INFERNO – Interview with star Tom Hanks

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It’s been more than thirty years since Tom Hanks first teamed up with director Ron Howard, and this cinematic dream team’s approach to filmmaking hasn’t changed since the very first time they worked together back in the day. Their dynamic partnership has produced some of the most memorable films in contemporary culture – Splash, Apollo 13, The Da Vinci Code, Angels & Demons  – and now comes the eagerly awaited thriller Inferno, based on Dan Brown’s best selling novel, which sees Hanks return as Harvard professor of symbology, Robert Langdon. “Inferno is our fifth movie together and all of them start off at the same place,” says Hanks. “We ask ourselves ‘is there something here we can crack?’

“Because otherwise, I’d rather stay at home and play with the kids than go off and make a movie that isn’t going to confound and challenge us every single day. And it’s always about the material.”

And the material – a screenplay by David Koepp drawn from master storyteller Brown’s compelling page-turner – is a first rate, edge of your seat thrill ride. “The truth is I wouldn’t be involved in it if it didn’t strike my fancy from the get-go,” says Hanks.

“I’m very selfish too, because Robert Langdon is a fabulous character to play. He’s got no baggage, he’s smart, and everybody says ‘oh, the symbologist is here’ every time he walks into the room.

“And in all of these stories and all of these films with Ron he gets immersed in something that propels him all the way through. It all comes down to procedure and behaviour that is laid out for me by either Dan Brown or David Koepp.”

The Langdon films are, of course, a hugely successful franchise with loyal fans all over the world. But Hanks points out that neither he nor Howard is contractually obliged to do them. They do because they believe in them as stand-alone films, and with each one the aim is to present a fresh, hugely entertaining story for the audience. And it’s exactly the same criteria for Inferno.

“We haven’t done all of the books. There was another book (The Lost Symbol) where we got together and said ‘OK, well, I don’t know what the new territory is there.’ We don’t have to do these movies – we’re not under contract, we only do them because we think ‘hey, there’s something really great, look what we get to do here.’

“And I think that with Inferno Dan Brown is dealing with a very specific authentic theme – it’s not about something that happened thousands of years ago but it’s about the future of the world. So Ron and I have a conversation and say ‘I think there’s something here. Do you think there’s something here?’ And once we say ‘yes’ it’s like, ‘bang! I hope they pay us to go off and do it!’”

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Inferno starts with Langdon waking in a Florence hospital suffering from amnesia – he has terrifying flashbacks and unexplained ‘visions’ but has no idea how he got there. One of his doctors, Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones) tells him that he suffered concussion from being grazed by a bullet. Within minutes, Langdon is in grave danger again when an assassin, Vayentha (Ana Ularu), arrives at the hospital to kill him. With the help of Brooks he manages to escape and hides at the doctor’s apartment where he discovers a cylinder, with a biohazard sign, in his jacket.

It’s the first of a series of clues linked to Dante, the 13th century Italian poet whose epic work, Divine Comedy, begins with Inferno, and his vivid depictions of hellLangdon is drawn into a race against time where the stakes couldn’t be higher – the very future of mankind is in jeopardy. A deranged, genius scientist, Bertrand Zobrist (Ben Foster) is convinced that the world is heading for catastrophe because of over population and plans to release a virus that would wipe out billions of people. He teams up with Brooks to try and foil the plan – searching Dante’s work for clues – but, says Hanks, their partnership is more a meeting of minds than a romance.

“The thing about Robert Langdon is, the most attractive thing to him with regards to a woman is her intellect. The fact is that every time he has worked with someone, they are equals. The police officer (Sophie Neveu) that Audrey (Tautou) played in The Da Vince Code and Ayelet (Zurer) was a nuclear physicist in the second one. We’re equals; we’re more partners as opposed to couples.”

Langdon is, of course, a man who relies on his brilliant mind to crack the baffling clues he is confronted with, so to have him suffering from amnesia where that mind, his most potent weapon, is impaired ramps up the tension, says Hanks.

“To have Robert Langdon being off-kilter and truly not knowing what is going on ends up ratcheting up the stakes as opposed to a knock on the door that says, ‘Mr Langdon we need you..’

“So this time it’s more about now as opposed to what happened in the past as it was with the two previous films (The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons).” 

Whilst the first two films in the series, which together grossed more than $1.2 billion at the box office, centred on historical, theological mysteries, Inferno is tackling a very contemporary theme – our overcrowded planet.

“When Dan Brown came up with Inferno and tied it into something that we can all recognise with our own eyes, the question of over-population, I think the themes of the movies have moved from the supernatural and the theological, to the practical that is shared amongst all cultures.

“So it’s not just a scavenger hunt that goes on and it’s not just the clue trail. It really goes forward with this idea of maybe we would be better off with half as many people on the planet Earth, and then what would that cost be?”

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It’s that theme that drew Hanks and Howard back into the world of Robert Langdon. The film is a blockbuster with spectacular visual effects and extraordinary action sequences but at its heart, says Hanks, it has to be personal with finely drawn characters, like Langdon, that an audience can relate to and cheer for.

“These are big commercial enterprises that Ron and I are always approaching as very personal and immediate stories that we, as actors and artists, can put our hooks into in order to develop characters that are recognisable to everybody. You know, on The Da Vinci Code we learned all about the Council of Nicaea in the year 900 – not exactly on everybody’s lips right now. In Angels & Demons we learned about the selection of the Pope that goes back to everything that’s happened since the Catholic Church broke off from the Orthodox.

Inferno is actually about the present and the future. What is the status of the world going to become? What are we going to do with the reality of what can, in some languages, be called ‘triage’ and in other languages is called just over-population?

“I think the newest thing about Inferno versus the other films is that this is about a dilemma that’s facing us – it’s about tomorrow, about next week. I think the fear mongering that is put forward by Zobrist in this story is more heightened than the situation actually is, but without a doubt this is something that incorporates the environment and geo-politics and our economy. I think because of that, as filmmakers and actors, we’ve been able to come back to a much more pragmatic approach to what (in essence) the story is and it’s a much more immediate one. And you know, it’s damn fun! It’s just fun to do.”

Once again, filming took Hanks, Howard and the production to some extraordinary locations, just as it did with the earlier films. He clearly loves it.

“I must admit they are very pleasant movies to make [smiles]. I mean, I once changed my clothes, my pants, in front of the Mona Lisa in the Louvre, at three o’clock in the morning. We got to hang around CERN and run around. We weren’t allowed to walk into the Pantheon in Rome but we shot outside it. And in this case we were in the actual Palazzo of the Hall of Five Hundred (Palazzo Vecchio) shooting in Florence. So, life experience wise, they are great.”

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They are physically demanding, too, although Hanks is typically self-deprecating when he is asked about the most challenging aspects of the shoot. Indeed, he recalls one of many memorable scenes filming in the famous Boboli Gardens in Florence with a smile.

“We were shooting running away from a drone. And you’re running on those ancient cobblestones, a lot of stairs to run up, a lot of walls to jump over and you’re being chased around. It was hot and I had on these suede Hush Puppies that had no ankle support and they were flat – not easy! It’s always like, ‘when are we going to get a nice grass field to run in?’ And poor Felicity had to do it in these wedge heels. But you know, it keeps you in shape. And it ends up being kind of fun.”

The Langdon films, and Dan Brown’s hugely popular novels, expertly explore hidden worlds where intricate conspiracies are woven to keep the truth from an unsuspecting public Hanks himself is a little more pragmatic. “I don’t think there’s anybody who’s hatching plots to get us,” he says.

“In my mind, the concept of conspiracy theories fall apart because nothing trumps human behaviour, and humans are selfish and self-motivated and will follow their own will. I think, by and large, any organisation cannot stay secret because people like to talk, and they can’t stay efficient because some people are lazy and they don’t want to work that hard.

I mean, if you could have a shadowy organisation that could literally train humans to behave only as they want, well, then communism would have worked. And it didn’t. Human behaviour is the guiding force of all chaos in the world at some point.”

His approach to playing Langdon hasn’t changed, he says, although he admits that he was, back on The Da Vinci Code, a little daunted at portraying a character his director describes as a ‘genius.’

“The only thing that has changed is we have gone through an establishment of some behaviour from the first one. When we made The Da Vinci Code I was probably intimidated by him because I was trying to constantly manifest this concept of the professor who lived alone and got called in as the expert. And in Angels & Demons he was the guy who would come in and explain things and figure it out at the same time.

“But that gives way here (in Inferno) to what Dan Brown has created – he doesn’t know where he is or what he is doing or why he’s there and why he’s got these needles stuck in him (when he wakes in hospital).

“But I think both Ron and I come to the story with an understanding of the way Langdon thinks, what he would do and would not do and what drives him. So we didn’t have so much to imagine and create, but we did have a lot in order to protect. Because Langdon is a very specific guy – there’s stuff that he’s not afraid of and there’s stuff that is he horrified by.”

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He does, then, remain essentially the character that Hanks has brought to life so memorably on screen – an immensely likable man using his considerable intellect to try and solve the mystery that he is confronted with.

“I didn’t want him to suddenly know how to do Kung Fu or something like that. [Laughs] He’s not a dude who ever learned how to do Kung Fu! I wanted to keep him as a guy who wears a suit and reads a lot of books and that’s how we kept him.”

Like Langdon himself, perhaps, Hanks believes that even the most daunting present day problems – like over population – can be tackled. “I am a pragmatist,” he says. “I’m not just cheery for the sake of being cheery, but I am very pragmatic.

“I don’t jump to any conclusions and I specifically dig a little bit deeper to find out some more root causes and I study history. And I’m most dazzled by history when it seems as though it’s talking about today. And you can go back to Renaissance Florence and see that there was a lot of ignorance back then, but there was also Enlightenment at the same time. And it turns out the Enlightenment won, didn’t it?”

For Dan Brown fans who have read Inferno, Hanks promises that the film will honour the story they love – and some.

“What David (Koepp) and Ron did with this is to load it with other stuff that is not even in the book so they get to discover brand new things as well”

And for those who don’t know the story, they too will be entertained by an engrossing, bang up to the minute topical thriller by that cinematic dream team of Hanks and Howard and a brilliant supporting cast and crew.

Inferno releases locally on Friday, December 9, and you can expect our full review out on Monday, 5 December.

 Please note: This interview was provided as is by Sony Movies

Last Updated: December 1, 2016

Kervyn Cloete

A man of many passions - but very little sleep - I've been geeking out over movies, video games, comics, books, anime, TV series and lemon meringues as far back as I can remember. So show up for the geeky insight, stay for the delicious pastries.

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