There is a communal spirit that runs through those who worked on Cloud Atlas. It seems odd for Tom Hanks – one of the biggest Hollywood stars working today – to go out selling this movie as hard as he can, but he has. And when joining our room, he and co-star (and fellow Oscar winner) Halle Berry started doodling. By the end of the interviews, it turned out all the rooms had been doodling, and all added their art to the previous art. That’s the spirit of this movie. Check out our talk with Hanks and Berry below.
Filming this, did it feel like you were doing six different movies?
Halle Berry: It didn’t feel like six different movies really, I thought it felt like one movie but with six different characters within one movie.
Tom Hanks: It wasn’t hugely different from making a movie that shoots in six very distinctive locations. We did play different roles but those were all thoroughly prepped and researched. We had a lot of time to do it. And a lot was expected all this. It sounds like this very intimidating, almost impossible to keep track of process but Mom and Dad and Tom, they wrote this I think two years before they even talked to us about it, so they knew exactly what they were doing and we knew exactly what we were shooting.
Was there a character that was easy to get into or trickier to figure out?
TH: I thought they were all a bitch, to tell you the truth! They were all tough.
HB: (Laughs) They weren’t tough at all! Honestly, it was like the most fun to stretch. I got to play a white Jewish woman in 1930 – like, when would I get to do that? So to put on that skin…the fun part was that we had these make up tests that went on and on which might seem like arduous work but when you’re an actor, that’s the fun of it, to create something that you’ve never done before and to be a part of that process. The makeup department, they had these beautiful drawings that they drew of each one of our characters to present to us before we got there. So they had spent a lot of time thinking about it. But the beauty was for us, they allowed us to say “What do you think about this? Do you think this will fit what you were thinking?” We got to take a nose from this and an eye from this and a chin from that – like, we got to be a part of the process which was just fun, fun, fun. I think as an actor, it’s like a smorgasbord. Like, you just don’t get better than having to choose from all these unique people and characters. I’ll never get to be an Asian man again, probably ever! So it was just fun.
TH: We did have the luxury of time, because for each of the characters we had multiple days of hair and makeup tests and that means you’re sitting in the chair for a long time, talking to artists as they are applying this to you making sure the characters don’t bump, like let’s not go too much of a moustache here or too much of a beard there. Two days on each character, eight hours in the chair, then going over to wardrobe then coming back playing around, it was not a slap-dash production, and we were never ever hurried. There was never said. We got to figure this right now in order to make it happen. Although later on, I think towards the end, they were quickly just putting like “Ben, you’re going to be in this scene after all so you gotta come in and put on a wig.” I was in the hotel, where I’m the hotel manager and I showed up and Sturgess was there. I said: “What are you doing here?” He said: “They put me in as an artist who was getting thrown out of the hotel…” So it still had that degree of fun and improvisation.
Before reading the script, did you ever think about this notion of past, present and future co-existing together?
TH: There was this amazing series of documentaries I think was done by either David Attenborough or David Suzuki of Canada, it just called “Connections” and it was all about how somebody a hundred years ago figures out that this stuff that comes out of a tree is an indelible blue color and out of that comes India ink, and out of that comes essentially the ability to write words down on paper and parchment. I like the aspect of human history being defined by those very connections. The cosmic aspect of what they did and David Mitchell wrote in Cloud Atlas almost gives the vocabulary to the more ephemeral spiritual sense of that.
You play some more extreme characters like a killer at one point, did you – with elements of the character – find them more connected or did you treat them as separate entities?
TH: They are all separate entities because you can’t be Dr. Goose and be thinking about ‘In this moment, this is going to mean something for Isaac that takes place two centuries in the future…’ (laughs). There was the reality of the behavior and the process of that very day but we were in the hands of people who knew what we were doing. Andy, Lana and Tom knew that the way we stormed out of a room was going to connect to this other scene where somebody else storms into a room. Sometimes it’s us. Sometimes it’s completely different characters. We had the luxury of just making things as real as possible at that moment because they had it all inside their heads. They probably were steering us in some sort of diabolical manner that we didn’t realize.
Had they already edited those scenes to a degree when they were shooting those scenes with you?
TH: If you were to read the screenplay of it, you would see an edited version of the movie because someone pulls out a knife in the year 2050 and in the next scene Keith David pulls out a gun [in 1973] and it’s the same exact sort of like… We kept reading this over and over while we were doing it and I kept having these moments of clarity where I’d come in the next day and say “I was reading it last night and I see what you’re doing. I see what you’re doing. I get it.” And they also did things like a different train was running along the same exact track in the same exact setting but the edit was separated by a generation of people. That was in the screenplay. You just had to pay attention to the slug lines when you read it.
Did you film in sequence from one story, and which story did you start with?
HB: We never filmed any story…I don’t think…unless it was the day I went in and just played for a day, I kind of started and finished the same day started. Most of the stories for me were all over the place, as most movies are. They are driven by locations. I broke my foot two days in so that changed things for everything, not just for me but every single person involved in making the movie. So where they had some idea of trying to shoot it in some order, that got thrown out of the window two days into shooting. So then it was all over the place and it was travelling back and forth to Majorca then Germany then we had to go back to Majorca when my foot got a little bit better and shot some of that stuff on the mountainside climbing when I could climb a little bit better. It was all over the place.
So you were changing from one character to another?
HB: Yes, one day one person, the next day another person. One day, one unit, the next day I’m on Tykwer’s unit, the next day on Lana and Andy’s unit. It was pretty much…Like Tom says, we knew the night before, we had about fifteen hours to get our brains around ‘Who are we going to be tomorrow?’ And get our head around ‘Okay, who that character needs to be? Where we are in that story? How many scenes have we shot in telling that story? What scene is this going to be in? Where we are now?” Then you forget about at the end of the day when you get in to what tomorrow’s character would be and what that story was all about.
We were all having fun with the term ‘True-True.” How was it to do that type of dialogue, how long to pick it up and did you have a trainer there to help you guys to speak like that?
TH: We met for the first time officially for working on the movie a few months – four or five months – before we started shooting, and Andy and Lana and Tom were on a monitor in Berlin as they were together piecing the pre-production of the film, and we got together for two or three hours because they wanted to figure out how we could say the dialogue and not have it be so silly that people laugh, and not have it be so dense or different that it would be incomprehensible. So we just threw ourselves into it. We were in a recording studio over at P.O.P., not facing the screen but facing a little monitor and just trying variations of it. Because if you read the book and the early versions of what we were doing, it sounded ridiculous. [Imitates the dialogue] ‘Oh, you and I go quick-quick up the true-true in a cow-cow…’ and all that kind of stuff. And we could see them waving their hands: ‘No, no, no – don’t say it like that! Try something like this…’ And we just played and experimented until we got to something that was going represent the next evolution of language and yet be recognizable enough. Although every now and then there’s still something that goes by: ‘What the hell did they say?’
HB: And I had the other challenge of taking that language and being a foreigner speaking it, so I had to find a way to still speak it but have a different take on it, a formality with the language, and I was supposed to be this superior being that came from another planet to save this group of people, so I had to find a way to be that but still be a part of the Valley Men, and to speak the language but still have my own twist on it that was like a foreigner.
TH: It was fun.
You said that you will probably never be a part of a film like this again, what do you think will prevent a film to be made like this again?
HB: I don’t know if anything will prevent it, I think in my lifetime it’s going to take someone to be wildly visionary and will take the risks. This movie – about $100 million, all independently raised money. That was no small feat, and not to say it can’t be done, I just don’t know if the lottery will put my name in another venture like this, where people like Lana, Andy and Tom are going to have such perseverance and such love for something where they are going to spend four years of their lives just hitting the payment and getting money from anywhere they can get money to just make something that’s in their heart that they believe in and want to make something so extraordinary. And to be in a movie that’s going to envelop these concepts, where you will need one person to play six people – we’re doing this movie, so I doubt that they’re going to make it again in two years, because we’re doing it now. So the next evolution of what will be new will something different, and I’m sure something amazing, but it just won’t be what this story is, because luckily for us we’re getting to do it right now.
Did you feel like you were really on your game because of all the acting challenges thrown at you, something different literally every day?
TH: I never go home at the end of the day thinking: “Man, I crushed it today.” I always go home thinking: “What in the world? Did I make any sense out of what I was doing today?” And you have to trust the process and you have to trust the alliance that you have. I thoroughly believe that neither Tom, nor Andy or Lana would have let us go at the end of the day by saying: “Great – we don’t have it, and it’s totally different.” They drove us to water over and over again. They were constant fans without a doubt. They loved seeing us every day, and they would say [Claps] “Yay, you’re here. Ready to play on the most important scene in the film? If we don’t get right, we won’t be able to put the movie together?” But I must say we felt as though we were a cog in a magnificent repertory company and as long as we followed our own instincts and disciplines everything would be okay. But I never thought: “Man o’ man, we’re kicking it! We’re doing great! We’re doing great, aren’t we?” Never thought that for a moment.
How do you compare with Polar Express experience?
TH: Polar Express was in some ways delightful to shoot because everything we did was so fast, and everything you did lasted forever – you never had to repeat it. But it was also a nightmare, because it was literally on a gray stage surrounded by fluorescent lights and we had no costumes and no props. We were essentially wearing wetsuits with a bunch of stuff over it. The freedom that it gave you in the ability to improvise and just do it was great, but what you were lacking made it very, very difficult to sustain that over long periods of time. I was more exhausted at the end of a six-hour shooting day in the volume – that’s what they called it: ‘Okay, ready to go into the volume?’ – this three-dimensional place where the computer actually reads the information. We didn’t go to the set, we went to the volume. So that’s a different discipline, and in every way that it was really fun, it was miserable. I don’t mean that like ‘Boo-hoo-hoo.’ We had so much in Cloud Atlas, we had the make-up that altered the way we felt, we had the costumes that altered the way we walked, we had the sets or sometimes the natural settings that were so evocative and beautiful like everything that takes place where the cannibals are going to kill Zachery and whatnot – This was a magical magical place that nature created. When you have that, I must say, it’s much more fun to pretend than going to the volume every day.
Do you look at the risk that this could potentially come out looking very silly?
TH: I didn’t think twice because having read it and being able to ‘cog’ it as much as we could, the bosses said: “Look, we are going to try to meld everything that ‘Moby Dick’ is and means into everything 2001: A Space Odyssey is and means.” Now, I’ve had experiences on a number of occasions where we were going to shoot for something that was going to be very precarious and sometimes it works. Like Castaway was a movie where we thought we are breaking every rule here is anybody going to give a sh-t about this guy when he never talks and he’s on island and all it is about falling coconuts. Every movie is a huge minefield that you’re walking, not if it’s going to be a success but if it’s going to be a cohesive story that people get. In this case they just threw so deep and it was so attractive if only for that reason, that you throw your lot in. Otherwise what are you going to do? Only make movies that are guaranteed to work? Well, guess what, we could be sitting here talking about Forrest Gump 6, which is a lot better than Forrest Gump 5. Who wants to do that for the rest of their lives?
What was your favorite time period in the movie?
HB: I didn’t have a favorite. I’ve been getting asked though. I didn’t have a favorite. I loved that I got to do all of that. That I got to play an old native in the early 1800s and go play Meronym in the far far future and be this highly evolved, intelligent, sort of super android of a woman who’s back to save a whole population of people. I loved every step. I loved being that man. I loved being that white woman. I loved being Luisa Rey and all that she embodied. It was the sum of all of it I think that really got me ignited, not just one.
TH: I liked leaving and coming back to the stories. Zachery is so burdened and so filled with self-loathing that if you do that for 12 days in a row you just need a psychic break from what you’re doing. And usually got it. To come back and revisit it again, that was like a breather. We are all spoiled because we always said this: “ The next time we’re in a movie we’re just going to play one person!’ He might have as many as six costume changes but it’s not going to be the same as playing all of these people.
Cloud Atlas opens Friday, October 26. Check it out.