In 1993 Michael Conner Humphreys, from small town Mississippi, attended an open audition for a new Tom Hanks film. It would lead to him being cast as the young Forrest Gump. After the film grossed $600m worldwide and ‘Run Forrest, run’ entered the lexicon, the stars were aligned for Conner to live the high life. Instead, Conner ended up enlisting with the US army, serving 18 months in Iraq.
Today he teaches English online to Chinese students from his home in Vancouver, a suburb of Portland. In today’s world of TikTok, Instagram, and wannabe influencers, a man in the know expresses caution for teenagers with a thirst for the spotlight.
Knowing some of what you’ve been through since, Forrest Gump feels a bit like Macbeth: something not to be named. But how did it come about?
The Memphis News announced they were doing an open casting call for a Tom Hanks film, in Memphis and my mom asked me if I wanted to go, just for fun. I didn’t know who Tom Hanks was by name, but I knew him from the movies. We just went on a whim. The call probably had 300 or 400 kids, and nationwide they had a few thousand. I went in for the first audition and then maybe two more the following weekends. A month later they were flying me to Los Angeles to do screen tests with the director.
What happened next?
We went to film. My mom took me for months to do that, and my dad was back at home taking care of my two younger sisters. He had to leave his job to take care of my sisters during those few months while we were filming. I did the shooting in the middle of ‘93, and then I was essentially involved with it for the next two years.
Every six months they would release the film in another major region, so I did a lot of travelling: ended up in London for the first time, Germany, Japan, a few other places. And also the Oscars happened. All of the hubbub from it happened in those two years when I obviously had all this attention on me.
Did you want to be famous?
I knew the film had done very well, but at that age I never thought about being famous. But the longer it went on, the more uncomfortable I got with having all the attention on me. Those initial two years after the film, there were people calling, and I did hit up a few auditions here and there. But I found having to travel and do auditions tedious. Once I realised what kind of work you had to do, and that I’d have to move to Los Angeles, I got less and less interested in pursuing it.
Were you a happy teenager?
Well, this is the thing: I had the two years of messing with Forrest Gump, and during that time I was still in the same school, around the kids I had grown up with. So even after I came back from making that movie they didn’t really act any different around me. When I was 11 we moved to a new town in Mississippi. I went to this new school and they knew who I was before I even got there. From that point on I was only ever ‘the kid who was in that film’.
I hated every relationship I had from that point on, which did not work well for a teenager. My handling of my social anxiety went completely downhill. All of my grades fell. I used to be a straight A student until I was 11, and then I just became flunk, flunk, flunk. If I had moved to LA and been around people who did that stuff, it probably would have been different, but staying in Mississippi and having that following me was a weird situation for a kid.
What interests did you have?
My dad and grandfathers had all been in the military, so I had always been into military stuff, and aircraft, and engineering. I also started to get really into history and archaeology right after Forrest Gump. My main interests were not in acting.
Is that why you chose the army?
I wasn’t planning on being in the military. But 9/11 happened, and as the wars picked up I got more interested. I was like ‘OK, if you’re going to be in there, this would be the time.’ And at 19, when I joined, I basically had got to the point where I had no idea what I was going to do with myself. That was the peak of my post-Forrest Gump disillusionment.
My head was: ‘You’re probably never going to do anything else that comes close to that, except maybe being in a real war. Go do this and that will be the other thing you have that is somehow semi-respectable.’
Was it easy to transition into the army?
So they put you through the routine of basic training – the whole break-you-down, build-you-back-up, drill sergeants yelling at you. It’s the same experience for everyone. I didn’t go in telling people who I was, but after a few weeks they figured it out. They made jokes, but I went through the training and stayed professional. I found it easy because I was trying to push myself. Also I was geeking out about all the equipment.
I’m guessing that they were unforgiving with Forrest Gump catchphrases.
[laughs] Oh yeah. What’s funny is that it’s a popular film in the army community, and drill sergeants already had a tendency to call people ‘Gump’. They would call me that before knowing who I was. That was just something they yelled at everybody. Or ‘Run Forrest, run’. It was just horrible!
Do you think your experiences have delayed a ‘normal’ life?
Honestly, I’m 35 and I am where I could have been when I was 25. That is not uncommon now. But I just finished college a couple of years ago. I have never been married. I’ve had very few long-term relationships. I’m not that far past my post-army, early 20s. Being in that film as a kid and other circumstances kind of led to that, and there was a ten-year period when I just didn’t do anything. That is my fault, just a decade of no real activity, no moving forward.
Once you get out of the military there is a post-military malaise. A lot of people fall into depression, and it is easy, post-deployment, to just become static. I started getting out of that a few years ago.
Would you recommend the military to a teenager?
I think everybody should be in the military for a couple of years, probably when they are at 18, 19, 20 years old. There’s a lot of good stuff, and everyone I know who was in there, they all have certain common attributes. What you get to see greatly expands your understanding of the world and yourself. That’s hard to find if you are in high school and then college. You’re never changing the little bubble you’re in.
Was there any part of fame that you missed?
Because of the experience I had, I became very anti-celebrity. Just the idea of fame, and all my experiences with it, have been really negative. I think you can either be really famous, and you get the benefits, or you are constantly at the bottom scrounging for it, and that is kind of what I saw as a kid. I just wanted to have nothing to do with it.
These days, how easy is it for someone at a young age to see peers being celebrated in the media do you think?
There’s a very toxic side of celebrity, and I think for young people in particular it is dangerous to be too enthralled with that. It’s like social media: now people are just obsessed with having attention on themselves, and when you’re a teenager you are doubly obsessed because you’re trying to fit in. For a 17-year-old kid who is trying to be successful at acting and sees somebody else make it, and they don’t make it, that is probably pretty devastating. I don’t think a kid needs to be dealing with that.
Did any part of you want awards and recognition?
I didn’t really think about it. I knew what the Oscars were, and the film got so many Oscars – I was proud of that. I didn’t get anything personally, but Tom Hanks did give me an honorary Oscar. It was appreciation for my part in the film. So I have a fake Oscar from Tom Hanks, which is cool enough.
Something he bought in a souvenir shop somewhere?
Is being searchable a burden?
So far it hasn’t been. I don’t search myself…well, every now and then I do: I’ll Google myself just to see what is popping up. But I have never delved into comments. Things like interviews and Tom Hanks talking about me, that’s cool.
Forrest Gump has been out for 26 years now so the majority of the population on earth has seen me at some point, and I guess there are people looking me up on the internet right now. But in my daily life I don’t have to think about it. That’s fine with me.
What would you say to parents whose children want to get into acting?
My parents made a good choice: when I decided I wasn’t interested in it, they didn’t push me. But if somebody is going to take their kids into this, I would say get the kids to focus on theatre and acting classes, and stay away from film. I mean, if your kid can get a part in a film, chances are it’s not going to be a huge film. Stick with theatre until at least in their late teens. Learning acting as an art is going to help carry them forward.
What happens next for you?
I’ve been trying to work my way back into acting. Just slowly but surely. I’ve been doing acting classes in Portland, and little small roles, mainly theatre. Now I have actually been doing acting classes, I’ve rediscovered how much I like it. I’m confident with going to try out for stuff now, which was not the case throughout most of my life.
Finally, I presume you haven’t told your students about Forrest Gump.
[laughs] Oh, they know about it. The company I work for uses me to promote themselves specifically. The five year old kids don’t know, but their parents know for sure.