tom hanks saving mr banksJason Merritt/Getty Images

It seems like a given that Tom Hanks, one of today's most beloved and well-known stars, would play Walt Disney, one of Hollywood's most beloved and well-known icons, in the first film about Disney himself, "Saving Mr. Banks."

But, although Hanks jokes that he's made a "cottage industry" out of playing real people, he wasn't at all sold on playing such an icon. As he told Moviefone, once he read the script, he was on board, particularly because it's mostly Emma Thompson's movie. She plays P.L. Travers, the author of "Mary Poppins," who turned down Disney's attempts to make the books into a film for 20 years, fighting him every step of the way.

Hanks shared how working with Thompson was like "a convivial three-hour dinner with maybe a little too much wine going down one of us," why the creative process can be so damn difficult, and how he would have given up if he'd come up against someone like Travers.

Moviefone: What were your first thoughts when you were asked to play Walt Disney?

Tom Hanks: I thought, "Oh hell." The burden, you know. Honestly, the responsibility. I heard about it first from Tony To, the head of physical production at Disney. He and I executive-produced " From The Earth to the Moon," "Band of Brothers," and "The Pacific." He says, "You've got to play Walt Disney in this movie." And I said, "Geez, who needs that pressure?" I know I've turned playing real people into a bit of a cottage industry. but it's like, please, can I just play a fake guy one of these days?

And then reading the screenplay... you can tell if you want to do a movie 12 pages in just because the DNA of the whole story and the whole philosophy of the movie's all right there. And because it was about this odd creative process and Walt was at the top of his game -- Walt was already the Disneyland guy and he was actually busy building Disney World at the same time -- it was a different Walt Disney than I had ever seen.

And it was really Emma's movie, so I just said, "Okay. All right." They kept saying, "We want somebody recognizable like you to play somebody recognizable like Walt Disney." And I said, "Is that a good thing? I'm not so sure that's a good thing." And then when I heard that Paul Giamatti was in it, I thought Paul should play Walt. He looks [more like him]. But once I got to page 12, I just said yes and I didn't even have a conversation with [director] John Lee Hancock. I said, "Come on over. We'll talk about how we're gonna do it." So we just did.

It's so difficult to get any movie made. But could you imagine the tenacity that it took over 20 years of her constantly turning them down?

I understand. There's a lot of people out there that see no reason at all to have their hard work turned into movies. And she hated movies. She hated Walt Disney. She thought it was a low class art form. She had this very specific idea who Mary Poppins was. And the truth is she needed the money. How Walt Disney gave up script approval to somebody is astounding to me. But, as you can see, I think it plays out in the movie realistically. He said, once we get script approval we'll just turn on the charm and we'll bring her out here and everybody will be fabulous. We'll show her what a homey atmosphere we have and how we're all just one big happy family. And, of course, you know, it carried no weight with her.

Do you think the final conversation played out like we see in the movie?

I would love to have been privy to whatever that last meeting was, which did happen. I mean, he flew to London instantaneously. He might have just said, "Honey, you're gonna make a sh*tload of money." And that might have been enough to turn it around. I met Elmore Leonard, and I asked him, "What do you think about these movies that are made of your books?" And he said, "It's so hard to make a movie. God bless them just for trying." That's a really good attitude to have.

You've made so many movies with Disney. What did it mean to you, personally, to play Walt Disney?

The responsibility of trying to get it right is the main thing. But anytime you're playing anybody real there is as much authenticity as the piece allows. You can't just go in and make stuff up. It's like if they were saying, "You know, I'd like to have Walt Disney smoke a big cigar." I'd have to say, "He doesn't smoke a big cigar. He smoked three packs a day of cigarettes." We had a hard enough time trying to have him smoke, you know.

That's right, you never actually see him smoking.

Oh my God. If he smoked cigarettes in this movie, it would be rated R. That's just the way it works. So we had negotiations of, "You cannot light a cigarette, you cannot inhale a cigarette," so all I could do was put it down. Now I always had a pack of cigarettes and sometimes I was playing around with them and a cigarette lighter here and there. But the man smoked three packs a day.

What was the Disney studio's attitude about making a movie about Walt Disney?

The truth is, they were afraid of this movie. They sort of had to do it. I think Alan Horn and Bob Iger had a meeting where they [probably said], "We have to make this movie. We can't let somebody else do it."

Have you ever had a project that took a ridiculously long time to get off the ground?

"Cast Away" took six years, from the beginnings of the ideas until the end.

Did Forrest Gump take a long time, too?

Well, not once we got involved. I think Eric Roth had written that a long, long, long, long time ago. But from when Bob Zemeckis got involved and we did it, it was a requisite amount of time. Here's what happens. You can have this idea in your head and you're always trying to get it in and it always might be kind of close. But nothing happens until you make that key alliance with someone. And if the alliance is with a filmmaker or the alliance is with a producer or the alliance is with a studio, well then it begins. But that alliance doesn't necessarily speed things up. That alliance just makes it exist outside of your own imagination and progress happens. And when it takes a long time, man, there's nothing you can do except acknowledge that we don't have it yet. It's not ready to go yet. And, you know, that's a b*tch. And maybe you have somebody -- like they said we'll make this movie if you can get so-and-so to be in it. I've been on both sides of that. That's just desperation time.

People had to turn you down?

Sometimes they turn it down because they don't get it, or they have something else they want to do or they're not available. It's just the way it works. And sometimes I've had to say things to people like, "Don't even send this to me because if it's great it's gonna break my heart that I can't do it because I'm not available. And if I hate it I'm gonna break your heart because you love it. So don't, don't. Let's pretend we didn't exist. We never met."

I love that scene near the end with you and Emma, where we see the the two different sides of how their characters dealt with childhood trauma.

There's a great line in that where he says, "Look, I loved my dad. He was a wonderful man." Right after he describes [how his dad forced him to work as a child]. His dad came from a world where, if you didn't have a nickel, you might not eat that well for the rest of the week. And it's fascinating and I think it's accurate that Walt Disney kept recreating his world over and over and over again. There's Main Street, USA, and his dad's name is up there, [even though] his dad never had an office. His mom and dad and his wife were included in every aspect of the Walt Disney art. As soon as they moved out to L.A., mom and dad came out as well. He took care of them, they were a very close-knit family, all the way through. And I think his attitude was, "Look, despite all the hardships, isn't life wonderful?" And I think you could probably say that Pamela Travers's [attitude was], "Isn't life hideous?" She was not a pleasant woman. Richard Sherman talked about those two weeks and he said he used swear words to describe Pamela Travers.

When you hear the tape at the end of the film, it's a different level of scary.

Oh, they hated her. They hated, hated, hated her. And the truth is she hated them. Isn't that kind of amazing?

She was resistant to having Mary out there, since she made Mary for herself.

She hated it. She hated it. She hated the movies. She hated Walt Disney. She hated stupid cartoons. She hated, hated, hated it. And yet she needed the money. So how do you rectify that?

Was there anything that surprised you about working with Emma?

I knew her really well from a completely social point of view of having dinners with her through Mike Nichols mostly. And I've got to say, working with her was the exact same as a convivial three-hour dinner with maybe a little too much wine going down one of us. We don't have the same exact background but we do come from a theater background in which the whole thing is about familiarity with the text and there being no substitution for that. It's bad to call anybody a competent professional because that doesn't really do them justice. She is an incredibly well experienced professional actress and so we got more work into our days than at other times. Because we didn't have to find anything. We just attacked the material that we knew very well going into it. So, I think we actually gave John Lee Hancock probably 40 percent more usable stuff than if you have to take time in order to find it and get there. She was armed, man. She's ready to go.

Have you ever worked with anyone as difficult as P.L. Travers? Or remotely in that ballpark?

No, I'm such a p*ssy, I wouldn't have even taken the job to begin with probably. No, not a road block like that. Not with anybody who just says no, no, no, no, no, no, no. I've never, never, never done that. Maybe in the very early writing periods of more long-form stuff, like the miniseries. You sometimes work with writers that would deliver what was going to be a key chapter and we just had to say, "This ain't it." And they say, "Why?" Then you have that kind of fight. But, no, nothing like [Travers]. I've never worked with anybody who took the contract, snapped it into her purse and then flew back home saying you ain't doing it. But then, if it does, I just make Gary Goetzman deal with it. Gary's my guy, so I make him deal with it.

So he's the "no" man and you're the "yes" man?

No. He's, "Hey, come on, we can work this out." I'm the guy who says, "Look, if you want to do it, let's do it. If not, let's not. I'm going upstairs." That's what I do.

It's been a great year for you, and you may end up with nominations for both "Captain Phillips" and "Saving Mr. Banks." How do you feel about that?

Well, it's out of my control. It wouldn't be bad. It's better than a poke in the eye with a stick.

"Saving Mr. Banks" opens in limited release Friday, December 13, and nationwide December 20.

CATEGORIES Interviews