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Tom Hanks a stickler, but barely a smoker, as Walt Disney

Though he was reluctant play another historical figure Tom Hanks says he was drawn Walt Disney role “Saving Mr. Banks”

Though he was reluctant to play another historical figure, Tom Hanks says he was drawn to Walt Disney role in “Saving Mr. Banks” when he saw it was about “this odd creative process.” | FranCois Duhamel/DISNEY

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Updated: January 12, 2014 6:29AM

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — He’s been astronaut Jim Lovell, Rep. Charlie Wilson and Capt. Richard Phillips, and Tom Hanks again delves into playing a historical figure in “Saving Mr. Banks,” opening Friday.

He portrays the iconic Walt Disney as the entertainment mogul works to convince a seemingly intractable P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) that she should allow him to turn her Mary Poppins stories into a feature film.

The actor and producer talked about the challenges of playing Disney and what lured him to do it.

Q. What were your first thoughts when offered the role?

A. I thought, “Oh, hell!” After all, the responsibilities, the burden of playing someone so well known — who needs that pressure? … I know I’ve made playing real people into a cottage industry. So I was thinking, “Please, can I play a fake guy today?”

But once I decided to consider it, it became a question of: What Walt Disney are we going to see here? But then I read the screenplay, and honestly, you can tell you want to do a movie about 12 pages in. Because it was about this odd creative process, and Walt was at the top of his game, already the Disneyland guy, already building Disney World — I got hooked.

Besides, it’s really Emma’s movie and I knew we’d have a ball working together.

Q. Were you ever worried about audiences just seeing Tom Hanks, and not Walt Disney?

A. That was a concern. The studio people said we want someone recognizable like you to play someone recognizable like Walt Disney. I said, “Is that a good thing? I’m not so sure that’s a good thing?” Then I found out Paul Giamatti was in it, I said to him, “Why don’t YOU play Walt?!”

Q. As you got into this, what did you come to think about Travers being so reluctant to let Disney turn her Mary Poppins character into a film?

A. Look, I understand it. There are plenty of people out there who see no reason to see their hard work of creating a piece of literature turned into movies, and on top of that Travers hated movies, she hated Walt Disney, she hated animation, she hated this art form. She had this very specific idea of who Mary Poppins was. The truth is, in the final analysis — she needed the money!

I once asked the writer Elmore Leonard, who has had a number of his books turned into films, what he thought of those movies. He told, “It is so hard to make a movie, if they actually get it done, I just say ‘God bless ’em!’ ’’

Q. What did you come to learn about Walt Disney?

A. How much of a stickler he was for details and for keeping the promise of fantasy and whimsy alive. He truly believed that anything having his imprint on it HAD to be absolutely, heartbreakingly special. For example, to the end of his life, he never was satisfied with “Cinderella,” because he thought the characters were not drawn with the same panache of the earlier Disney characters and as a result he always downplayed any discussion of that film and those characters — despite that financial success.

But don’t get me wrong. He was a very pragmatic businessman. It’s just that he poured all his money into his dreams — and he had the knack to make those dreams, America’s and the world’s dreams.

Walt Disney always had a pen in either hand. One was to draw the cartoons and be creative. The other was to sign the payroll checks and make those dreams a reality.

Q. Walt Disney died of lung cancer and was known to be a big cigarette smoker. We don’t see him smoking in the film. Obviously, that was a decided for some reason?

A. If we smoked cigarettes in this movie about Walt Disney making “Mary Poppins,” it would be rated R. That’s just the way it works. You couldn’t believe the negotiations. It came down to us not being able to light a cigarette or inhale a cigarette. You do see that one big scene where Emma as Travers storms into my office and you see me putting out a cigarette in the ashtray on Walt’s desk. I did always have a pack of cigarettes in my shirt pocket and sometimes I was playing around with them and a cigarette lighter here and there, but I never could smoke one.

The man smoked three packs of cigarettes a day. People who knew Walt say that you could always hear him coming down the hall, because you’d hear him coughing from smoking all those cigarettes.

Q. There’s a rumor circulating that the real reason you took the role was that on top of everything else, if you played Walt Disney. you were promised an all-access Disneyland park entrance passport for life.

A. I’ll blow that right out of the water. I’ll let you in on a little secret. I already have one. I’m going to tell you why. It’s because of a little thing I did called Woody. A little something called ‘Toy Story’ — one, two and three!

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