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Tom Hanks speaks at Oxford Union

Speaking on Friday night before a full chamber at the Oxford Union, Tom Hanks discussed the importance of empathy in acting, his experience working with great directors like Steven Spielberg, and the rise of streaming services. 

Tom Hanks began his speech by conducting an impromptu acting exercise with the audience. He asked the members in the chamber to pronounce the words “is there something I can do for you?” as they would in three different contexts: To an elderly person who had tripped on the street, to someone asking for assistance at the bank, and to a customer they suspected of shoplifting in their store. After running through the three scenarios, Hanks instructed the audience to say “It’s all right, I’m okay,” imagining they were the second person in each of the interactions.

The purpose of the exercise, according to Hanks, was to bring out the different connotations the same line of dialogue can have depending on context and delivery. Hanks told the audience that this ability to tease out nuances in dialogue and to empathise with characters was crucial for good acting and storytelling.

Around this point in the speech, Emma Watson – who recently matriculated as a master’s student at the University – started to leave the chamber from her seat in the front row. Tom Hanks addressed her as she neared the door, telling the audience how much he had enjoyed working with her on their 2017 film “The Circle.” Before leaving, she complimented Hanks in return: “There are very few people you get to work with that are actually as kind as they seem, and Tom is one of them.”

Transitioning to the Q&A portion of the event, Union President Disha Hegde asked the Academy Award-winning actor what he thought of the aphorism “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” Hanks said he disagreed with the sentiment and that “no one who is a shitty actor ends up being in a movie just because they know someone who got them the job.” He continued, telling the audience: “If they’re not any good it’s as simple as that.” 

He qualified his position by stating that often a stellar reputation will help with landing roles, but he emphasised that to acquire this reputation, “you have to be great…and you have to have proven yourself.”

Hegde then asked Tom Hanks what it was like working with director Steven Spielberg. Hanks told the audience that sometimes “Steven does all your work for you.” But occasionally, “Steven says ‘guys, you have to be good tonight because I have no idea how I’m gonna shoot this scene.’” 

Hanks stressed that regardless of the filming circumstances, it was essential for actors to be prepared with their lines: “There is no substitute for showing up on time, knowing the task at hand, and having an idea that you yourself came up with.”

On the question of media streaming services and their effect on cinema, Hanks stated: “The only thing that matters and the only thing that ever will matter is the story.

“You just have to tell a story that is so good that people are going to hear about it and want to see it.”

According to Hanks, streaming services like Netflix and Hulu – with their vast array of options and low level of required commitment – introduced so much flexibility in film that they became “a test of how good the story [of a film] is.” 

Hanks then addressed the trope that “there are no good films like The Godfather being made nowadays,” insisting that “there are all kinds of great movies out there. There’s just so much.”

The audience portion of the Q&A began with a Tom Hanks fan asking about the process of writing his short story collection, “Uncommon Type.” Hanks touched on the liberating and challenging aspects of writing before sharing techniques he had begun to use to write more effectively. He told the audience that now whenever he wrote, he set a timer for twenty-five minute intervals to ensure he had sufficiently many breaks.

Another audience member asked Hanks which of his characters’ predicaments he would have least liked to have been in. Apparently unable to decipher the member’s Bristol accent, Hanks asked him to repeat the question several times. Eventually, he turned to the Union President for a translation before playfully mocking the student’s accent.

Hanks then told the audience about the trials and tribulations of Captain Sully, the US Airways pilot who in 2009 successfully landed an Airbus A320 on the Hudson River. He also touched on his meeting with Sully, where the two went over the script for the 2016 film in which Hanks played the eponymous pilot. He told the audience that “compared to [Sully], [he was] a pussy,” which elicited laughter in the chamber.

The final audience question came from a Union ex-president. She informed Hanks that her son worked in the film industry as a score producer before asking Hanks about the importance of music in film. Hanks said that a film’s score carried enormous weight and that “a bad score is the easiest way to ruin a film.” He called film one of the most intricate and complex art forms and emphasised the vast network of artists, actors, musicians, and prop specialists who all must be “at the top of their game” for a film to be successful. 

Hanks finished his address by echoing his remark on the importance of being prepared and working hard: “There is no substitute for showing up on time, knowing the task at hand, and having an idea.”

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