Tom Hanks talks - a lot

June 29, 2011

Tom Hanks talks about his decision to direct another film after 15 years, his friendship with Julia Roberts and how he handles fame so well.

Larry Crowne stars two of the biggest names in Hollywood, and the movie offers a refreshingly adult and thoughtful antidote to such summer blockbusters as Transformers: Dark of the Moon, which is no doubt breaking box-office records as you read this.

And yet Tom Hanks, who co-wrote, directed and stars, has guest-hosted a segment on CNN Sports, done the weather forecast on Spanish-language TV and met with press at various cities around the world, including Miami, where he held court at the Loews Hotel on South Beach, in the hopes that you’ll notice his movie.

Larry Crowne, which opens Friday July 1, is in plain old 2D, has nary a special effect and happens to be about a subject — a middle-aged man loses his job and restarts his life by enrolling in community college — that is insanely timely. But the adult audience that would most appreciate the film has to be lured into theaters these days, so even a huge star like Hanks has to get out there and sell. He spoke to The Miami Herald about the inspiration for the film, his reason for deciding to direct the movie and his relationship with co-star Julia Roberts (who plays one of Larry’s college teachers).

Larry Crowne is the first movie you’ve directed since That Thing You Do!, which was a whopping 15 years ago. Why did you wait so long?
It’s a big job, and it takes you out of the marketplace in a big way, and if you’re a busy actor, it’s hard to concentrate. But the things that I’ve directed are really very personal and small stories that affected me like an illness or a fever. That Thing You Do! was in my head for a very long time, and then I wrote it over the better part of three years, and then it came to a point where I loved it so much I couldn’t get it out of my head, so the only way to deal with it was to go ahead and direct the film. The same thing happened with Larry Crowne. These movies get under your skin, and you develop too much affection for them. You don’t want to give them to another director. I finished the first draft of Larry Crowne in 2009, so that’s two years ago I started working on this. I did do another acting job earlier this year with [director] Stephen Daldry on Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. But that’s still a long time to be out of the marketplace.

You also wrote both That Thing You Do! and Larry Crowne. Have you ever read someone else’s script and wanted to direct it?
I’m not a director. I don’t read screenplays as directors read them. They think “How would I make this? How would I shoot it? Who would I cast?” I read screenplays as an actor. “What’s the part in it for me? What is going to be expected of me? How does this character examine this theme?” However, when I write a screenplay, I always write with the idea that I will be the director of it. It has just ended up being a personal thing that plays out about every 15 years. But I did write and direct episodes on From the Earth to the Moon and Band of Brothers.

What was the original nugget of the idea for Larry Crowne? How did the story occur to you?
The original idea was this image: A guy walking through a store like Target or Walmart — we call ours U-Mart — king of absolutely all he surveys, feeling wonderful about things, enjoying his work and the energy and the community. And then he hears over the P.A. system: “Larry Crowne to the common break area.” And then for no reason whatsoever he can discern, he loses his job. That was the original thing: A guy, by way of corporate indifference, is fired. And then he goes to college, and Julia Roberts is his teacher.

It’s interesting that idea would occur to you and become so personal, because you are a big star in an industry in which people make millions of dollars. Larry’s life and his dilemma is far removed from your own life.
Well, let me tell you: Going back even further, there were two things percolating. Long ago — maybe 15 years ago — I read this story about one of the major discount stores that was caught doing this very diabolical thing of firing people before they reached their calendar date of retirement when they could get their pension package. They were finding disciplinary reasons to fire people who were in their late 40s and 50s, so they wouldn’t have to pay their retirement. They were caught by their own employees; there were lawsuits, and the government fined them. This was back in the 1980s, when the economy was very different. They were just doing the corporate thing of saving money and screwing people over to do it. That stuck in my head.

And then I had my own memory of what junior college was like for me. I didn’t have the money, the grades or the wherewithal to do anything when I got out of high school except go to community college. While everybody else went off to their four-year universities, I went off to a place that I could drive to and that cost only $15 to register for. I went to college with people who were twice as old as I was, guys who were back from Vietnam, women whose kids had grown up and moved out of the house, guys who were retired or divorced. So I personally knew what that experience is like.

Did the recession help you put the two things together in your head?
I had that going on in the back of my head. As the social historians that actors can be, you try to tell stories that somehow hold up a mirror to what’s really going on. This movie is really a diversion about reinvention — the reinvention that Larry has to go through, because he’s lost his job. Real events ended up catching up with our story, so by the time we started making it, the entire Western economy was devalued by at least a third, and Larry, like many other people, was now living in a home that wasn’t worth as much as he owed on it. Reality brought a different and deeper theme to what we wanted to examine, which is what do you do when you start over.

I recently watched That Thing You Do! again, and I noticed both that movie and Larry Crowne have something unusual in common: There are no villains in your films.
The standard storytelling narrative is there’s a protagonist and an antagonist, and then the bad guy loses. We’re all familiar with it. We’ve seen it 100 million times, and that bores me to tears. There are actors who do nothing with their careers but play bad guys or good guys. That doesn’t interest me in the least. In That Thing You Do! there are no bad guys, and yet the greatest thing that happens to that rock band ends up being the reason they break up. In Larry Crowne, there’s no conniving father-in-law or someone who wants to get rid of Larry or is taking over his business. What there is instead are people who are trying to maintain their place in the food chain. When I think of the highfalutin pieces of literature I read in college, from The Iceman Cometh to Desire Under the Elms and Death of a Salesman. — these were not stories that had bad guys in them. They just had incredibly flawed people whose behavior could be aberrant and selfish at the expense of others. That to me is the mirror that we’re supposed to hold up to nature. I’m not big on bad guys pushing the story forward. And yet the adventures the characters go through are protracted and profound and therefore much more interesting.

Julia Roberts is remarkable in this movie, and watching you two guys playing off each other was, to me, the biggest pleasure of the film.
Working with someone like Julia made sense. She’s convivial. She laughs like crazy. She’s very smart, and we enjoy each other’s company and have so much in common. We’ve gone through a lot of the same territory through our careers. I sent the script along to her thinking “This is the most dangerous thing anybody can do in the business: Send a script to a friend and say ‘Hey, I wrote this, I’m going to be in it, I’d like to direct it, and would you let me direct you as well?’” That’s a recipe for disaster. I did say to her “Look, you can’t offend me. Just say no if it’s not for you.” But when she read it, we immediately started talking about how to make it better and deeper. Because we already spoke in actor’s shorthand after working together on Charlie Wilson’s War, we were able to already be on this high level of artistic and professional level of communication.

So the friendship never got in the way of the work?
I don’t think I’ve ever worked with an actress that I did not get along with. I don’t think I’ve ever hated anyone I’ve worked with, and I don’t think I’ve ever worked with anyone who couldn’t stand me. I make a point to try to make it a pleasant experience, because making movies, by and large, can be a real uncomfortable pain. But when it’s someone who is an absolute, total peer, who I’ve had as much history with as I’ve had with Julia — I’ve known her well for about four or five years, but we’ve been on each other’s friendship radar for about twice that — the friendship impacts the work in a good way. You have much more in your pockets than would normally meet the eye.

A lot of stars as famous as you are difficult to interview — if they even do interviews at all. But you are really easy to talk to.
This process does not hold any particular mystery or power. I view this as just sitting around talking about the work I’ve been doing since college. You do something, you sit around, you talk about it a lot. I’m not fearful about talking about my movies, particularly with relatively smart folks. It would be nice if we lived in an atmosphere where the work spoke for itself, and you didn’t have to explain yourself to anybody. But it’s kind of interesting to talk about this stuff, you know? It’s not the chore for me that it is for some people. I have a slightly different personality than those guys. Maybe I’m just too friggin’ chatty.

By Rene Rodriguez

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