NEWSWEEK - Dec. 23 issue



Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg, and Leonardo Dicaprio
sit down for a chat with Jeff Giles

by Jeff Giles


This Christmas, as has become the custom, we will receive a great many movies, not all of them presents. Steven Spielberg, fortunately, comes bearing 'Catch Me If You Can', a surprisingly touching chase movie set in the sunny early 60s and inspired by the real-life adventures of one Frank Abagnale Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio), who forged millions of dollars worth of phony checks and passed himself off as a Pan Am pilot, a doctor and a lawyer. Abagnale did all this while still in his teens. Which is to say: he was a con man before he was even a man.
IN 'CATCH ME', Frank is driven by two impulses that are so quixotic they're moving: he's desperate to impress his charming, dead-broke dad (Christopher Walken) and to undo, somehow, his parents' traumatizing divorce. As the movie unfolds, Frank chases stewardesses and nurses while a lonely, mostly competent FBI agent named Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks) chases him. On a recent Friday afternoon, Spielberg, Hanks and DiCaprio met in a Manhattan hotel suite to talk about a life in movies and a life in crime.


It's nice to meet you guys, but I always feel guilty when actors are imprisoned in a hotel and forced to talk to the press all day.

Tom Hanks: We're in a minimum-security prison, at least. We can roam the halls, but we're not allowed to leave.

Steven Spielberg: We can smoke in our bunks, too. [ To DiCaprio ] You need a cigarette?

Leonardo DiCaprio: No, I'm cool.
Spielberg: Been smoking a lot today?
DiCaprio: A little bit.
Spielberg: How many?
DiCaprio: Five or 10.
Spielberg [ Laughs ]: Five or 10? There's a big difference between five and 10.

Steven, when you were deciding whether to direct 'Catch Me If You Can', your family and their friends performed the script for you.

Spielberg: It was, like, nine people and it was possibly one of the worst reads ever. Except for my wife and my daughter, no one was an actor. And yet they read sincerely, and I couldn't wait to hear what was going to happen next, even though I had already read the script about 10 times. I stood up and I said, 'Thank you all. This is the reason I'm going to say yes.'

What was the real Frank Abagnale's state of mind like when he was on the road pulling off all these wild cons?

Spielberg: Frank was so lonely after running away from home, even though he was living the high life, that he would go home to his motel room and just lie in bed, stare at the ceiling and think about his mom and dad and cry. He told us that. And that made me think that there had to be a little more sensitivity in the way we treated the why of his flimflams. The image of him in his motel was always in my mind.

There's a touching scene where Frank's parents are dancing, and Frank is watching in awe. It's rare to see a movie where a teenager actually admires his folks.

DiCaprio: He had this idyllic image of his family. And [when his parents got divorced] he was faced, at the early age of 16, with having to choose between his mother and his father. That really propelled him out into the real world. From what I understood, he had no one to answer to morally at that point. I think he also saw the banks and the IRS systematically break down his father's spirit. It's like a revenge story in a lot of ways. He went out to attack the big corporations, and tried to piece his home life and his father's spirit back together.

Steven, people have always talked about how your parents? divorce has echoed through your movies. You could even make the case that dinosaurs and sharks are metaphors for the threat to the family, but that'd be nuts, right?

Spielberg [ Laughs ]: Yeah, I wouldn't go that far. I would kind of keep the animals and the fish out of it. You know, nobody talked about all this until I came out and finally rang the bell and said that 'E.T.' was basically inspired by the divorce of my parents. Nobody had written about that. Years later, I'd finally said, 'You missed the whole point of 'E.T.' It's about an alienated child more than an alienated alien. This kid had this hole in his life because his father was in Mexico with Sally - whoever she is - and he filled that hole with this kind of impossible kindred spirit that came into his life almost as if it had been placed there to help him.' I said, 'That was my wish fulfillment. Those were my fantasies when my mom and dad stopped being married.'

Did doing 'Catch Me' stir up any of those old feelings, or is it all completely healed by now?

Spielberg: I didn't like working on the scene where Frank's mom brought the lawyer into the house and the dad's sitting there checking the papers and saying, 'Come on, Frank, it's going to be OK.? I didn't like working that day. That did bring back the memories.

My father was an airline pilot right around the time Frank was pretending to be one, and, for me, the movie really brought back this era when not only were my parents still married, but a pilot in uniform still looked incredibly cool. But enough about me.

Spielberg [ Laughs ]: No more!

Sorry, the questions can't be longer than the answers. Tom, you were also a child of divorce. Did you understand your parents at all?

Hanks: We come from a time when our parents were so involved in what they were going through themselves that I don't think they ever thought it was important to let us know, in the midst of all these crises, that 'Listen, this has nothing to do with you. You are really greatly loved by both of us. We're going to take care of you no matter what.' They never said that to us. I don't think they knew how. They were of that generation where people died because they had pneumonia and where a war could come along and kill all your best friends. It was just part and parcel of life: 'Hey, you just got to roll with the punches, kid.' Today, it's a very different thing. But at the time both of my parents were total mysteries to me. I didn't know who they were.

Spielberg: My younger sister suffered more than I did when our parents got divorced. I was graduating from high school, and I just drove right to Los Angeles to stay with cousins. I kind of ran away the way Frank Abagnale ran away.

DiCaprio: It probably motivated you to become a mini-Frank Abagnale yourself.

You're talking about when Steven was 16, and he sneaked on the Universal lot and pretended to work there. How long did you stay, Steven?

Spielberg: Three months. Every day of the week. And then the next year I came back after the divorce of my parents and stayed another three months. Then I went to college and I made this movie, 'Amblin'.? It won a couple of festivals and Sid Sheinberg, the head of Universal, saw the film. He didn?t know me from Adam, because he didn?t know I was sneaking under his nose for all those years. He offered me a seven-year contract. I said, 'I can't believe you?re saying this because I've always wanted to be here?and, by the way, I've been here for two and a half years.' [ Laughter ]

In 'Catch Me', Frank will do anything to impress his father. Did any of you feel pressured by your parents' expectations?

DiCaprio: I thankfully never had stage parents. I looked at Hollywood?and being an actor as some elite club. Ironically, I lived in Hollywood, but I never felt like I was part of that club. My stepbrother did television commercials. And so I knew you could get an occasional commercial, but it wasn't until later on when I started getting more and more jobs that I actually said, 'Wait a minute, maybe there is an opportunity here to actually sustain this and do this as a career, because it's truly what I love.' Some of my earliest memories are of impersonating my mother's quirky friends going on hourlong stints on all their eccentricities. And one of my really early memories is actually being pushed up onto a stage and starting to tap-dance before this rock band came on. [ Laughs ] I don't know what that moment was about, but I remember the adulation of the crowd clapping this kid on. I just kept tapping away, even though I had no idea how to dance.

Frank used a lot of costumes to convince people he was someone he wasn't. You're all so famous and recognizable - have any of you used disguises to convince people that you're not someone you actually are?

DiCaprio: After 'Titanic' came out, my whole life was put under this sort of microscope and, you know, I had an immediate loss of my private life. I was used to a certain degree of fame, but never on that level. But my attitude is: I have my hat and sunglasses and I go wherever I want to go. I try as best I can not to become a hermit, you know? It's all a matter of blending in with your environment. I think that if you are somebody who's recognizable, the first mistake you can make is dressing up and having an entourage. As long you walk alone and dress like everybody else, you can easily adapt to the environment.

Tom, if you tell people that you can't sign an autograph because you're with your family, will people respect that, generally?

Hanks: Ninety-nine percent of the people respect it very much, and 1 percent of the people are the biggest a**holes in the world.

DiCaprio: I often wonder what it must be like for you, because people view you as so personable and such a nice guy they must think they can come up to you all the time and say whatever the hell they want.

Hanks: Well, they do. But, if I'm with my family, the thing that works really great is like ... instead of signing autographs or taking pictures. I just say, 'Hey, you know what? Let?s shake hands and remember that we met right here.' By and large, that's all everybody wants: they just want some validation that we were in the same room at the same time. It's easy to do. I mean, I'm not going to be signing an autograph while my kid's wandering off somewhere. Nor am I going to walk around with a phalanx of bodyguards. It's just no way to live.

Steven, people must want to thank you for a million different movies.

Spielberg: Yeah, or they'll talk about the Shoah Foundation. But usually it's like, 'I have a script.' [ Laughs ] Then I do my mantra: 'I'm not legally allowed to accept an unsolicited submission.' I do the whole lawyer thing, and I apologize. 'But if you ever have a short film...'


Spielberg: Sure.

Is it true that you don't like rehearsals?

Spielberg: I want to record the very, very first take because it's the first time they've ever said these lines, and there's a little bit of a loss of virginity every time an actor speaks. I like the magic that often happens on the first take. That's the way I work with kids and it also works with grown-ups.

You'd think kids would need lots of takes....

Spielberg: On 'E.T.', I'll bet I didn't do more than three takes on any of the scenes. Unless E.T. was involved. When E.T. was involved, it was many takes because he was a mechanical... I don't want to call it a puppet, it was an alien with wires coming out his a**, you know? So it took a lot more time to get him to act. The kids were really spontaneous?and after the third take they got tired. Leo has an interesting process. Leo gets better with each take because he's very self-critical and gets very involved looking at his playbacks.

DiCaprio: Tom doesn't watch playbacks.

Hanks: I don't watch playbacks.

Spielberg: I used to beg you on 'Private Ryan'. I'd pull Tom over to the monitor, because he would say, 'Hey, boss, I felt good about the last take,' and then walk away. I'd say, 'Tom, you've got to see this!' It's very hard to get him to the monitor, but Leo goes to the monitor like a bee to honey.

Why don't you like to watch yourself on the monitor, Tom?

Hanks: Well, it makes me self-conscious. And to me that's the death of acting.

Speaking of the death of acting, Frank ultimately got caught. But he got out of jail and started working for the FBI, of all things.

DiCaprio: He was stuck in a French prison for a year, and then he went to another jail in Europe as well. He said it was the most physically torturous experience of his life. It wasn't until he met his wife that he actually felt transformed. I always asked him, 'Did you have any sour taste in your mouth, coming out of jail and working for the system so they could try to catch criminals such as yourself?' And he said, 'Quite honestly, Leonardo, at that point I would have done anything to get out of prison; it was the most horrible experience of my life. And what really transformed me as a person was meeting my wife and actually being able to divulge everything about what I had done in the past. I let her know about my true identity and I no longer lived a lie, and she accepted me for who I was, and that's what saved me.'

Thanks to Shaolin !