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Tom Hanks is such a big fan of science-fiction movies that back in 1982, he and his Bosom Buddies co-star Peter Scolari snuck onto the sound stage where Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan was in filming.

Hanks didn't land the cameo in Wrath of Khan that he dreamed about. But now thanks to Cloud Atlas, the latest from the Wachowski siblings (The Matrix) and Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run), the actor is finally starring in his own sci-fi extravaganza. And it took him only about 30 or so years to do it.

They just don't ask me to make sci-fi movies, the two-time Oscar winner says. It's cosmic, man, that these three filmmakers did. They all have comet tattoos on them somewhere, and they just change the lives of everybody that they come across.

Based on David Mitchell's acclaimed 2006 novel, Cloud Atlas is an almost-impossible-to-describe tale that spans continents, genres and centuries. Shot in the United States and Germany, the film (opening Friday) netted a 10-minute standing ovation when it premiered at the Toronto Film Festival. Roger Ebert called it astonishing, but there were naysayers, including Karina Longworth of the LA Weekly, who described the movie as dramatically incoherent.

Hanks says he was a convert as soon as he read the script, which he likens to a hug that gets tighter and tighter.

Adds the actor, When I heard that they were going make a German blockbuster that was written in Costa Rica, I said, ‘I'm in,' because I have never, never heard such a bodacious, United Nations approach to making a film before.

Six interwoven stories, stretching from an 1849-set adventure on the high seas to a 24th-century saga of tribal warfare, unreel with the same cast of actors (Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugh Grant, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess) playing different roles in each of them.

With the help of make-up, wigs and prosthetic devices such as rubber noses, the performers play characters far removed from themselves, sometimes jumping races and genders.

Berry, for instance, plays a 1970s reporter, a white Jewish aristocrat in the 1930s and a Victorian housewife.

Berry remembers Hanks asking her during one of her fittings for the 1860s-era character if she'd ever worn such gorgeous, period outfits before.

I said, ‘Tom, think about it for a minute.' And when he thought about it, it was painful. But then we laughed about it. For me to have played (a character) in that time period, I would probably have been a slave or close to it. Not dressed up.

Despite the film's complicated nature, Hanks insists he didn't have to undergo an enormous leap of faith to sign on the dotted line.

This was a fully realized vision that was presented to me at the get-go, he says. All I really had to do was read the blueprint to see what was going to be expected of me. … I knew it would be very, very hard work on occasion. And we'd have to go through the emotional trenches to get at the moments that are very well highlighted in both the book and the screenplay. But I mean, it's what I do for a living. So I jumped at it.

Asked which of his character he liked playing the most, Hanks says there's no contest.

Don't take this the wrong way, but I loved playing Dermot Hoggins because he got to throw a critic off a balcony to his horrible, crushing death, Hanks says with a laugh. That was my favorite. Oh God, how I loved it. It was magnificent.

While Hanks had to endure scenes that required face paint (to play a tribesman in a post-apocalyptic future) and whiskers (to play a 19th-century doctor), he didn't have to spend as many hours in the make-up chair as some of his co-stars. Weaving, for instance, was asked to don full drag to play a female retirement-home supervisor, while Sturgess spent weeks wearing a bushy beard.

I only heard one complaint, and that was out of Jim Sturgess, Hanks says. It was one day after we had been sweating, as I'm trying to poison him. He had this sticky beard which had, like, grown on his face in the course of the thing. At the end of the day he came into the makeup trailer and said, ‘Please take this thing off my face.' That's the only complaint I heard.

Grant insists Sturgess wasn't the only one who had a gripe or two. I bitterly regret doing the whole film, teases the Brit, who plays assorted villains, including a cannibal and a figurehead for the nuclear-power industry. I thought when they offered me these roles that I might show people I've got more strings to my bow than just one.

A, I was wrong. And, B, I spent a lot of time sitting in make-up having plastic applied to my face for hours and hours. And I was very bad-tempered. Everyone's talked about the nice atmosphere on the set. I tried to make it nastier. I kept telling the American set that the German set was much more interesting, moving much faster, and vice versa. But I never quite got the split that I was after.

All teasing aside, Cloud Atlas is a challenging movie that could bewitch and baffle audiences. So, in the end, what's it all about?

It's not six different movies, Hanks says. It's not even two different movies. It's one example of cinematic literature that examines the connectedness of the human race throughout all of time.

As Hanks sees it, the six stories are all about the same thing: characters having to make the choice between cruelty and kindness, then dealing with the consequences of that choice.

By the time you get to the end, you know that that is what it's about, he adds. For me, it was totally worth doing the movie, if only to see Hugh Grant as a cannibal.

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