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Tom Hanks has some beautiful life advice for anyone with divorced parents

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Sarah Biddlecombe
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Tom Hanks is no stranger to making us cry.

Throughout his career, he has starred in some of the most emotive films imaginable, from Saving Private Ryan to Forrest Gump. As well as breaking our hearts with his on screen characters, he’s one of those rare celebrities who actually seems like a genuinely nice person in real life, too –proven by this story of how he helped his wife, Rita Wilson, beat breast cancer.

And now, Hanks has opened up further about his family life, by discussing the impact of growing up with divorced parents while also sharing the one life lesson he tries to instill in his four children.

Speaking about his debut collection of short stories, Uncommon Type, at the Southbank Centre’s London Literature Festival, Hanks talked about bringing up his three sons and his daughter – and how he wants them to believe they can overcome any obstacle in life.

“All I can be to them is that place where someone says, ‘you can figure this out, and you will be ok,’” he said.

Tom Hanks with son Colin Hanks, wife Rita Wilson and daughter Elizabeth Hanks

Hanks also spoke of the importance of having deep connections with people outside of your family, adding that he knew his children needed a bigger support network in their lives than just himself and Wilson.

“I get along with each [of my children] completely differently, and every relationship I have is a whole and complete one,” he said. 

“But I know absolutely for certain that they need other people in their lives to come and stir them along.”

Hanks shared many more musings throughout the talk: from the importance of finding the people who matter in life, to the value of making mistakes, you can read some of them, recorded in his own wonderful words, below.

On growing up with divorced parents 

“My parents divorced when I was five. There were four of us, and my youngest brother stayed with my mum, while the rest of us stayed with my dad.

My mum found the love of her life on her fourth marriage, and my dad found the love of his life on his third marriage. Both my parents reached the level they were seeking, it just took them a while to find it. That’s an adult lesson you learn about parenting… everyone is trying to get by and do the right thing.

I’m lucky that both my parents passed away after I had the chance to tell them how much they meant to be. And when the time went by it was like, ‘hey, their ride is here, it’s just time for them to go’.

You wish you could spend a couple of days with each one again. You think about them in some way almost every day - something always comes to you.”

On forging a relationship with his mum

“I was very solid with my mum even though I was the only one [of my siblings] who did not live with her. She and I had great talks, and I was very pragmatic about our life together.

I don’t think I was ever alone with just my mum, except for a handful of times, throughout the whole of our lives. There was always a sibling or someone else around.

But I remember the times when it was just me and my mum, and we’d be going out for a hamburger, or lunch, and it was a magical time for me, free of guilt and free of an agenda. But not for my mum, because I think at the end of the day, she was thinking ‘I should do more for this child number three, who doesn’t live with me and who I don’t see very much’.

We talked about that later on. I said, ‘mum, I know we didn’t live together, but I think you did a great job none the less’. And she said, ‘well, I’m glad you think that’. It was very lovely.”

On finding the people who matter

Tom Hanks shares a moment with Rita Wilson on the red carpet

“From my perspective, the bonds you make with your family are not by choice - they just are. Whether they’re good or bad, you don’t get to choose who your family is, or who your parents are. And so much can get in the way of those relationships.

The stories in the book that aren’t about family are about that other type of union – the connections that we all make. We make those connections by option and we choose to invest in them. You never know if you’re going to start a class, or change college, or move into a new apartment, and meet the person who literally carries you across the rubicon and into the new country of your life.

I could not make a decision on the family that I had, and it was fragmented and confusing sometimes. But I accepted that as it was - I didn’t think it was out of the norm, I just thought that’s what family was.

What ended up being the great catalyst in my life… friends, the first person you see doing a show, the first person who gives you a job or says you can be more than what you think you are. And that comes about because of the wonderful, inexplicable moments of serendipity of who you meet.

It’s those connections that are not a substitute for family, but they are another great necessity in our lives, the people who stir us and inspire, and sometimes, take care of us.”

On how Nora Ephron inspired him to write

Tom Hanks with Nora Ephron, on the set of Sleepless in Seattle

[Hanks has a dedication to Nora Ephron in Uncommon Type, which reads “Because of Nora”]

“I first met Nora Ephron when she directed Sleepless in Seattle and I was intimidated by her because of all the writing she had done, and I’d seen a movie she had directed which I really liked. I went in to meet with her and I was a very cranky actor - I thought I was a hot shot as I had had some hits and was weighing up other offers. I was all pushed out of shape for a while.

I said to her [about the script], “you’re a woman who wrote about a guy with a kid, men don’t talk to their boys like that! Dads don’t give a s**t what their kid thinks. The guy doesn’t get upset that his kid doesn’t want him to go away for the weekend with his date – the guy tells his kid that he is going to go away for that weekend.

Then that ended up being in the movie, and Nora always said – ‘you wrote that’. And I would say, ‘no, I was just complaining in a rehearsal!’ And she said, ‘that’s what writing is: an idea that ends up making it’.

She had always given me these writing props, and anything we worked on together we always approached it from this perspective of writing. I was writing a piece for the New York Times about my makeup artist and I kept sending it to Nora for suggestions, and the one thing she kept saying to me was voice, voice, voice. It’s not enough to just tell a story, or to tell us what’s going on. You have to find your voice.

So it’s because of Nora that I’m sitting here right now.”

On living with your mistakes – and making plenty more

Tom Hanks discussing his new book at the Southbank Centre

“I’m not a cynic, but I’m pessimistic about plenty of things. The best you can do is make 51% decent decisions. You’ll screw up 49% of the time, but if you can make it to 51%, you’re ok. I’m pessimistic 49% of the time, but I have faith 51% of the time, and that turns the tide just enough.

You learn from every mistake you make, so therefore – ram on!”

Uncommon Type by Tom Hanks, £8 from amazon.co.uk

Images: Rex Features

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Sarah Biddlecombe

Sarah Biddlecombe is an award-winning journalist and Digital Features Editor at Stylist

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