One of the most significant partnerships in Hollywood began with casual neighborly chats between two dads. Steven Spielberg didn’t direct Tom Hanks until 1998’s Saving Private Ryan, but the pair had spent years as friends discussing their shared affinity for American stories. Since then, the pair have made the comedies Catch Me If You Can and The Terminal and co-produced HBO historical spectaculars like Band of Brothers and The Pacific.
Now, they’re back together. In conversation hours before the New York City premiere of their new film Bridge of Spies, the pair has an easy camaraderie and a shared familiarity with American history. Spies, which opens Oct. 16 amid a healthy dose of Oscar speculation, sees Hanks playing James Donovan, a real-life insurance lawyer tasked to defend Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance). Though his defense is only intended to make it appear like justice is being served, Donovan ends up not merely providing full-throated advocacy but getting involved in prisoner-exchange negotiations after an American U-2 pilot is downed over the U.S.S.R. and an American student is taken prisoner in Berlin.
It’s a complicated situation that Spielberg and Hanks approach in a manner both unfashionably devoid of irony and refreshingly suffused with moral clarity. And, in an interview with TIME for the issue on newsstands Oct. 9, they addressed their partnership, how Hollywood has changed from technology to racial representation, and whether it’s possible for filmmakers to make a real social impact.
Your last collaboration onscreen was The Terminal, more than a decade ago. What accounts for the gaps between collaborations, and what about a given Spielberg movie makes it seem like one that needs Hanks in it?
Hanks: [laughs] What is that?
Spielberg: It’s funny because a couple of times it’s been my idea, once it’s been Tom’s idea, and once it was that we decided independent of each other. Once Tom read the first draft of a script and I read the first draft of a script and we called each other on the phone at the same moment and decided to do it together—that was Saving Private Ryan. That was the one time that he cast me and I cast him.
Hanks: You’re giving me a little too much credit. I wasn’t quite that prescient. I think I did some ground work to find out if you were open to the phone call.
What have you learned about each other’s processes since Saving Private Ryan?
Hanks: When we got to know each other as guys who live in the same part of town and had kids all about the same age, operating in the same nonprofessional circles, we developed a language that was all about how we read history for pleasure. We were constantly reading biographies or histories, searching out the documentaries we’d never seen. From that came this dialogue based in, “Did you hear about this? Did you read this? Did you see this? Are you reading that now?” It’s no surprise that the first thing we did was based on the vision of history we never cease reading about, and it just goes on and on; can’t quite get enough of it. We really had this shorthand. His version of cinema is all his, and instinctive, my version of acting is completely [mine], so we never really talked about the specifics of it.
Steven, Jurassic World recently became one of the biggest movies of all time—
Hanks: Isn’t it the biggest film of all time?
Spielberg: It’s number three behind Avatar and Titanic, and it’s about to become number four when Star Wars comes out. We’re three now, until December 18, my birthday. Then I give it about three weeks before we are number four.
Hanks: Star Wars will come out and the world is going to tilt on its axis and stop revolving and everything after that will be different.
How did Jurassic World exceed or fall short of your expectations?
Spielberg: It exceeded not only my expectations but the people whose job it is to prognosticate; it exceeded the studio’s expectations and [director] Colin Trevorrow’s expectations. Who could have expected this mega-success on his first non-Sundance film?
Hanks: [laughs] Now that guy’s got problems as far as his next job goes! He’s gotta accept the fact that he ain’t gonna top it. All he has to do is turn in a good movie and he’ll win, man. Talk about a sophomore jinx, man, his next gig.
Do you want to be a part of the franchise world anymore? Bridge of Spies seems to be as far from an “expanded cinematic universe” as possible.
Spielberg: Thank goodness. I can’t live on an alien planet my entire career. I’ve got to find things that are earthbound that make me glad to be on this planet and experiences, when I’m making films, that have relevance and have kinship to actual events in history. That fills me up; that makes me actually happier in this stage of my life than even a success like Jurassic World.
When do you know a film is working?
Hanks: Never. I wish we could. The only thing we know is, Hey, that was fun.
Spielberg: I run a movie for myself the first time, and if I can forget I had anything to do with the picture, and I’m halfway through the movie and I’m just the audience, then that is my litmus test for a film working. It doesn’t mean it’s going to work for anybody outside of myself, but when I lose the aesthetic distance between the screen and where I’m sitting, the first time I run a picture that I’ve directed for myself, if I’m aware to the very end that I’m the director, and all I can do is find things to fault, then I know I have my work cut out for me. And I have to roll up my sleeves and fix everything. But when I can watch a movie and I can forget that I made the movie, that’s the first sign that I’m going to be pretty happy with it, that I’m going to be able to live with it.
Your kids are involved in varying capacities in the entertainment industry, one that looks wildly different from the one in which you came up. What do you make of it all?
Hanks: I wish that it would have been so easy to make my own content when I was in high school and college. You had to buy film and cameras and Moviolas and stuff like that. It wasn’t something you could just do. And now when anyone says to me, “How do you get started in Hollywood?” I say, “If you’re not already creating, get out!” Because all the tools are at your disposal to put together any idea you want. And that can be for a great 20 seconds or it can be for a great 20 minutes!
Spielberg: There are stories to be told in every format. There are stories to be told if you’ve only got five minutes between classes. You can look at your watch; you can pick up your phone. You can look at a five-minute story. There is something to make you smile or laugh, to share with your friend, that maybe is only seven seconds long. There is something, today, for everybody, which gives voice to so many people who would never have a voice and who would have to go into the professional world with this iron ceiling to try to be heard. Today, anyone can be heard at any time.
Do Hollywood’s changes, the degree to which traditional movies and TV are being encroached upon by a million other forms of entertainment, concern you?
Hanks: My oldest son, Colin—he’s working in television now, and the structure of it’s completely different than when I was working in it. The money is different, the pull they have is different. The wake is so much wider now in terms of all the creativity that’s out there. As an artist who needs to have the money in order to do what he wants to do, there is pressure involved in there, and it’s tough. Because the chances are, the measure for success is either you are an ultra, absolute mega-hit, or you’re an also-ran. I think there’s many more also-rans than there are mega-utra-super hits. That’s just the reality of it. Now, if you can do it without having too much worries about money involved in it, then you can do any damn thing you want to, and all you have to do is put in the hard work.
Does this make you optimistic about greater representation at the highest levels of Hollywood? It still seems like most top actors and directors tend to be white and, in the case of directors, male.
Hanks: What that is is—for lack of a better word—the military-industrial complex makes the decision of what gets the attention. There’s all sorts of influence and marketing that goes around in order to get those sort of movies as much influence and eyeballs as possible. You do not have to go far down the food chain in order to see the opposite of that: You name the minority, you name the diversity, and it’s happening in spades. You can’t find it, and it’s not thrust forward, because they don’t have the marketing behind them, but if you want to and you’ve got Netflix or Apple TV, you can see almost anybody of any color or any gender doing any story they want to. It’s not going to be for a lot of money, and maybe only 17,000 other people have seen it. But it’s there and all you have to do is separate yourself. I’ve got to come up with some other name than “military-industrial complex.” The “entertainment complex.”
Spielberg: Two of the biggest hits of the year are Empire on Fox and Straight Outta Compton.
Hanks: And what does that prove? That proves there is an audience with a vociferous appetite for it. So the entertainment complex will catch up with it. It’ll just be at a snail’s pace.
What periods of history feel under-covered by film?
Hanks: I don’t think you can just choose the era or the genre. Because that takes the inspiration out of it. It has to be something that someone discovers as the avenue into it. The best example I can give right now is what they’re doing with Hamilton. If you say, “Oh, it’s a play about Alexander Hamilton in colonial times,” I say, “Well, give me a gun so I can shoot myself in the head, because that’s just going to be homework and medicine.” If you say, “No, no, it’s a hip hop version.” “Okay, it’s a hip-hop version? Well, tell you what, give me a gun so I can shoot myself in the head, because that just sounds downright silly.” And then you go and see it and it actually is so prescient, because, say what you want about the thing, but I saw it twice when it was down at the Public [Theater], and when I realized I was watching a huge African-American man playing George Washington, talking about throwing off the yoke of oppression and the need for human beings to thrive under liberty, I thought, OK, this is brand-new territory that is so salient to our lives today that I never would have been able to imagine it. And that’s what’s required—the new avenue into it.
Is there a common thread in U.S. history—something that connects the stories of Lincoln and the Invasion of Normandy and the story of James Donovan?
Spielberg: I don’t think there’s an easy answer to that question, because if there was a common thread, Jim Crow wouldn’t even have existed, and Lincoln’s intentions for his method of rebuilding or reconstructing the company would have been facile and would have been resolved before the end of the 19th century. I think the dogma of racism, if there’s anything that has stunted our growth as a nation, and continues to echo, is exactly that.
Can Hollywood make inroads against that?
Spielberg: When they made 12 Years a Slave, that opened a lot of eyes. I know it was ancient history to some people, but when you see a movie that can transport you back to a time that’s almost hard to watch, it’s no longer ancient history. It’s relevant to the young person who sees that movie, and it might reshape their values.
Is there one of each other’s movies you wish you had worked on?
Hanks: Dear God—well, you’re fishing for something specific. I was just back from working my first season at the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival and I was back in my college town of Sacramento, and I was working as a stage manager at a local theater company, which also meant that I was assistant technical director and built sets and all that kind of stuff. I had a rare morning off, and I was sleeping on the floor of a friend of mine, because I didn’t have an apartment at the time. This other buddy calls me up and we jumped in my Volkswagen, drove to the Century Inn Cinemas for the 10:20 showing of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It was the first showing, it was a weekday, so there were maybe 40 people in the theater, but this was a movie we had studied the making of without having seen a single frame of the movie. What was great about it, too, both me and my friends commented on it: It had no iconographic casting to it. Richard Dreyfuss was a guy who worked for the power company. We had never really seen a movie where a guy who worked for the power company met the aliens.
Spielberg: I have to say Philadelphia. Because I knew Tom really well when he was making Philadelphia. Really well. And I was making Schindler’s List at the same time. So before we all took off for our movies, Tom cut all his hair off, so he brought his family over on the weekends to our beach house. And I’ve got videos of Tom with no hair with a baseball cap on. I knew the story, but hadn’t read the script. I knew what audiences were about to see. For me, the proof in knowing someone very very well, and not knowing someone at all but knowing his character very well, is when I went to see Philadelphia and forgot that I even knew this man. And saw one of the most noble statements I had seen in film. It was a ground-breaking achievement in the social context, and the context of tolerance. And opening people’s minds to something they were very closed to in those days; an issue that was a clear and present danger to everyone. And it was really–that was one of the most shattering experiences I’ve had seeing a movie, when I knew the actor and then discovered that I didn’t know the character. The knowing of the actor didn’t knock down the fourth wall.
The role of James Donovan is self-consciously tamped down; he’s a relatively anonymous lawyer whose special qualities only become clear over time. Why cast one of the most recognizable men in the world?
Spielberg: This part was crying out for one of the greatest living actors…
Hanks: I’m going to get a banana. [leaves]
Spielberg: …I was able to snag one of the greatest living actors to represent the virtues and the principles that this character showed all of us in real life.
Hanks: There’s no escaping the countenance that goes along with the whole thing; can’t help it. I’ve been babysitting kids on video since Bosom Buddies. But if you’re only giving the audience stuff they’re familiar with, they’re going to hate you. There has to be something new up there. And it’s beyond my pay grade to figure out what it is. Everybody’s burdened by that. There are a handful of actors that are truly mysterious. Daniel Day[-Lewis] is one of them, Johnny Depp is one of them to a degree, and other people that you might not necessarily know their names.
Spielberg: Robert Downey, Jr.
Hanks: Yeah, he can do stuff. But if you know their name, then they are somehow defined. There are a lot of brilliant actors out there—that guy’s great, that guy’s great. I don’t know their names. If you know their name, your job is to surprise them. If you don’t, you’re screwed.