'It Is Neither Nor, It Is Both': Tom Hanks Finds No Easy Answers In 'The Circle'

Apr 30, 2017
Originally published on May 1, 2017 10:02 am

In the new film adaptation of Dave Eggers' satirical novel The Circle, Tom Hanks says his character is "neither" and "both" a hero and a villain.

Hanks plays Eamon Bailey, co-founder of a giant social media and tech company. In a tech-obsessed culture, the company has a creepy mantra of "Sharing is caring."

Emma Watson stars as Mae Holland, a new hire at the Circle who quickly rises through the ranks and agrees to broadcast her every waking moment to millions of followers on social media.

Hanks was impressed by the prescience of Eggers' 2013 novel. "Here we are four years later and much of what he wrote about is, in fact, a fact," Hanks says.


Interview Highlights

On Eamon Bailey's vision

If you believe that complete openness will be the great guide for humanity ... that means that you would have to close off one basic need for the human condition which I think is anonymity and privacy. ...

There's something that is really quite malevolent about this concept that when everybody knows everybody's secrets, there will be no more secrets — no reason for shame, no reason for hiding, no need for lies. That almost strikes me as something Lenin and Marx would try to put forward which is counter to what human beings crave in the course of their life — which is some degree of total self-control as opposed to giving over to grand control.

On whether this is a conservative leaning or liberal leaning film

It is neither nor. It is both.

On opting into or out of The Circle's terms of service

Individually I would say that you make this decision of opting in or staying out, and if you opt in, you really have to accept the entire contract ... meaning that if I type something on my email it will stay there for a thousand years. Even if you type something in as mysterious as "Call me on my hardline so we can talk about this." ... You are leaving a trail. ...

Now, opt out? That means you can't send email to anybody and you're not going to be able to read any book online. I'm sorry, but it's 50-50. It's a coin toss as to whether it's good, and wonderful and leads to a better life, or if it's bad, and terrible, and leads to a loss of our freedom.

On how viewers are "supposed" to feel about the technology in the movie

I think it's an examination of the trade-off ... Safety and aid on one hand and a sense of security [versus] a complete and utter loss of anonymity. I don't know if popular culture can handle that kind of comme ci, comme ça aspect of it because you'd like to find out specifically: Is it good or bad? ... Are we supposed to love it or hate it? ... Exactly.

On the divided country

We have been at this place before. ... I grew up during Vietnam. I was 13. I was not threatened by Vietnam in any way, shape, or form. But at my dinner table, there were arguments and fistfights over Vietnam. In the city I lived in there were riots and gunfire and burning buildings because of Vietnam. There was civil unrest and there was the reaction to it ... There was "Your Country Love It or Leave It" at the same exact time there were people who were, in fact, leaving our country because they could not consciously go out and fight the war in Vietnam.

Now we went through that period of time ... we weathered it. We made decisions. People showed up. They got involved. Artists raised their voices and started screaming. Other people found their voice for the first time. ...

We are in that same exact place right now. ... Three years from now ... we will be a better nation, on both sides of the divide ... on both sides of whatever the aisle is that separates all of us. ... The force of our history proves it to be so, and has ever since everybody got the vote.

Radio producer Alexi Horowitz, radio editor Jennifer Liberto and Web producer Beth Novey contributed to this story.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Not trying to be nosy, but have you posted anything on social media today? Maybe you took a pic of your tasty brunch, maybe you sent out a video of your child's latest steps, maybe you sent up a flare about a faltering relationship. And when you hit that button, at any point, did you wonder how much sharing is too much? Those are just a couple of the questions behind "The Circle," a new film based on a 2013 Dave Eggers' novel of the same name.

The film takes place sometime in the future at a company called The Circle. It's kind of a hybrid of big tech companies, like Google, Facebook and Apple. And it paints a satirical and unsettling picture of life in the age of social media and tech-obsessed culture. It stars Emma Watson as Mae Holland, a new hire at The Circle, who quickly rises through the ranks and comes to embody the company's mantra that sharing is caring by agreeing to broadcast her every waking moment to millions of followers on social media. And the boss, The Circle co-founder Eamon Bailey, the seemingly easygoing co-founder, who espouses that philosophy of total transparency, that would be two-time Oscar winner Tom Hanks.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE CIRCLE")

TOM HANKS: (As Eamon Bailey) I am a believer in the perfectibility of human beings. When we are our best selves, the possibilities are endless. There isn't a problem that we cannot solve. We can cure any disease, and we can end hunger. And without secrets, without the hoarding of knowledge and information, we can finally realize our potential.

MARTIN: And we are joined now by Tom Hanks. Tom Hanks, thanks so much for speaking with us.

HANKS: You're quite welcome. You don't have any argument with that, do you? I mean, everything that guy said was just kind of great, wasn't it?

MARTIN: Well, tell us about that, why not?

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Tell us - so tell us about Eamon Bailey. He feels familiar. A little bit of...

HANKS: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...Steve Jobs maybe, other public figures from the tech world. But is it OK to point out that there's something increasingly sinister - right? - as the movie progresses about his vision?

HANKS: Well, if you believe that complete openness will be the great guide for humanity and would lead us to unprecedented problem-solving, that means you would then have to close off one basic need for the human condition, which I think is anonymity and privacy. That is something that is put forward in everything that Eamon Bailey says - one of the intriguing aspects of it when I first read Dave Eggers' novels, which by the way, for 2013, was pretty prescient, I must say. Here we are four years later, and much of what he wrote about is, in fact, a fact.

There's nothing that he says that is not upbeat and positive and proactive and good for the world, except for everything that he stands for (laughter). So somehow there is something that is really quite malevolent about this concept that when everybody knows everybody's secrets, there will be no more secrets, no reason for shame, no reason for hiding, no need for lies.

That almost strikes me as something Lenin and Marx would try to put forward, which is counter to what human beings crave in the course of their life, which is some degree of total self-control as opposed to giving over to grand control.

MARTIN: Well, that's one of the things that's fascinating about this film is that Mother Jones, which is, you know, a left-leaning publication, and the National Review, which is a right-leaning publication, are both telling people they have to go see it, which is fascinating to me.

HANKS: (Laughter).

MARTIN: So is this a conservative movie or is this a liberal movie?

HANKS: This is a fascinating question that you pose because it's neither nor. It is both. And that's a hard concept to grasp. One aspect of it is, like, let's imagine that you have started a company, or let's just - let's take Uber. Uber would love it if there were no cars left in the world except theirs and nobody drove anywhere except their drivers and passengers all paid into the Uber system.

That is the prime fantasy of any company that provides a service is to wipe out all competition and hold not just a monopoly but enter into literally the human zeitgeist that life cannot go on without their services. But the question of complete control and complete dominance of a marketplace means complete control and complete dominance of your daily life. That it is malevolent.

MARTIN: So how would you describe this to somebody who didn't know anything about it? You know, at some point, the film is funny, is charming, but it also raises some very troubling questions. And it also describes scenarios that are not in the future, that are here now. And so I'm asking you, what is this movie? Is this dystopian? Is this funny? Is this - what is this?

HANKS: I think it's an examination of the trade-off. And you have to determine two things - one, can your life survive by - in this trade-off that you make? And is it a trade-off that you want to make? Bill Paxton and Glenne Headley play Emma Watson's parents. And Bill's character, her dad, has MS, and they cannot afford the insurance that goes along with it. But because Mae now works for The Circle, they're included. And suddenly a world of worry is taken off their plate. He is able to get treatment. He's able to get everything that one would need in living with something like MS, and it's a fabulous boon to their lives.

The trade-off they make is that The Circle puts cameras in their homes in order to make sure he's always OK. And if he falls down when he's by himself, the folks at The Circle will be able to send help. Now, do you want to live in a home where somebody from an organization has constant access to what's going on to all of your rooms? There is the trade-off.

I don't know if popular culture can handle that kind of comme ci, comme ca aspect of it because you'd like to have a - you'd like to find out specifically is it good or bad? What - let's - what do you mean by this movie? Are we supposed to love it or hate it? The question is exactly, are you supposed to love it or are you supposed to hate it?

MARTIN: Can I ask you - there are a number of artists who feel a particular sense of urgency in this particular political moment.

HANKS: Oh, yeah, sure.

MARTIN: They seem to feel a particular urgency to speak out about particular things. I'm thinking about your colleague Meryl Streep, who's certainly - if you have any peer in Hollywood, it would be she. There are a number...

HANKS: I'll take that (laughter).

MARTIN: Yeah, well, there you are. And - but I'm asking you do you feel, as an artist, any particular sense of urgency right now? And if so, to what end? I think it's - and not to really narrow you down but merely to say do you feel, as an artist, you have any particular role right now that you didn't have a year ago or two years ago?

HANKS: No, I actually think I have the same exact role because I do have a very particular perspective on this. Not to speak for Meryl, but I think she was responding to ridicule of somebody with a physical affliction, which ain't right. And it's not fair no matter who does it. If I was going to put forward any sort of life philosophy on this is mine takes history into account. We have been at this place before, and weathering it and correcting it over a long haul, over a long period of time has made us a better country and has actually powered us on to being a even better example to the rest of the world.

I grew up during Vietnam. I was 13. I was not threatened by Vietnam in any way, shape or form. But at my dinner table, there were arguments and fistfights over Vietnam. In the city I lived in, there were riots and gunfire and burning buildings because of Vietnam. There was civil unrest, and there was the reaction to it. There were the Hard Hats - your country, love it or leave it. At the same exact time, there were people who were, in fact, leaving our country because they could not consciously go off and fight the war in Vietnam. We weathered it. We made decisions. People showed up. They got involved. Artists raised their voices and started screaming. Other people found their voice for the very first time on either side of the divide.

And what came out of it was really quite, I think, quite frankly, from the layman's historian perspective that I have, a sober judgment of what that period of time did to us. And it prompted people to take action both by what they believed in from the get-go and what they learned throughout the process of it. We are in that same exact place right now.

But three years from now, we will be better. We will be a better nation on both sides of the divide by the way, on both sides of whatever the aisle is that separates all of us because we will have examined it, we will have suffered it, we will have promoted what we think is the good fight.

MARTIN: That is two-time Oscar winner Tom Hanks. He was kind enough to join us from our studios in New York to talk about his new film "The Circle," which is out this week. Tom Hanks, thank you so much for speaking with us.

HANKS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.