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The red carpet has always been a challenging place for Colin Hanks. The blinding white fusillade of incoming camera fire induces watering eyes and vertigo, and he finds the scrum and shouting of press, publicists and onlookers a bit disorienting. He’s not ungrateful to be there; it’s just that by nature, he’s a guy who learns and practices his craft calmly, consistently and without much fanfare. Maybe that’s why he’s kind of snuck up on us in plain sight, doing work that just gets better and more interesting as he goes along.

Hanks has always seen himself as more journeyman than star. “I was just more about [doing] the lunch-pail and-thermos-kind-of-work,” he once told Deadline. Indeed, he’s punched in regularly since grade school when he started doing class plays. He continued in high school and college at Loyola Marymount University, where he decided on an acting career basically by default – it was simply more fun than anything else he was doing at the time. He left college and began auditioning.

His first break was on the 1999 WB teen sci-fi drama Roswell, a role Hollywood lore has it that he landed without producers seeing his headshot or knowing his dad was a guy named Tom. His big break came two years later with the independent feature Orange County in a role that seemed perfect – a good, straight kid whose college dreams are thrown into chaos by the loony adults around him. Even as his perplexity and alarm increases, he remains an anchor for the more frenetic (i.e. Jack Black) actors around him. It was a performance that dismissed any claims of nepotism or entitlement. Roger Ebert’s review ran, “If your father is a famous actor, you may be able to get hired as an intern or an assistant still photographer, or get an acting job in a TV series. If you’re making a feature on your own, it’s because somebody with money thought you were right for the job. In this case, somebody was right.”

Too right, maybe. It begat job offers, but Hanks wasn’t much interested in trivial teen movies, or in repeating himself. As a result, offers slowed. It helps that he seems to possess a genetic immunity to angst. Sean McGinly, who directed Hanks in 2008’s The Great Buck Howard, recalled his sangfroid in the face of the pressures of the business. “He takes it all in stride. Colin is one of the more calm and un-neurotic actors I’ve come across, and he has a lot more reasons to be neurotic than many of my friends who are tortured actors.” Hanks put his head down, worked as often as he could, while carving his own path, which included a 2009 Broadway staging of Moisés Kaufman’s 33 Variations with Jane Fonda. The New York Times and The Washington Post larded reviews of his performance with “winning” and “charming,” and The Observer wrote, “Mr. Hanks quietly shines onstage, with a loose-limbed lanky warmth and comic timing that holds your gaze, even among an impressive cast. He’s clearly having a ball up there, and it is infectious.” How could a lifelong theater geek not be having a ball?

As Hanks once put it, “I’m not Captain America.” Knowing he wasn’t a tent-pole kind of guy, he looked for different, more interesting projects; increasingly, they seemed to be found on television There was his turn as a conflicted priest on Mad Men, and as a (way) against type psychotic killer on Dexter. And most notably, his reluctant policeman-turned-mailman Gus Grimley on FX’s Fargo, which earned high praise from both critics and series creator Noah Hawley. “Colin was born to play this role – it really shows what he is capable of. He’s got that impossible-to-quantify likability, but he’s never been put through his paces like this.” He received an Emmy nod for his trouble, demonstrating in the process a certain still, observational quality not always on display in the comedic panic and energy he’s been praised for in his CBS series Life In Pieces, now in its third season.

But as Hanks continued to evolve as a player in fictional stories, he become more interested in telling real ones. And he’s good at it. In his first documentary, All Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records, he set out to tell the story of the iconic retailer with all the passion of a music lover and pride of a Sacramento native. Getting financing on the heels of the 2008 financial collapse proved fruitless, so he did it himself through Kickstarter, ultimately the perfect way to make a film for and by the people whose lives the music mecca was such a big part of. Its warm critical reception went beyond the film and music press, Fast Company noting, “Hanks explores not just the cultural impact of Tower (and the record store as a business model), but also the impact that it had on the people involved. What could be a simple documentary retreading the well-told narratives about the cultural shifts that ended days of physical media, in Hanks’s hands, is a character study of people who built and transformed a culture – at least for a little while.”

That film took seven years to make. He had seven months and a skeleton crew to make his second. Eagles of Death Metal: Nos Amis is a chilling but ultimately uplifting account of the group’s return to Paris after the terrorist attack at the Bataclan Theater. Again, his storytelling was astute. Billboard wrote, “Hanks takes a deliberately non-fussy approach, utilizing close-ups to capture his subjects’ emotions; he lets the story unfold with the band’s own words, using no narration.”

If he seems to do his best work by stealth, don’t discount it. It would be pretty easy to bask in the family glow or constantly play the affable good guy; instead, he does what challenges and interests him, and does it his own way. In Hank’s case, it’s proving to be the best way.