Tom Hanks talks about 'Larry,' actors and the joys of producing

July 01, 2011

To understand Tom Hanks' career, you have to understand that thing he did in "That Thing You Do."

This was Hanks' first writing and directing project, and a deeply personal movie despite the innocuous surface story of a band forming and breaking up in the 1960s.

Toward the end, there's a telling scene of a showbiz vet, played by Hanks himself, giving advice to Guy, a young man who's just learned, firsthand, how quickly fortunes rise and fall in Tinseltown.

Guy is played by Tom Everett Howard, a dead-ringer for a twenty-something Hanks. Watching the scene, you get the uncanny sense that this Hanks is giving advice to a younger version of himself as his character dissects the failed band's founding members.

"Lenny's the fool, Jimmy's the . . . talent, but you Guy, you're the smart one."

I've always wanted to ask Hanks about this scene, and I had a chance when he came through town to promote "Larry Crowne."

I recited his dialogue, and I hadn't even finished the line before he burst out laughing.

"This is like a visit to my therapist," he said. "Yes, that is an important scene. In a lot of ways, that scene in 'That Thing You Do' was all about the things I wish someone had told me, the things I wish I had known."

What's so revealing about the scene is the way Hanks pauses before uttering the word "talent," with a shrug of indifference, even annoyance.

Jimmy's arrogance and selfishness have ruined the band, and Hanks' character wants Guy to understand that.

And if Hanks really could go back in time, and give advice to himself, what would he say?

"You're not the natural talent."

And it wouldn't hurt too much to hear.

"Jimmy's the natural talent, and he's by and large ungovernable. He doesn't know the difference between right and wrong, because he's off wrestling without his own principles."

And he's not the one who makes the band, and the music, really work.

For that you need . . .

"The smart guy, who can just see the structure of the band from his vantage point, and who brings it all together."

Spoken like a fellow who's made the journey from sitcom star to two-time Oscar winner to producer, a guy who commissions a lot more work than he'd ever get as an actor.

Playtone, the company he formed to make "That Thing You Do," has produced four Emmy- winning series (including "John Adams" and "The Pacific"), a dozen movies, and has just announced a new slate of projects that includes adaptations of a Neil Gaiman book, the stage play "American Idiot," and a kids' movie based on a vintage toy.

The famously modest Hanks is obviously down-playing his Oscar-caliber ability. But he's not a brooding method actor seeking the muse. He's known on set as the smart one.

You'll get no argument from Robert Zemeckis, who directed Hanks in "Castaway." When that movie was wrapped, Zemeckis told me he was struck by how incredibly shrewd Hanks was on the set - one of the few actors who sees the script as a whole, who understands how an acting choice on page five will affect his choices on page 95.

Another thing that Hanks understands - actors can do things, wonderful things, but they can't always get things done. There is creative control in the less glamorous work of the producer.

"A lot of actors are nuts," said Hanks. "And they don't want to do the long-haul diligence. My joke about producing is that it's getting somebody to do something they don't want to do, and telling somebody else they don't get to do the thing they want to do. It's not easy."

But it is rewarding, Hanks said.

"I sought to be creative without being at the mercy of the phone. Most actors have to wait for permission to go out and do their job. And I didn't want to be a guy who was sitting in Los Angeles waiting for a call. In order to change that, I needed to have alliance with people who knew how to make things work. I made those alliances [by forming] Playtone, and I was able to get back to my original desire, and that was to answer the question, 'How can we do this?' "

In Hollywood, producers are often known as the suits who count the beans, but Hanks has found that running the show enables him, for the first time, to work without compromise.

" 'Band of Brothers' is the best example. By that time, we were thinking we can take this [Stephen Ambrose] book, put it on HBO, and we don't have to play by any of the rules. We can have the cinematic treatment with all the freedoms of long-form television, and we were ahead of the game. And that wouldn't have happened unless I had the alliances."

Being at the top of the pyramid has also made Hanks exhaustively busy, and so he found a kind of refuge in writing and directing "Larry Crowne," the modestly scaled story of a man, furloughed at 50, who starts over by enrolling at community college, where he falls in love with his teacher (Julia Roberts).

"This began as a story of a guy who has a chance to reinvent himself," Hanks said. "Then the economy tanked, and all of a sudden everything we were doing was ripped from today's headlines. And I thought, we have an opportunity here to go after something that is truly authentic."

For Hanks, that meant red-penciling the idea of easy villains.

"To me the most disappointing storytelling is protagonist/antagonist, a bad guy beats up on a good guy. I'm satisfied with the bad guy just being indifferent fate. That's more or less how we lose our jobs. The maddening part is how impersonal it is."

Hanks hopes people find someone to root for in Larry.

"Larry's crusade is not to give in to cynicism, and it's not easy at his age.

"When you are young and you are faced with a great decision, it seems solutions just come out of the ether, they just sort of happen. As you get older, problems and circumstances are only altered by your own individual actions. You don't wait for something magical to come along. You have to take a step forward, every day. For Larry it's taking those steps, and having faith that something good will come from that."

Anything's possible, said Hanks. In 1985, he didn't see his role in "Volunteers" as life altering, but it's where he started hanging out with a young actress named Rita Wilson.

"I've been married 23 years, and it's all because I took a job."

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