Tom Hanks: An Everyday Hero In Sully

September 6, 2016
In Clint Eastwood’s Sully, Tom Hanks takes on the role of airline pilot, Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, who became a hero after landing his plane on The Hudson River, saving all of the flight’s 155 crew and passengers.

How hard is it to get the pilot chatter to sound authentic? “Ma’am, we’re professionals, this is what we do for a living. It’s like, ‘How hard was it to install that bathroom fixture? Ma’am, I’m a plumber. This is what I do for a living.’ There’s only one way to do it: you’ve just gotta roll up your sleeves and do your job. It’s actually fun to do, it’s great stuff. Everything carries meaning, and the cadence is fun to get down. It’s all right there on paper, but we might have found some other things to say. You get the run-down of what the procedure is, like you know when the plane pulls away from the gate, you’re not allowed to have any conversations that are about anything other than the flight. So when you back away from the gate, you can’t be like, ‘Hey, you wanna get some steaks tonight?’ The FFA literally says that you cannot have those conversations. You only answer the tower and you talk about the flight, until you reach altitude, which for this flight was supposed to be like 35,000 feet. We actually put in one line, ‘It’s a beautiful day on the Hudson’, so Sully was actually breaking the law when he said that.”

And you can’t do it because it’s the most dangerous part of the flight? “That’s what I assumed ma’am, yes; that it wasn’t dangerous.”

I wondered if you were able to draw on any experience while filming this? Have you had any personal, near-death experiences? “I’m a pussy, man! I haven’t done anything that’s near death! I had to swim in the open ocean for Castaway. Ooh, ahh, it’s so terrible, waah! [Laughs] No, I’ve never experienced anything remotely like this. When I was in high school, I almost smashed into the back of a bus on my motorcycle, but no, nothing remotely like this. There are four roles for us in real life: you can be a hero, a villain, a coward, or a bystander. I think I’m the bystander.”

Tom Hanks in Sully

Tom Hanks in Sully

What are your thoughts on heroism and professionalism? “I think the textbook definition of a hero is someone who puts themselves in harm’s way for the benefit of others. A hero is willing to take on the responsibility of doing that right: flying up in the sky, going faster than birds, and getting people to a different city in the same day. That’s what makes someone a hero. They are voluntarily taking a job where they have to go up in the sky and people trust them. The thing is, if a pilot does his job perfectly, nobody buys him a beer at the end of the day. If he is able to follow through on his instincts and not buy into his fear and go on to do something amazing, then everyone will buy him a beer. It’s amazing that Sully did that four times a day as a professional for that whole time. So heroism, it’s almost as rare as lightning storms. Is he a bigger hero than the scuba divers who jump out of helicopters and pull people out of the water? They’re heroes too. There was an awful lot of heroism on display on that day, and that’s a wonderful thing.

Tom Hanks and Aaron Eckhart in Sully

Tom Hanks and Aaron Eckhart in Sully

When you met Sully, what did you want to emulate from him? “He’s a very intimidating guy. I had actually met him completely socially at an event just a few weeks after it happened in 2009. He was at a party for The Academy Awards, and someone came up and said, ‘Would you like to meet Sully Sullenberger?’ I was like, ‘You mean the guy who landed on the Hudson? Yeah I’ll meet him!’ So I met him and his wife, Lorraine, and we chatted for a little bit. He was like a combination of Elvis and John Wayne all at the same time. When it came to the film, he had the entire script and it was noted, underlined, highlighted, dog eared, and paper clipped. He had a lot of things that he wanted to tell me about what was wrong with the script. It was mainly small stuff that could be easily vetted out. But the true task ahead for me was to communicate and somehow carry around the experience and gravitas. He explained to me that in his mind, he’s always calculating rate of descent, rate of ascent, land speed, flight angle, gravitational pull…you name it. As they were coming up on The George Washington Bridge, he knew how far instinctively he was going to go. He didn’t look at a gauge, and he didn’t pull out a calculator or a slide rule. His body told him what the stakes were. In a movie, how do you pull that off? I joked earlier that it’s a movie, and that we’re professionals, but that doesn’t mean what we do is easy. It takes no small amount of work and some degree of fear. At the end of the day, we need to have faith in the groundwork that we lay for ourselves and the challenge that we lay for ourselves.”

Clint Eastwood and Tom Hanks on the set of Sully

Clint Eastwood and Tom Hanks on the set of Sully

You often portray the vulnerabilities of normal people. Is this something that you like to explore? “It comes down to the reasons that everybody goes to the movies in the first place. I like a fantastic story just as much as anyone. I remember when I was a kid, there was a movie that everyone just had to go see, called Fantastic Voyage. There were no movies like that. They go in this cool submarine and they were miniaturised by this magic process and they were put into a hypodermic needle and then they stuck the needle into a patient and they travelled through the bloodstream. Then they had to travel up through the heart because they wanted to get up to the brain. Raquel Welch was in this skin tight scuba outfit, and this was an added bonus. I remember thinking, ‘This is the greatest motion picture ever made.’ That’s one of the reasons that you go to the movies. Another reason is to see a guy who quits his job and rides around the country on his motorcycle. Which one actually represents you? Probably the guy who quits his job and rides around on the motorcycle. Movies are glamorous things just because they make a movie out of them. The power of cinema is when you see a film and you see some aspect of yourself, and you wonder what you would do in that same circumstance. I see some aspect of human behaviour in these movies, and that is interesting. Also, I don’t have an intimidating persona…I look how I look, so I am limited in some ways as far as an actor goes. With the opportunity to play normal people who go through extraordinary things, that stuff happens every day. When you can find a movie that is able to capture it in a glamorous manner, then sign me up.”

Is there anything that you hope the audience can learn from the movie? “I think the lesson that people might learn from the film is to drive.”

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Sully is released in cinemas on September 8. Click through for our interview with the film’s director, Clint Eastwood.

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