Tom Hanks stand in front of a screen full of space images to promote The Moonwalkers exhibition Credit: Justin Sutcliffe

Tom Hanks: “I’m lucky that my bills are paid… what is much more precious now is time”

Tom Hanks tells us why he now only chooses the roles he thinks will be fun, how he was affected by his parents’ divorce, and why he would willingly clean astronauts’ boots.

On a hot July day in 1969 a 13-year-old schoolboy called Tom Hanks was lying on the living room floor of his mother’s home in California.

“I’d been waiting for it all day long, the TV was on one channel, and one channel only,” the now entirely grown-up movie star Tom Hanks recalls. “The rest of the family was coming and going, as they weren’t quite as interested in it as I was.”

‘It’ was the historic moment when man first walked on the moon – something the teenage Tom could not wait to see.

“When the moment came, and Armstrong actually stepped off Apollo and said, ‘That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,’ a click went off in my head,” he says. “I knew it was an evolutionary moment for the human species, and I was tickled and delighted that I had witnessed it.”


The Moonwalkers: His new exhibition

That delight in man’s exploration of the world beyond the boundaries of our planet has never ended: today the world may think of him as one of our most venerable and beloved leading men, but 67-year-old Hanks is perfectly happy to be known under another title, that of ‘Space Geek’.

It is what brought the veteran Hollywood star to London to oversee the creation of The Moonwalkers, an hour-long experience opening this month at London gallery Lightroom and which offers a unique new perspective on humanity’s past and future voyages to the moon.

An immersive experience that allows the audience to experience the sensation of walking on the lunar surface, it also tells the history of the Apollo missions alongside illuminating NASA’s plans to return astronauts there in the coming years.

Hanks is both the enthusiastic narrator and interlocutor of the experience – he interviews the crew of Artemis 2, who next November are scheduled to launch a craft sending man beyond Earth for the first time in more than 50 years – and today, talking to me over Zoom from the book-lined study of his US home, his enthusiasm for the project remains palpable.

“It takes people back, but it’s more than that,” he says of The Moonwalkers.

“Rather than it being just an examination of what we did 50 years ago, it is really about what we are doing right now – and I don’t just mean going into space, I mean the idea of putting human beings on another ex-terrestrial body. Because we can understand that it’s only a matter of time until human beings figure out how to live somewhere else.”

“And even if it is billions of years from now, we will be going based on some version of the technology and the spirit of those first Apollo space missions.”

Actor – and space geek

Bespectacled, and dressed down in a T-shirt and zipped up sweatshirt bearing the logo Playtone – the name of the production company and record label established in 1998 by Hanks with producer friend Gary Goetzman – Hanks could easily pass for a genial professor rather than a cultural icon who has starred in some of the most successful films of all time.

His varied portfolio features everything from romcoms and cult war movies to his Oscar-winning performances in films like the thought-provoking Aids drama Philadelphia and Forrest Gump. Hanks brings his nuanced, naturalistic performances to all of them.

Then there’s Apollo 13, the much-loved space docudrama which tells the story of the aborted 1970 Apollo 13 lunar mission and in which Hanks played Commander Jim Lovell.

Given his passion for the extra-terrestrial, it is perhaps only fitting that Hanks attributes watching Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey – a film he has since declared his favourite of all time – in the cinema to sparking his desire to act.

Six months later, in December that same year, he recalls being mesmerised by watching a programme about Apollo 8, the first crewed spacecraft to leave low Earth orbit and the first human spaceflight to reach the Moon.

“The first thing that came up on television was the planet Earth, and it was black and white but without a doubt, it was our Earth, and it was just something else,” he recalls.

“I’m not saying at the age of 13 I had my hand on my poetic desires, but there was no small amount of poetry in the thought that human beings had gone beyond the realms of what had been considered to be possible.”


Dealing with divorce

It’s certainly clear the young Hanks had a dreamer’s disposition: today he recalls how his imagination was forged in the long Greyhound bus journeys between his mum’s and dad’s homes in the state of California following their divorce in 1960 when he was just five years old.

His parents, Amos and Janet also shared three other children: Sandra, Larry and Jim. The star has explained why he stayed with his father when the couple split after an 11-year marriage.

“My mum could not afford to have four kids,” he’s said. “My younger brother had just been born and so my dad took the three of us.”

As his late father Amos was an itinerant cook the children were often left home alone and the family moved around a lot. In fact, Hanks had moved ten times before he was 10 years old and has spoken of the loneliness he sometimes felt as a child.

As he got older, he regularly visited his, now late, mother at her home in a small town in northern California and today he says that the long-distance bus journeys between their respective homes helped form the man he became.

“My parents were divorced back in the time when literally the only people who got divorced in America were Zsa Zsa Gabor and Elizabeth Taylor,” he smiles ruefully.

“So the world, as I know it, was really a divided one and it was fine because I knew nothing else, but it meant that between eight or ten times a year I got on a bus from the city of Oakland and went to a farming town called Red Bluff.

“And I had a very cognisant sense of being in the city and being in the country, and a five-hour journey between, and I filled up that five-hour journey with an awful lot of imaginary rumblings. I was never once bored on those trips.”

Tom Hanks – the storyteller

It’s why he describes himself as a ‘storyteller’ as well as an actor, and latterly has branched out into writing.

Nine years ago, he published his first short story for The New Yorker magazine – the theme, naturally, was space – and then in 2020 his short story collection Uncommon Type came out. This year saw the arrival of his first novel,The Making of Another Major Motion Picture Masterpiece

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While he is renowned for collecting typewriters – he owns 250 – he works on computer and deploys strict discipline to what he calls the ‘solitary’ business of being an author.

“When I write, I set the alarm very early and I write in timed 25-minute periods,” he reveals.

“It’s called the Pomodoro technique. And when the alarm goes off at 25 minutes, I stop exactly where I am and I stand up, and I do something else for five minutes: push-ups, walk the dog, do the dishes, start the laundry load, sit outside and listen to the birds tweet. Then I come back and do another block, and I just keep those blocks going.”

Hanks in space?

I’m amused to think of Hanks putting the laundry on, but then he is known for being a down to earth man in an industry not known to be bursting with them.

He is suitably humble about spending time with the crew of Artemis 2, who he describes as “fascinating, extraordinary people”. With the first woman and person of colour assigned to the lunar mission, it is also a diverse group.

“I visited the Mission Control Operations room for the International Space Station, and it did not look like NASA of 1969: it wasn’t a bunch of men in short-sleeved shirts,” he says.

“The people who are going back now are all of humanity, they actually are members of all the different tribes and versions of humankind.”

Given his lifelong obsession with space, he must surely yearn to join them on their mission?

“There’s no reason to have a deadweight like me,” he laughs.

“I understand that my celebrity allows me a number of cuts in line, but I wouldn’t want to waste anybody’s time – although I will say, given the opportunity to get within a few miles of the Moon’s surface, or to land there and just help the crew on and off with their boots and brush off the dust, I would do that in a heartbeat.”

Looking to the future

In the meantime, more domestic pleasures undoubtedly keep his feet rooted on terra firma.

Hanks has four children – Elizabeth, 41, and Colin, 46, from his first marriage to the late actress Samantha Lewe, and Chet, 33, and Truman, who turns 28 this month, from his famously contented 35-year-long union with actor and producer Rita Wilson.

Today both Colin and Chet have daughters of their own and it’s clear that, now in his late 60s, Hanks wants to be able to enjoy as much time as he can with his three granddaughters, who he’s referred to as “extraordinary young women”.

It’s the reason he chooses his projects carefully these days. “Look, I’m 67 years old. I do not want to waste time chasing my own tail or involved in something that I am not 100% willing to give myself over to,” he says.

“I’m lucky that my bills are paid, so I don’t have to do anything unless it’s going to be good or fun, and hopefully both at the same time.”

He jokes that he can “always have half a tank of gas and afford cheap Chinese food a couple of times a week.”

“I got lucky a long time ago,” he adds. “So what is much more precious now is time.”

The Moonwalkers: A Journey With Tom Hanks is at the Lightroom in London from 6 December 6-21 April 2024.


Written by Kathryn Knight