Watch: Tom Hanks and Halle Berry on race, love, and made-up language in ‘Cloud Atlas’

It seems like the conversation about race in “Cloud Atlas” is heating up in this last week pre-release, and I imagine once people see the film, that conversation will continue.  I think there are a number of potent, interesting ideas to grapple with once you’ve seen the movie, but unsurprisingly, some people have stopped at “Hey, those people are wearing make-up to look like a different race” and that’s all that they see when they look at the movie.

Last night, I got into a fairly spirited back and forth with Walter Chaw, a smart and passionate writer, in which he was adamant about calling the film “yellowface.”  While he’s technically correct that there are indeed white actors playing Asian roles in the film, what I kept trying to engage him on was the notion that the film has so many other racial ideas in the mix and so much more identity remixing going on that reducing the film to “yellowface” as if that’s the driving idea behind the make-up seems inflammatory to me.  After all, in this same film, we’ve got Doona Bae as a young girl in the American south during the 1800s and Halle Berry playing a white German Jew, complete with a nude scene, and we’ve got men playing women and women playing men and Keith David playing Korean and on and on. 

It’s a movie in which your internal identity echoes through time, through race and gender, and using actors to slip into these different skins in a way that the audience can visually follow is the whole point of things.  No one had a conversation on the film where they said, “Now, how can we make sure we don’t have an Asian male star in this film?  Surely there’s an Australian guy who we can just put make-up on instead, right?”  This isn’t a case of anyone trying to get anything past the audience.  The race-switching games are part of the film’s thematic point, and if you can’t engage that because you’re still upset about M. Night Shyamalan’s terrible “Last Airbender” movie or because you’re mad at the producers of “21,” then that seems to be a shame to me.

I heard last night that no one would dare ask the cast of the film about these ideas, but that’s not true.  When I sat down with Halle Berry and Tom Hanks, I specifically wanted to talk to Berry about her experience slipping into the skin of someone whose cultural background bears so little resemblance to her own, and I very much wanted to hear her feelings about what the make-up on the movie allowed her as a performer.  Later this week, I’ll have my interview with Jim Sturgess, who seems to have become a lightning rod on this particular film, and with Doona Bae, and I talked to them about these same ideas.  I don’t think anyone on the film thinks they’re sneaking anything by anyone, and again… the outrage seems misplaced to me.  A film this big-hearted and this passionate about the idea of the interconnected nature of all of humanity seems like the wrong target if someone wants to talk about institutionalized racism and the whitewashing of other cultures.

Tom Hanks here is in full Disney mode since he’s deep into the shooting of “Saving Mr. Banks” right now, the film about the relationship between Walt Disney and P.L. Travers, and this was one of those days where I had the kids with me.  We were on our way to a “Wreck-It Ralph” screening right after the interviews, and they were patiently waiting through most of the interviews, bored by the conversations and unsure who most of the cast was.  When we were still outside the room for this interview, though, they heard Tom Hanks boom something at the interviewer before me, and they looked at each other and both said, “That’s Woody.”  Sure enough, at the end of the interview, he walked over to introduce himself to them, and they told him how much they love the “Toy Story” movies.  He couldn’t have been any sweeter in thanking them and joking with them for a few minutes, and it was amazing how quickly they got past being shy.  He was, as always, a consummate professional and a gentleman, and they walked away bigger fans than ever.

We’ll have more of these “Cloud Atlas” conversations for you this week, and if you haven’t read my long-form interview with the filmmakers Tom Tykwer and Lana and Andy Wachowski, you should.  I think they also speak to the ideas behind their use of make-up in the film in a way that makes it clear that they saw this as an opportunity for their cast, not as an exclusion.

Make your own mind up when “Cloud Atlas” arrives in theaters this Friday.