Tom Hanks
Credit: Stephen Lovekin / Getty Images

In person Tom Hanks has the same boyish charm that makes him so likable on screen. When I meet him he does the rarest of things for a celebrity: He starts asking questions about me. "You wrote the book 'Black Hawk Down,' didn't you?" he asks. And then, with a familiar mischievous leer: "Did you feel me Googling you yesterday?" He rearranges the furniture so we can sit facing each other in overstuffed chairs, and launches eagerly into conversation. He has long been an A-list actor – he took on five roles in his computer-animated film, 'The Polar Express' – but in recent years some of his most significant work has been producing, and in some cases co-writing and directing, two highly praised HBO miniseries rooted in American history: 'From the Earth to the Moon' and 'Band of Brothers,' either one of which would crown a filmmaker's career. In many ways, Hanks is emerging as one of the premier popular historians in America. It turns out to be a role that suits him well.

Some of your best work – 'Apollo 13,' 'Saving Private Ryan,' the two HBO series you produced – suggests that two of your big interests, war and space exploration, haven't really changed since you were 10 years old.
Oh, I get it! He's just a big kid, right? Tom Hanks is like the character he played in the movie Big! [Laughs] Seriously, I would say my interest in the first case isn't so much in war as in history.

Have you always been a big history buff?

Where did that start?
Well, in all the schools I went to I was always fascinated by history, and it's never gone away.

But your interest in World War II and the '60s space program – where did those come from?
When I was growing up everybody in charge, my parents and teachers, had all survived the war, and they talked about the war like it was the Kraken – you know, this huge beast that roamed the earth during their formative years. My father was in the navy, and he served in the war as a machinist in the Pacific. He had a well-traveled sailor's locker full of stuff in the basement, and he always kept his dog tags on his key chain. There was a family legend that he had worked at one time on PT-109, and I asked him about it once and he said it was true. I was born in 1956, so by the time it was the early 1960s it was really only the 20th anniversary of the war. Everybody was still in their 40s. Younger than I am now. And it seemed as though they were very much aware that they were living in historic times. Things were happening that would have been impossible for their parents to imagine. Nobody had walked on the moon in the entire history of the world!

I was born in 1951, and I remember that World War II was all over movies and TV.
The movies we saw, 'Von Ryan's Express,' 'The Great Escape,' and things like that were really just action-adventure pieces, as opposed to dealing with the real themes of the war. Then you had shows like 'McHale's Navy.' I mean, really. 'McHale's Navy' was representative of what World War II was like? [Laughs] And, of course, 'Hogan's Heroes.'

There was 'Combat.'
'Combat' was a good show! But there were also shows like 'The Rat Patrol' and later 'Garrison's Gorillas.' It was all over the place. The war in these shows was nothing but a generic storytelling form.

And then it went away.
It disappeared. Much as the western did.

Why do you think that happened?
Well, I think it disappeared because it became common. The bad guys never changed. The motivations involved were never altered. It was always a ragtag band of independent, tough-minded Americans saving the day somehow. By the time the '70s came around, the people who were really altering the art form weren't dealing with history in this fashion.

The Vietnam War changed things, too.
Look, World War II covered the entire globe. It was important. But in Vietnam, why were we over there, exactly? Studs Terkel's book about World War II, 'The Good War,' is an incredibly accurate depiction of what the difference was. The world wasn't going to be saved in Vietnam. But the world was definitely going to be saved at the Battle of the Bulge and on Okinawa.

Perceptions of American soldiers changed, too. It's as though there was a course correction from the heroic John Wayne, all-American soldier, to My Lai. Soldiers were either portrayed as victims, back from war and crippled by the experience, or as mad baby killers.
It's all about your point of view. Anybody who went over to Vietnam is a hero in my eyes, just because they went. Because they were there. We heard terrible stories about Vietnam, but I talk to a lot of veterans, man, and they did terrible stuff in the European theater during World War II. They butchered all kinds of folks, and drank certainly as much as anybody smoked pot or did heroin in Vietnam. It comes down to what aspect of our national character was on display in those two wars. One thing that was amazing about World War II was that everybody signed up for the duration plus six months. Fliers got to leave combat after 25 missions, or 35 missions, but other than that, you were in it. You were part of the great effort, until, oh boy, six months after it was over.

You either won or you came home in a box.
A lot of these guys felt, If we don't do this, who's going to? So we have to go, because the world is actually at stake. The same kind of person could go to Vietnam and come back and say, "What was the point of what I just did?" Did you see 'The Fog of War,' by any chance?

There's an amazing scene when Robert McNamara recalls going to Hanoi in the mid-'90s and meeting with the former Vietnamese foreign minister, and this guy says, "Mr. McNamara, you must never have read a history book. If you had, you'd know we weren't pawns of the Russians or Chinese. Don't you understand that we have been fighting the Chinese for 1,000 years? We were fighting for our independence. And we would fight to the last man." That's an astounding thing.

That's a lesson we still haven't learned as a country.
No, we haven't.

We didn't learn it in Somalia, certainly. The forces there had no idea of the complexity of the situation, the unlikelihood of accomplishing what they were trying to do. And I have the same impression about what's going on now in Iraq.
It makes me wonder if we're playing into the same sort of mythmaking. Maybe a movie like 'Private Ryan' colors the idea that we can go into Somalia and fix things, or we can go into Iraq and fix things.

Since September 11, 2001, we've been through another wrenching change. We're all more conscious of the military for obvious reasons. But 'Saving Private Ryan' and your series 'Band of Brothers' predate 9/11.
The series premiered two days prior to September 11. And in fact we thought maybe we should just take it off the air and not even bother, because no one's going to be in the mood to see this stuff now. But it turned out to be a tonic in some ways. Which was very surprising.

The same was true with 'Black Hawk Down.' The discussions were, Do we hold this? And the decision was, No, put it out. And it worked. People had a real appetite to know more about the military.
And it was no longer about Steve McQueen jumping a motorcycle over the Swiss border.

Great movie, though.

How did you first get involved with 'Band of Brothers'?
Well, I had read Stephen Ambrose's book while I was researching 'Saving Private Ryan.' I had pored over his 'D-Day' already, and I read his 'Citizen Soldiers' afterward. I kind of went on a tear. I just read and read and read. And you end up being so fascinated by it. I can tell you that everybody on 'Saving Private Ryan,' particularly the cast, went through an emotional and physiological thing with that movie. It wasn't just like showing up and knocking it out. It changed our lives, and our perceptions of ourselves as men and as actors. So when it was done, I didn't want to leave it. There was still so much I wanted to talk about, and bring to light, and dramatize in some other fashion.

You probably learned a lot about the period from making 'Saving Private Ryan,' especially how to achieve that remarkable verisimilitude.
Yes, 'Private Ryan' was the template. But the thematic presentation was going to be brand-new. To have 10 hours to tell the story was a huge luxury. We could get into these other things, like the fact that most of the soldiers had never been away from home before, and how screwed up they were by some of it. That kind of thing breaks the stereotype of, They all came back heroes. They all came back wonderful. They all came home and were successes.

I don't know if you think of yourself in this way, but you are becoming one of the great popularizers of American history. The Carl Sagan of the American past! But you started out making frat house-humor movies and TV shows.
Well, yeah, 'Bachelor Party' and 'Bosom Buddies.' Those are the gigs I could get.

So is this a transformation in you? Or did you just get to the point where you now have the power to do what you really want to do?
I have some ability on TV to come up with ideas and get them on or shepherd them to conclusion. When I went to my crack staff of representatives with the idea for 'From the Earth to the Moon,' I asked, "Look, is this even something that anybody would be interested in?" And it was explained to me in no uncertain terms, "Because you're interested in it, they'll be interested in it." But I didn't specifically say, "I want to go off and fill this role as a history teacher." It's literally a wild burr up your ass about what you think is fascinating. And then you go off and infect a bunch of other people with the same wild burr until you have a team. And when you get together, the response is like, number one, "You never get to write about this stuff!" and number two, "Hey! They're lettin' us do it." Now Steven Spielberg and I have basically the same team working on a 10-part series for HBO about the war in the Pacific. I might direct one of those.

These ideas go way back then. It didn't just happen overnight.
Years prior to Apollo 13, my agent Richard Lovett asked, "What is it you want to do?" And I said, "There's one thing I know I don't want to do. I don't want to play pussies anymore." And I told him, "Someone should make a movie about Apollo 13, because no one remembers that it happened, and it's as powerful as anything the Greeks ever wrote. It's 'The Odyssey' all over again." And years later I'm off doing something, and he calls me up and he says, "You're not going to believe what I just read. A little script called 'Apollo 13.' "

Let me ask you about your new macho image then! You're one of our biggest male Hollywood stars, and you shape American men's idea of themselves.
[Laughs] I don't know how macho it is!

Maybe that's the wrong word. But what did you mean about not wanting to play pussies anymore?
There was this archetype in entertainment for a while of the pussy, the guy who gets into something and can't figure something out and yet still finds true love almost by accident. It was a plug-in for all sorts of movies and television shows. It had some success, and it just kind of fed on itself. And it worked for me for a while, because I could actually project some of myself into what the situation was. But after a while, look, you're just not 26 anymore, and by the time I got to the point where I had kids myself, and I got divorced, then fell in love with the love of my life, you get to the point where you say, "I don't want to play these pussies anymore. I can't relate to what they're going through." You know? The American male is like you and me. We always think, "Well, gee, if I were put to the test, what would I do?" That's the question that I ask with every job now, "What would I do in that circumstance?"