Tom Hanks in ‘Polar Express’ Was Exhausted Playing 5 Characters

Tom Hanks in Polar Express got to play characters like he could in no other movie. He played six in Cloud Atlas, but even then they were all makeup variations on himself. With Polar Express technology, Hanks could play a little boy, as well as the train conductor and Santa Claus. It wasn’t easy, though. 

Tom Hanks waves
Tom Hanks | Junko Kimura/Getty Images

Hanks was part of the Polar Express press conference in 2004. On the panel with director Robert Zemeckis, he described how exhausting it was playing six characters in the movie. 

Tom Hanks in ‘Polar Express’ did it all in the same day

When he played multiple roles in Cloud Atlas, Hanks at least had a day in between because they would film on different sets and locations. The Polar Express filmed all of its performance capture in a studio for the animators, so there were days Hanks had to play all his characters.

There’s only so much that I can internally grasp as an actor and on the day of tests that we did, I played five or six or seven roles in the course of that day. I said, ‘Bob, I’m exhausted here.’ So in my mind, I had a track on the five characters that I played. I could understand the differences between them all and I understood how they related to the boy and I understood what the boy’s perceptions of them were. And it was just a circumstance where it was doable. It was possible without having to do it in the way, like say for example, Jerry Lewis made The Family Jewels or something like that.”

Tom Hanks, The Polar Express press conference, 2004

Tom Hanks in ‘Polar Express’ was a technological first 

Performance capture technology had allowed Andy Serkis to play Gollum in Lord of the Rings, for example. Zemeckis was the first to make an entire movie with performance capture animation. 

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When Bob explained it enough to me so that I could understand the process we were doing would make it possible for grown-ups to play the kids, that Nona [Gaye] could play the girl and I could play the boy and Eddie Deezen and Peter Scolari could come along with it, that opened up a lot of opportunities for one aspect of it. Bob at one point said, ‘I think you should play every role in this movie because then we could do it. You could play every role!’ Forgive me, Bob. But I said, ‘Well, wait a minute. There’s girls in this movie. I’m going to play every elf?’ He said, ‘Yeah, it’ll be great.’”

Tom Hanks, The Polar Express press conference, 2004

The key to all the ‘Polar Express’ characters

Even though technology had a way to transform Hanks into every Polar Express character, Hanks still had to differentiate them in his performances. He especially distinguished all the adult characters.

“In my sensibilities, they’re all the caregivers,” Hanks said. “They’re all the authorities in this boy’s life and he imagines them as variations on himself and variations on his uncles and variations on his father. As well as the great mystery of how he would have imagined Santa Claus needed to be himself. Santa Claus to this boy was not this roly-poly accountant that came down the chimney every day. He was this huge, muscular man that had to lift up this massive package, this sack of presents. He had to be a big, strong guy.” 

Polar Express director Robert Zemeckis and star Tom Hanks at the premiere
L-R: Robert Zemeckis and Tom Hanks | Kevin Winter/Getty Images

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Hanks paid attention to different costumes each character would wear, and mimic them in the studio.

I had to remember that the conductor had a hat and had a vest with pockets, and the hobo had all this stuff jammed up inside of him. I would change my shoes depending on which character I would play. The conductor had a very specific pair of shoes that he wore and a walk, and the boy had a specific pair of shoes. The body language all just kind of came about. There’s no trick to it because quite frankly, that’s my job. My job is to make manifest these other people and you just imagine what they are and you come up to a kind of physiological understanding of who they are and then you stick to it.

Tom Hanks, The Polar Express press conference, 2004