom Mr. Hanks befriends.

According to Mr. Spielberg, when the actress first read the screenplay, she said the character was the closest to the real Catherine Zeta-Jones.

"Catherine is warm and vulnerable in real life," the director says. "She told me, 'Michael knows the real me. Kirk knows the real me. My family knows the real me. But moviegoers don't. And now they will.' "

Michael and Kirk, of course, are husband and father-in-law Michael and Kirk Douglas. By any measuring stick, Ms. Zeta-Jones is Hollywood royalty, and you can't help but wonder how vulnerable a member of a royal celebrity family could be.

But Mr. Spielberg's warm thoughts are reinforced by Mr. Hanks, who calls her "one of the most gracious, personable and professional people I've worked with."

As with everything else they say, these two Hollywood buds make you believe every word.

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