"I wanted to do something, for lack of a better phrase, deadly serious—meaning with serious themes, because the vast majority of stuff you see on the Internet is a one-off or almost always humorous." And with that, Tom Hanks introduced Co.Create and a small group of other journalists this week to Electric City, his ambitious animated series on Yahoo. "But I didn’t want to do a spoof," Hanks goes on. "I wanted to take a form that would visually exist in a certain place in our pop-culture knowledge, but that deals with something more serious than a bunch of pop-culture references."
The result: animation that feels as if it might have been drawn 50 years ago and characters who exist in some amalgam of future and past, reflecting Hanks and his writing partners Josh Feldman and Bo Stevenson’s inspirational touchstones: the late-1960’s British TV series The Prisoner, The Matrix, The Godfather and the original Manchurian Candidate, the latter a direct influence on Electric City’s matriarchal power-knitting circle.
Hanks and Co. have been working on the story of Electric City, which concerns a post-apocalyptic world in which electricity is scarce and the criminal underground is bubbling over, for about nine years, maybe six of them before they knew it would become a web series. Reliance Entertainment out of India financed production and Yahoo agreed to distribute as part of its ambitious original content strategy. "The reason that we ended up going with Yahoo was that Yahoo said, Let’s do it," says Hanks.
Creating content for the web, he says, allows for the freedom of "grander storytelling" but only enough money to "make a salary for the people you employ." The two-time Academy Award-winning actor and producer finds the Internet’s exchange rate with Hollywood dollars rather unbalanced. "The one thing I know is there’s no money in it. It’s like self-publishing your poems. This is the equivalent of writing a bunch of short stories and just throwing them out there for people to read."
In these short stories (Electric City’s 20 episodes are three- to five-minutes long; 10 of them are available now), Hanks plays Cameron Carr, a mysterious, muscle-bound and square-jawed man who’s policing the underground. The actor seems to revel in playing a character so unlike himself. "I’m handcuffed by the way I look and the way I sound and by the body of work I’ve done before," he cheerily laments before comparing his turn in Electric City to James Stewart’s unexpected one in the now mostly forgotten Western Winchester ’73: "He plays a guy who goes around killing everybody!" Hanks marvels.
It was a wise move to have Hanks play the leading character. "I worked for free," he says. "That helped the budget." He and his fellow producers cast "friends of Playtone," the production company Hanks and Gary Goetzman launched in 1996, which has made such movies and TV series as Band of Brothers, My Big Fat Greek Wedding and Big Love. Hence in Electric City you’ll hear the voices of Big Love vets Jeanne Tripplehorn and Ginnifer Goodwin as well as, Hanks says, "a couple of boyfriends of people we know" and an old friend from his Bosom Buddies days: Holland Taylor.
Being the old-school Hollywood actor he is, Hanks probably wouldn’t mind our calling him a bit of a Luddite. He explained that one of the reasons he has his own production company is to have a "place to make long-distance calls." And he’s not a very likely web pioneer. "I must confess," Hanks says, "I do not live any life online." Except perhaps for Twitter and Facebook, which he posts to through celebrity platform Who Say. "It’s like sending out telegrams every now and then…a couple times a week…Hey I had this idea, here’s a picture." And he reiterates that there’s no money in such pursuits. "If you think it’s self-promotion, well, if that [were true] then Larry Crowne would have made $100 million," he jokes before explaining his relationship to the web. "I don’t look at anything, really, online because there’s only 24 hours in a day, and I have a grandchild now, and I do a lot of reading reading. I don’t get up in the morning and go online first thing."
And yet, Hanks is unafraid of saucy language. When Co. Create asked him about the stylistic choice to have characters on Electric City say the word "expletive" instead of actual curses, Hanks explained that he was borrowing a page from the Richard Nixon White House tapes—"Expletive deleted, expletive deleted, expletive deleted," he recited. "We wanted there to be curse words but we wanted them to be a brand of generic curse words so that we were playing with language. We wanted to create a society in which that brand of cursing had been boiled down to the word expletive and that could express how angry you were."
And that’s when he said something we never expected to hear from Tom Hanks’ mouth. "In England you can call somebody a bloody c**t, pardon my language, and it’s almost like a way of goofing around. But in the U.S. if you call anybody the C-word it’s the worst insult you can possibly imagine."