TORONTO - Somehow, Tom Hanks and Halle Berry have never crossed paths on screen.
"Although we have talked to each other as if we had," he says. "When you go to the Golden Globes, you yell, 'Halle!' 'Tom!' We all pretend we know each other."
They don't have to fake it anymore. Not after the Oscar winners have shared the rarefied experience of inhabiting six distinctive roles in as many intertwining story lines that span miles, centuries and genres in Cloud Atlas, opening Friday.
As the film's motto says, "Everything is connected." Which means Hanks and Berry were probably fated to show up together in a Shaft-like action thriller someday -- he in a science-nerd lab coat, she in intrepid-reporter chic -- enjoying a joint and ruminating on the mysteries of life in 1973.
"You're not even allowed to smoke cigarettes in a movie anymore," Hanks notes before lowering his voice to a whisper, "and we smoked pot."
Conducting this time-warping journey into cosmic consciousness as it proposes that all humans are spiritually linked and reborn as different souls are the Wachowski siblings, Lana and Andy -- the bold imagineers responsible for the sci-fi-redefining Matrix trilogy. They're joined by cutting-edge German director Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run).
Their epic adaptation of David Mitchell's densely structured 2004 novel (which the author himself deemed un-filmable), which travels from a slave camp on a South Pacific island in 1849 to a primitive post-apocalyptic Hawaii in the 24th century, is an actor's dream. A fearless actor's dream.
One that allowed both Hanks, 56, and Berry, 46 -- along with co-stars Hugh Grant, Hugo Weaving, Susan Sarandon and Jim Broadbent, also in multiple roles -- to crash the usual typecasting barriers.
While the filmmakers openly courted Hanks for his Everyman essence and Berry for her uncommon beauty, they also cast them in ways that blatantly defied audience expectations. And, sometimes, even detection of who was who.
"It's quite a scary idea," says Lana Wachowski, a barrier-breaker herself after coming out as transgender and changing her name from Larry in 2002. "Tom was definitely the first actor to massively embrace that particular aspect. As he said, 'That's what you want as an actor.' "
Hanks, whose only previous bad-guy roles were in the 2004 misfire The Ladykillers,and as a hitman in 2002's Road to Perdition, assumes varying shades of villainy before becoming an oppressed futuristic goat herder who must summon the courage to rise above evil. Says Andy, "In a lot of ways, we are introducing Tom Hanks. Because he's never done anything like these roles before."
Toronto International Film Festival-goers who caught the world premiere of Cloud Atlas in September were especially taken by Hanks as a current-day Cockney thug named Dermot Hoggins, who could have swaggered out of a Guy Ritchie crime caper.
At a book party in honor of his memoir, Hoggins reads aloud a damning review before throwing the offending critic off the roof of a high-rise. He punctuates his vengeful act by echoing his victim's own words: "There's an ending that is flat and inane beyond belief."
"It's like being able to play Richard III," says Hanks of his gangster persona. "I've got the hump, I've got the limp. I got to do it all. I get to throw a critic off the rail. I thought, 'Oh man, Dermot Hoggins is great.' Then he disappears from the film. It was two days shooting at most. Come on."
Berry also was easily convinced. Good thing. "She was our No. 1 choice," says Andy. If she didn't say yes, "Our short list was empty. There was no No. 2."
"She said, 'These roles don't come around. I don't see scripts like this opportunity,' " Lana says. "Because of her particular-ness -- her race particular-ness and her presence particular-ness. "
Berry recalls a revelation that happened when she was being fitted for her costumes as Jocasta, the German/Jewish blonde trophy wife of Broadbent's ailing composer in 1936 Britain.
"I was putting on outfit after outfit," she says. "Tom Tykwer said to me, 'Have you ever done much period work or worn clothes like this?' And I said, 'OK, just take a minute and breathe and think about what you just asked me. 'Oh, he said, you are really black. You're not white.' I would be in some rags somewhere saying 'yes-um, no-sum.' That is why I did the movie. It is so exciting for me because I am getting a chance to be in an era I wouldn't before."
Berry's biggest stretch was as Ovid, a wizened male Korean doctor in the high-tech "Neo Seoul " of 2144. Hanks, however, leaves any attempt at doing drag to Weaving, who pulls a Nurse Ratched as a tyrannical caretaker at an old folks home.
Considering Hanks started off as a cross-dresser on the '80s sitcom Bosom Buddies, "I got that done right off the bat," he says.
Although they might have deserved six paychecks for their efforts, Hanks and Berry only got one each for the $100 million opus. "I only did one role a day," Hanks reasons.
Actually, "Tom was going in the direction of one-sixth," says Andy, implying that Hollywood's top box-office earner took a cut from his usual pay day that has been estimated as high as $50 million for 2009'sAngels & Demons, the sequel to The Da Vinci Code.
Berry, meanwhile, most likely missed out on workman's comp after she broke her right foot on her day off while walking around on location in Mallorca, Spain, with daughter Nahla, 4.
The injury caused her to not only cancel an appearance at this year's Oscar ceremony but also forced major changes in the shooting schedule in order to accommodate her 2 1/2-week recovery until her cast came off.
Lana sings Berry's praises for soldiering on. "You never saw the pain in her performance."
That's all the more impressive since she re-injured her foot after slipping off a rock for a scene shot in a river. "She screamed an expletive louder than anyone I've ever heard," says Hanks. "There were 60 people who all lunged down to help her."
Asked how she is doing, Berry shows off her pricey stilettos and says, "I'm back in high heels."
But she does have one souvenir from the experience: "I used to be a size 7 and now I'm an 8. I'm one of those people."
By Susan Wloszczyna