On Cloud Nine
When I meet Halle Berry and Tom Hanks in the Beverly Hilton in Beverly Hills, Los Angeles, the first thing that strikes me is the pair's obvious presence. Make no mistake about it, these are A-listers.
Hanks's booming voice commands immediate attention, yet he couldn't be warmer or friendlier.
"I'm gonna use the bathroom. Is there a restroom in here?" he announces to no one in particular as he strides in. "Who wants to come in here and get an exclusive? Anybody? Got your iPhones ready? Little something for iTunes? I'll be out in 45 minutes."
Berry is already seated and is giggling to herself. She looks as if she has been kept naturally smiling in his company all day.
She also looks at least a decade younger that her 46 years, so it is stretching the imagination to think of her playing a seventy-something-year-old Asian man next to Hanks's baddie in 'Cloud Atlas'.
Premiering this month at the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival, the film sees Hanks and Berry take on six roles each – including an Irish thug! – in a fascinating look at reincarnation, fate and how the smallest actions can have the biggest consequences.
A cursory flick through Hanks' CV shows that he has a range of characters under his belt, but what was it like playing so many in one film?
"It was magnificent and delicious fun, which is not a substitute for still being a well-rounded character," he says.
"The great thing about this is that we get to put on clothes and pretend to be people we're not. And we got to do that six times – and it was liberating fun every time."
But he adds: "The handicap was, for example, with Dermot Hoggins, the guy who wrote 'Knuckle Sandwich', I only got to work for two days – that was a part I would have loved to have six weeks in order to dig into."
The single scene involving Irish thug Hoggins easily shares the prize for the most shocking, most hilarious and most un-Tom-Hanks-like scene of the entire film.
"But we had to have a beginning, middle and end just in the course of two days of shooting. All that work for that make-up," Hanks shakes his head.
"I think I was in the make-up chair in tests and preparation longer than I actually shot the role."
In a quote that just begs to be pulled out of context, Hanks talks about having a big head.
"I think out of all the actors in it, I'm the most recognisable in all six incarnations because you can't change the shape of this head. My ears stick out a very certain way."
It has been said that Hanks is the James Stewart of this generation; talent-wise, affability-wise and now, that I look, looks-wise too. What does he make of the comparison?
"I'll take it. That's fine by me," he snorts. "My countenance is what it is. The fact is, James Stewart is one of the finest actors that ever worked in motion pictures, so I'll be happy to carry his luggage."
Clearly Hanks and Berry are the biggest names in the film. What attracted them to the project? "It was just the bodaciousness of what they were trying to do; it was the biggest thing imaginable," Hanks replies.
"They had to explain it to us. A lot of the time, screenplays speak for themselves."
"The script came with a cheat sheet," Berry adds, "like a very dense, maybe 10-page cheat sheet that would help you get through the script with all the characters and who would play who, so you could keep it organised in your mind as you read it.
"As long as you followed and got thr-ough the first 25 pages, like the movie, it all started to crystallise and come together. But, at first, it was like nothing I ever read before, ever. I didn't quite get it at first, but I knew I wanted to be part of it."
"We all figured it out constantly as we went along," Berry continues. "While Tom [Tykwer], Lana and Andy [Wachowski, the three directors] had it in their minds, we sort of had to catch up to it and understand it little by little; that was also the fun of it, always rediscovering what we had before us."
For Hanks, the learning process continued even upon watching the film.
"I've seen the movie three times now and I have seen more and more stuff that I have missed every time. And some of itis really quite profound," he says.
"First of all, before the credits even come up, Jim Broadbent as Timothy Cavendish explains the movie completely: 'As loath as I am to jump around in flashbacks and flashforwards and all that kind of jumping through time and space blah blah blah...' Well, he just explained the entire movie. He laid down the rules. And I missed that the first two times I saw the movie."
"The connections [between the different characters] are magnificent and they are cosmic, and I have to say that I knew a fraction of them at the time we made the movie; the bosses knew them all."
Hanks continues: "This is what David Mitchell [author of 'Cloud Atlas', on which the film is based] and the bosses are going for, this idea that we are making decisions right now – today, in fact – that can have important consequences 1,000 years from now. This is what human history is all about.
"I did walk away from this film with a new vocabulary. It is actually soothing to me. 'Hey what does it matter? the universe is indifferent' – true, but if you make the right decision right now, 1,000 years from now people will benefit from the act of kindness or the act of love or the act of inclusion that you make. Powerful stuff. And we all have it."
Earlier in the day, the 'Cloud Atlas' directorial trio of Tom Tykwer and Andy and Lana Wachowski caused surprise by revealing that some big names had been "too scared" of the project to take part.
"How did you feel when you heard that many other actors had said no because of the challenges of the financing?"
A half a second silence before in unison, Hanks: "Did they?" Berry: "Who said no?"
Also in unison, the two megastars seem to have jumped to the conclusion that we were asking how they felt about not being first choice.
"Really? Lucky us," Hanks says almost defensively, and turns to Berry. "Glad they did."
Among Berry's multiple and often unrecognisable roles are an Asian man, a female Maori slave and a white German woman.
How did she feel portraying another race?
"Race and gender. I've never done either one of those things," she says.
"To be a white German woman in the 1930s, I kinda knew that when this was happening, it was a unique opportunity for me to be in that skin and experiment what that would be like. It's not as if it's so foreign to me – my mother was a white woman and I grew up with [her], so it's not as if it's not in me.
"I had moments where I thought deeply about it, and I thought about the oppression of black people and the journey we've taken; those moments reverberated in my mind when I was in those scenes. It was a dialogue that Tom and I had all the time. "It was a good experience, I really enjoyed it."
And what about perennial nice guy Hanks? What was it like to play some bad guys?
"It is fun to play someone as angry or as venal or grotesque as Dr Goose and Dermot Hoggins are," says Hanks, "but what I like better is what the karma does. Dermot Hoggins takes place today, it's 2012. And he is the epitome of the worthless celebrity.
"You know, someone who does something despicable and because of that becomes famous and rich. It's a magnificent comment on our time. There's a lot of people like that – that's where we are right now as an entertainment medium. That guy right now, if he wasn't in jail, Dermot Hoggins would have his own programme on A&E."
"And he would have a sex tape," Berry giggles.
"He would have a sex tape! He'd be selling and making a bunch of money off it!
'Oi!'" Hanks shouts, adopting a comedy cockney accent, "'Check out me sex tape, you won't believe wot I did in it!'"