It’s been over a year since Sean McGinly’s The Great Buck Howard premiered in Salt Lake City as part of the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, but it’s been a lot longer since McGinly first wrote the script based on his own experiences working for a mentalist, The Amazing Kreskin, and tried to get the film made.
The film’s savior came with the first actor McGinly approached, Colin Hanks, who was interested in playing the role of Troy Gable, a disgruntled law student who leaves school to become a writer, getting a job as the road manager for a famed mentalist touring small towns across the country. It’s a touching comedy that will probably be remembered mainly for John Malkovich’s performance as the flamboyant entertainer of the title and his larger than life stage persona, but one has to give huge credit to Hanks for seeing the potential in McGinly’s story and getting the script to his father’s production company Playtone and getting the movie made.
Last week, ComingSoon.net had a chance to get on the phone with Colin Hanks to talk about the movie he was instrumental in getting made, and we weren’t too surprised when he turned out to be a nice guy, much like the characters he plays. (And yes, we did talk a little about his famous father, who makes an appearance in the movie, but only a little bit.)
ComingSoon.net: I saw the movie at Sundance and it was one of my favorite movies that year. It’s a really special film and I hope people see it.
Colin Hanks: Thank you man. I’m really proud of this thing so it’s great that we’re finally at the stage where it’s finally coming out.
CS: When I spoke to Sean McGinly, he mentioned you were instrumental in getting his script to Playtone and ultimately getting it made, and that’s really everything. Did you get the script through traditional means, like via your agent?
Hanks: Yeah, I had just come back from London where I was doing a play and I was “script-bombed” by my agents. They send you like ten scripts and they say, “Hey, read these” and you’re like, “I just got back from outta the country, I’m kinda busy.” But my agent was very keen on me reading this script because it was really good. So I read it and absolutely fell in love with it and met with Sean and we sort of hit it off kinda right away. That sorta started this very long journey of trying to get the film made. Obviously, people are going to think that it was all sort of very organized, that me and my Dad were sort of like “Mwahahahahahahaha,” but it really couldn’t be further from the truth. We spent a lot of time trying to secure financing and all that stuff. It was difficult because we hadn’t yet found a Buck. We were working with our agents trying to find a Buck and the business of going through the trials and tribulations of trying to get a movie greenlit. Someone had suggested Playtone and I said, “Well, okay, look, I’m not necessarily 100 percent comfortable with that, but what I am comfortable with is we can send it to them and ask them for their opinion, what they think, give us any pointers and maybe point us in a direction of some financiers that might be interested in doing this.”
CS: Do you get a lot of scripts like this which don’t already have financing in place?
Hanks: Oh God, yes. All the time. So we sent it to Playtone in that capacity. I was very clear with Sean, I said, “Look, this is not necessarily something I’m looking to do, but I trust everyone over there and I think they’ll give us some good advice.” What ended up happening is, they ended up really liking it, which I was very happy about, and they ended up liking it so much that they ended up wanting to make it which sorta came as a shock to me and then it sorta took on a life of its own from there. It wasn’t all peaches and cream from that point on; it still took another two or three years to get it made, but yeah, it sorta had been a long journey from when I first met Sean back in 2003.
CS: When you showed it to Playtone, did you say, “Listen, if we make this I have to be Troy?” Was that always known ahead of time?
Hanks: Well, no because that was already a given. “Look, here’s the thing that I’m going to play. I’m not asking you guys to make this for me, but here’s this thing that I’m attached to. Any advice or any tips that you guys have would be greatly appreciated.” That was really the sorta gist of it and then they ended up liking the piece so much on the whole that they said, “Hey, we’d like to make this,” and that sorta went from there. What’s interesting is, everyone that was involved from Malkovich to Blunt to Steve Zahn and everybody, they all sorta said the same thing which was, “Well, the story’s just so good that we want to do this.”
CS: It is a great story, and I’m sure Sean’s script was amazing. As much as it’s Troy’s story and Troy’s journey, it seems like the character can definitely get overshadowed by the person playing Buck. Did you realize that going into this?
Hanks: I have no problem with that. I don’t care. I mean, the movie’s called “The Great Buck Howard” so I hold no illusions about that. I’m not in this for ego at all. I just want to make good movies and I thought that this was a solid movie that had some really interesting characters that from beginning to end was kind of an entertaining, delightful, little piece of entertainment.
CS: When I talked to Sean, and he might’ve just been saying this, but he said he always thought of you for the role of Troy. Was that something that interested you in playing the part?
Hanks: Well, I mean, that’s flattering. It’s always nice to hear that. That would explain why he came to me first.
CS: Exactly, there you go. I guess he was lucky he got you then.
Hanks: That does not happen very often. (Laughs)
CS: You’ve been around show business your entire life I’d imagine, have you met any old entertainers that have been involved in that kind of Vegas vaudeville circuit?
Hanks: Yeah, a little bit here and there. I’m 31-years-old, so I’ve sort of been around from the beginning in terms of my dad’s career and all that sorta stuff. I have good memories of him getting his first real suit for the Johnny Carson show and stuff like that. Out in L.A. it’s all still there, so all those people are still out there doing that kinda stuff, trying to keep their career going.
CS: Were you familiar with the whole mentalism and magic aspect of the business?
Hanks: There was that element that was sort of new. I mean, obviously I’d seen like, hypnotists and stuff at like Magic Mountain or state fairs and stuff like that growing up, so I was familiar with that sort of stuff. I wasn’t familiar with the differences between mentalism and magic and tricks; that all came once we started meeting, Sean and I, early on in the casting stage of the film, we met with Ricky Jay. He had really wanted to talk with Sean because Sean had written this very funny and engaging thing that involved mentalism, and as Ricky is the foremost master on all things magic and mental, I guess you could say. We had a very delightful meeting with him just sort of talking about it. We just really wanted to talk with him about it we sort of came up with this hairbrained idea of, “Well, it would be really cool if we put Ricky in here as like the manager instead of having this like smarmy old time manager.” I thought it would be cool to have Ricky in there and he’s also a really great actor and a very funny guy, too. There was one afternoon where Sean and myself, we went over to Ricky’s house and he showed us a bunch of stuff, old posters and this that and the other thing. That was kind of cool, so I ended up learning a lot more about it once we started making the movie.
CS: And you were involved in the entire casting along the way when they got Malkovich and Emily Blunt on board?
Hanks: Sean was very cool and he sort of involved me in that sort of stuff and always asked my opinion. There was this big question of who our Buck was gonna be, which really, I didn’t have that much say in that, but he was always just floating names and I’d say, “Oh, that’d be a good idea,” or whatever. Really, the only time I was ever really super involved was dealing with finding our Valerie. I was in on all the readings and we got so unbelievably lucky landing Emily, because it’s a very tricky role. It’s only one act of a three-act movie and it’s a very limited amount of time to make an impression, but we also needed someone that has shown… you need to have chemistry with somebody. So I sort of had that awkward job of reading with every actress in Hollywood.
CS: It’s great that you could be involved, since with independent movies, I’d imagine that most of them don’t have that luxury and are casting roles without seeing if the actors work together.
Hanks: Listen, Emily’s so damn good and such a delight to work with it was almost effortless. There was very little work involved.
CS: I’m sure that playing the role of a publicist must not have been a huge stretch, because in your line of work, you’re probably working with publicists all the time…
Hanks: For me?
CS: Well, I meant for Emily but sure, we can talk about you, too.
Hanks: No, no, no we can talk about Emily. I’m all for talking about other people.
CS: We’ll get back to you because I wanted to ask you about that, too, but playing a publicist must have been easy since they’re definitely somewhat of an archetype in this business.
Hanks: Well, it’s all about setting up dynamics and tension and their relationship at that stage between Troy and Buck. Troy’s over the gig, but for some reason, he can’t quite break free of the minutia of Buck’s life, which gets more and more frustrating every day, but Troy’s the only one that seems to handle it. Troy knows what the score is in terms of Buck and his career, but we needed another character to come in and really sort of give this stark contrast of what the delusion is that Buck has in his mind of what he’s going to be able to do. In fact, he hires a big time publicist who then doesn’t even show up. (laughs) (He) sends an underling that doesn’t necessarily want to be there and doesn’t really want to do that, but still has to grin it and bear it and do it. It was a cool sort of dynamic and I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I’ve had a lot of publicists come up and say, “I’ve been there, I’ve had to do that.” And you instantly say, “Well, you better not be talking about me.”
CS: Yeah, I’ve seen that all the time both with publicists who love whatever they’re doing and those who have to work on things just because it’s their job. Now, I want to ask about you. Playing someone’s personal assistant, have you ever had anyone you could draw from for that character?
Hanks: Not really. I mean, that really sorta all came from Sean, you know what I mean? We obviously embellished it quite a bit, but this is all based on Sean’s actual experience with working with somebody, so I just sorta went off that. I didn’t have to sort of draw from my grab bag of history to do that, it was inherent. Look, everyone’s had jobs that they don’t like that they have to sorta grin and bear it through and I’m no exception, you just sorta try and do it. It was funny, I was just talking about this with Sean the other day, the thing that’s kind of interesting about Buck is that he’s sort of an ***hole and whatever, he’s sort of full of himself and annoying, but the same day he’s a glamorous train wreck, but at the same time it’s sort of fun to stick around those people just for your own sheer amusement. I don’t think obviously that Troy sticks around for his own amusement, but I think that sometimes he can’t help but be amused by some of the things that he says.
CS: I’m sure everyone you’ve talked to has asked about your Dad. As an actor, like other actors related to other famous actors, you’d probably want to disconnect yourself from that, but you can’t really do that with this movie, since your real Dad plays your character’s father in this movie, too.
Hanks: Yeah, I’m a little bit of a glutton for punishment at this point.
CS: He was obviously interested in playing that part, so was that role just open for a long time and he decided to do it?
Hanks: No, they liked it so much–and when I say “they” I mean Playtone, being my Dad and Gary Goetzman–they liked it so much and my Dad just sorta said, “Oh, hey, I want to do this. We think this is really good, it’s a great story, and I kinda want to be the Dad,” and I just sorta went, “Okay.” I mean, I’m no fool, if someone like him wants to be in your movie say “Yes.” It’s only gonna make those scenes that much better. So that was one of those things where I just said, “Hey, for the good of the film that’s fantastic. That would be great.” I knew that eventually that would come up and all that stuff, but at the end of the day, it’s not really something I spend a lot of time thinking about. It’s not really that big of an issue for me. It’s only when it’s constantly brought up all the time that it’s then sort of like, “Okay, yes. I understand.” I understand that it’s a big deal and to be honest, for me, I just wanted to make sure that we had such quality control over it. I really wanted to try and keep it as secret as we could for as long as we could and try and make it kind of a special thing. It was supposed to be a surprise, but unfortunately once they announced it as he was presenting at the Golden Globes, they sorta went, “Oh, well, that’s not gonna be a surprise anymore.”
CS: I remember at Sundance, it was a surprise. I didn’t see it at Salt Lake City, but I went to the next public screening without knowing anything at all and it was definitely a surprise.
Hanks: You always want that. Look, I find that it’s best if there’s a surprise and I sorta felt like, if we were finally gonna do that… because people had been asking me if we were going to work together since I started and it would be kinda cool to do that, but unfortunately it didn’t really work out that way. He really wanted to do it and I just said, “Okay, great.” It ended up being really fun and I’m glad that it’s for a movie that I’m really proud of and I’m glad that it’s not really the whole movie, that it’s just one small aspect of this story and it was actually quite a really fun experience and I’m glad that we did it.
CS: Do you generally try to make unconventional choices as far as roles? You’ve done a number of studio movies, but you’ve also done a few quirky indies in recent years. Are those things you try to seek out?
Hanks: There’s always just what’s available to me and obviously there’s a limited amount of stuff that’s available to me that I can sort of not necessarily choose from, but can choose to go after. For me, after I did “Orange County” I sort of felt like I had done enough movies about that kind of thing and wanted to just do some different kind of stuff, work with some fun people that were interesting and when you read stuff that’s cool like “11:14” or things like that, you just sorta say, “Oh, this would be a fun thing to do.” So for me it’s always just trying to keep it fresh and interesting and I try and make movies that I would want to see and sometimes you succeed and sometimes you fail and I’ve been lucky in that I’ve been able to sort of keep things interesting for me. I might not have been as consistent in being sort of visible or in big studio movies, but at least I’ve been able to keep things interesting for me, which I think is kind of at the end of the day a very important aspect for myself because I end up having to work on these things and spend too much doing it and so I want to be interested in doing it. I don’t want to just sit there and sort of phone things in just because it seems like the right decision.
CS: It definitely seemed like there was a bit of a gap after you appeared in “Orange County.” Were you just working on getting a lot of these other indies developed?
Hanks: I’ve always said that “Orange County” was my best attempt at that kind of movie in terms of… it wasn’t necessarily a movie about being invited to the dance or getting the girl or those things, but at that point I was just sort of like, “I’m not going to do a better version of this movie, but of course I’m gonna be asked to do a bunch of lighter Xeroxed versions of that.” I’d much rather not do that, I’d much rather try and do some other stuff. So, I was able to forage some stuff, I was able to keep pretty busy, but there are a lot of things that need to happen and the independent film world is not as nearly easy as it sounds. I was busy, but the stuff didn’t seem to make it out as much as I was working and so there’s sort of a little drop-off there which is unfortunate. Some of the movies I think didn’t resonate for a reason and then some of them I don’t quite understand. I’ve had a lot of people tell me that “11:14” is an extremely enjoyable movie that they like a lot. You make a movie and they exist and the audience will find it eventually, it just sort of takes time but it’s sort of like the beginning of the shift of the entertainment industry now because there are not nearly as many studio movies as there were when I first started.
CS: I guess you’ve been doing quite a bit of stagework. You’re on Broadway now with Jane Fonda. Did that just open?
Hanks: It opened on Monday. It’s been sort of a crazy whirlwind week for me.
CS: How’s that going? Have you done a lot of stuff on Broadway before?
Hanks: No this is my first one on Broadway, my Broadway debut, so yeah, Broadway’s a new different thing for me, but it’s fantastic. I mean, I’ve really had a fun time and once again, it’s really quite a bit of fun for me as an actor to really be able focus on one thing and try to perfect it over time and getting to do it eight shows a week. It’s really quite exhilarating and to do it with someone like Jane Fonda. I mean geez, you don’t get many opportunities to work with extremely talented people.
CS: She hasn’t done a lot of stagework in a long time either.
Hanks: So there’s some inherent curiosity about the piece anyways and Moises Kaufman is an amazing writer. I’ve been really lucky in that I’ve been able to sort of do a lot of different stuff and been able to pepper in some things here and there, been able to do some cool Broadway stuff, really small independent stuff and then also doing a movie like “King Kong” and stuff like that. So I’ve been able to really sort of keep myself interested and keep working on all kinds of (stuff that’s) under the radar, you know what I mean? I came up in an age where it was a young actor factory. They were just plucking them out of obscurity and trying to make them as big and as huge as they possibly can.
CS: It’s still like that.
Hanks: Look, it will always be like that and that’s the way it is, but I’ve been lucky in that I’ve been able to–without being stupid and using a sports analogy–but keep my batting average okay, not too great and not too low because I plan on doing this for a long time so I don’t want to peak too soon, so I’ve been able to just constantly do better and do things that make me a better actor and keep the senses sharp in a way and there’s nothing like doing a play on Broadway, keep your chops up, you know?
CS: I wanted to ask about “Mad Men” since that’s one thing you did last year that got a lot of attention, even as the show found a much bigger audience. Is that something you might return to down the road?
Hanks: Matt Weiner sorta keeps his cards close to his chest over there at that show and they like to keep things under wraps. I don’t know to be honest.
CS: It became a sort of recurring role as you appeared in three or four episodes. If they wanted to bring the character back, would they just have to see if you’re available and work from there?
Hanks: Yeah, I mean, we’ll see. I’m prepared for that not to happen because I sort of feel like we resolved that conflict between Peggy and Father Gill, but if something else comes up, by all means I’ll leap at the opportunity because it’s so much fun.
CS: It looks like that would be a fun show to make, everyone dressing and acting like it’s the ’60s. Before we wrap up, is it true that you’re making a documentary about Tower Records?
Hanks: Yeah, that’s true, still working on it.
CS: I’m really fascinated by that, because whenever I came into New York City when I was younger, Tower Records was absolutely the one place I always had to visit. It really was an institution for many years. What kind of research are you doing and will you be talking to a lot of those involved in the early days of the company?
Hanks: Yeah, it’s been a long process and will continue to be a long process for quite some time, but I grew up in Sacramento. Tower Records, the history of it, not only the demise of the company I think is interesting on numerous levels, but growing up in Sacramento, Tower was such a fixture in the community because Russ Solomon, the founder started selling records out of his dad’s drug store in the ’40s. So you can’t really get more American than that, the fact that it kept going from there and I just find it has a really interesting history.
CS: That sounds very cool, and I hope that once it’s done we’ll see that movie do the film festival circuit.
Hanks: Me too. I think it’s an interesting history from beginning to end and I just hope that we’re able to make it.
The Great Buck Howard opens in select cities on Friday. Check back later this week for our interview with filmmaker Sean McGinly.