LOS ANGELES – When you're the world's biggest actor, nobody tells you "no." The same is true when you're the world's most powerful director.
Their latest collaboration is "The Terminal," (search) starring Hanks as an Eastern European traveler who becomes indefinitely trapped in an American airport because of bureaucratic red-tape.
"He can say anything to me and I think vice versa and whatever answer comes out is perfect," Hanks told The Associated Press in a joint interview with Spielberg. "To be relaxed on a movie set means you can get stuff out that you haven't even imagined before, and that comes from knowing each other."
Spielberg confessed some anxiety the first time they teamed up, on 1998's "Saving Private Ryan."
The World War II drama, which won Spielberg his second directing Oscar, required Hanks to be filthy and uncomfortable most of the time, and Hanks is known as a performer who makes a lot of his own suggestions.
"The first movie was fraught with, `I don't want to say anything that Tom's not going to like. I want to keep his friendship. I like this guy and his family. God, don't let me do anything that's going to screw that up,'" Spielberg said.
Hanks, seated next to the director, scrunched his face. He said that kind of tiptoeing lasted a week.
"I sort of said, `Look, you know ... you can't offend me. You're the boss. Tell me what you like, and if you don't like my ideas say: That's nice, but we're going to do something different,'" the actor said. "He's the director of the film, you see. My job is to do what the director of the film wants."
"But," countered Spielberg, "When you know somebody in life — and nobody is the director of that — it's a whole reshuffling of a kind of order, which I wasn't accustomed to."
Hanks and Spielberg got along so well on "Saving Private Ryan" they teamed up as producers on HBO's Emmy-winning 2001 miniseries "Band of Brothers," about a group of real-life soldiers from the D-Day invasion.
They have become so trusting of each other, Spielberg said, he even acts as an agent of sorts for Hanks.
"I actively look for things for him," Spielberg said. "Literally, I actively try to find projects we can work together on."
"Really?" Hanks said, looking impressed. "Wow. Great! ... Any luck?"
"I found `Road to Perdition'!" Spielberg replied. His DreamWorks SKG studio produced the 2002 Depression era saga, which starred Hanks as a repentant mob hit man.
"Oh, that's true!" Hanks recalled. "You also found `The Green Mile,' and called me up and said `I've read a movie you should do.'"
But both those movies were made by other directors, so Spielberg and Hanks started crashing each other's parties.
On 2002's "Catch Me If You Can," Leonardo DiCaprio was already cast as a charismatic con artist, and Spielberg was signed up to direct. Hanks saw the script while recruiting the writer for another movie and became interested in the lonely FBI agent who tracks DiCaprio.
"Tom read the FBI agent's part and found it interesting and called me and said, `I don't want to step into your party here, but I love this guy.' ... I went, `Man!'" Spielberg said.
"`Has anyone been cast?'" Hanks intoned, playing his part in the director's memory.
"I wasn't really going to offer Tom Hanks a supporting role," Spielberg said. "But Tom volunteered his services."
The opposite happened on "The Terminal."
Spielberg saw the script in his role as one of the co-founders of DreamWorks, which was considering producing it.
"I read all the studio movies that we're thinking of making and I get to vote on what to make and what not to make," Spielberg said. "Sometimes I'm outvoted and sometimes I get my way. In this case, I wanted to see the movie made."
Spielberg was on vacation in Hawaii when he found out Hanks was considering the lead role of Viktor Navorski, a man who arrives at JFK airport in New York from a fictional Eastern European country and discovers that an overnight political revolution has invalidated all his traveling papers.
Navorski spends the next year living at the terminal, making friends, falling in love and following the rules in search of an American experience.
"It was going to be a tremendous performance opportunity for Tom, and I wanted to be in on that, around that ... I wanted to be in his zone," Spielberg said.
Despite their friendship, the "Schindler's List" Oscar winner was nervous about insinuating himself into Hanks' movie. First he called the prospective film's producer, then one of the screenwriters — to find out all the details of the project. "That was an easier call than calling Tom," Spielberg said.
Then he finally came around to calling Hanks.
"I used the same line on you that you used on me when we talked about `Catch Me If You Can' ... " Spielberg said, jabbing a finger at the Oscar-winning "Philadelphia" and "Forrest Gump" actor.
"I said, `Tom, I don't want to horn in on your party, but is there any room for me to direct this thing?'"
Hanks, who's quiet and frequently bemused in the face of Spielberg's cheerful boisterousness, smiled as he sipped from his tea. "I think I said, `Steven you're the 'S' in DreamWorks SKG so it's, uh, completely your call,'" Hanks said.
After months spent among thousands of background actors at a real three-story terminal built specially for the movie, Hanks and Spielberg finished their work on the movie only a few weeks ago, when Spielberg made a subtle — but last-minute — change to the ending.
They're already planning to do another movie.
"We hope to bring `Snagglepuss' to the screen," Hanks joked, referring to Hanna-Barbera's easygoing pink cartoon lion, who's fond of exclaiming "Heavens to Murgatroid!"
Spielberg laughed, then said: "I won't mention what it is, but we have a project in the works for Tom to produce and me to direct and Tom to star in."
That would make Hanks the producer the boss of Spielberg the director, who's the boss of Hanks the actor.
Good thing they get along.