Tom Hanks, Paul Newman, Jude Law, and director Sam Mendes all share something in common.
No, it's not just the new movie, "Road to Perdition," but that they all wanted a change.
Mr. Hanks takes on his first nonheroic role as a hit man called the Angel of Death, no less. Definitely a change of pace. Mr. Newman, who had all but resigned from films, is back, also in an unsympathetic role. Mr. Law, known for his stunning good looks, buries them in his portrayal of a photographer who is also a gangster.
And, finally, British director Sam Mendes, after winning an Academy Award for his first movie, "American Beauty," got his wish for something other than a darkly ironic take on contemporary suburbia.
Not that the Depression-era drama is cheerful by any means.
Based on the graphic novel by Max Allan Collins, "Perdition" chronicles a father's desperate effort to save his son after the boy witnesses a mob hit. The situation is complicated by the fact that the hit man in question is dear old dad (Hanks).
Hank's involvement came courtesy of Steven Spielberg, who asked him: "Are you serious about playing a role that is different from anything you have ever done before?"
The two-time Academy Award-winner was at a place in his career where, to quote him, "I needed a challenge."
So Spielberg sent over the script. It didn't take long for Hanks to read it and love it. He says it was just what he was searching for.
Mendes was eager to find the right property and had waited almost two years, sifting through offers. The director said he didn't want a copycat of "American Beauty," and "Road to Perdition" was light-years different.
Hanks met with Mendes, and they found they were in sync. Hanks had to gain weight, grow a moustache to look menacing, and learn how to handle the 1931 machine guns.
They still had a major problem. Who could play the Irish gangster boss who saw Hanks as his "adopted" son?
"There is only one person I would consider: Paul Newman," says producer Richard Zanuck. The big question was: Could Mr. Zanuck get him? Zanuck had produced six films with Newman, but not recently. He sent him the script. Newman liked it. Newman met with Mendes, and says it was evident the young director knew what he was talking about. "I thought it was a perfect role," Newman says, "just the right size for an actor my age."
"I could see that things were falling into place, and I began to breathe easier," Mendes says. "There was only one hitch: Who would play the photographer hit man? I thought of Jude Law."
There were a few problems. He was too young, far too handsome, and he was English. "It would be a challenge, but he could be made to look older and seedier," Mendes explains. "I didn't worry about his not being an American, for I was sure that he could do the Chicago 1931 accent...."
Law recalls, "It was exactly what I had been searching for. I told them to give me the role, and I'd do the rest."
The makeup department went to work, making his skin look dry and sallow. They lowered Law's gum line and then gave his teeth a rotting look. Hair stylist Kathryn Blondell made Law seem older by thinning his hair. She even used jeweler's tweezers in certain areas, to make him look as if he were balding.
The hair and makeup transformed the look of the actors, but so did the period clothes. "One reason we all look larger was the suits," says Hanks. "They were oppressively heavy." The costume designer, Oscar-winner Albert Wolsky, strove for period accuracy. After searching for a long time, he finally found a designer on the East Coast who knew how to weave the heavy cloth used in 1931.
Someone once said that Hanks is so nice that even if he played a serial killer, he'd still be the most likable serial killer in the world. The time has come to test that notion. "I'm told there is always a 'Tom Hanks' moment in my pictures," says Hanks, "when a certain nice quality shines through. I don't have one in 'Road to Perdition.' "
"You wouldn't say [my family's] house was a bright and cheery one. Except for the youngest son, everyone else is afraid to ask any questions. There are just too many things my character will not talk about," he says.
Newman's character, Rooney, on the other hand, is dealing with a different set of family problems: "My son is angling to take over the family business." He is torn by having to issue a hit on his "adopted" grandchildren to protect his business interests. "My character is like a grandfather to Hanks' sons," he says. "But the business doesn't enter into the relationship. Later, we see that I have my own group of devils to deal with."
In learning about how his character wrestles with evil, Hanks recalls: "That verse from Bible kept going through my mind: 'He who sows the wind shall reap the whirlwind.'"