Tom Hanks: Happy as Larry

By Michele Manelis

To get his personal project movie about unemployment and middle age romance made, Tom Hanks worked a double shift - as director and star. He talks to Michele Manelis.

The booming voice of Tom Hanks can be heard at least half a corridor's length away before he enters the hotel room. The occasion is his second film as director - Larry Crowne, a mid-life crisis romantic comedy starring him and Julia Roberts. The always-affable and gregarious movie star offers a strong handshake and looks you squarely in the eye. In person, he's as downright charming as any of his on-screen characters, and this larger-than-life presence inhabits the room as though it were his own lounge.

"Are we interested in older romances these days?" he says, repeating the question, while pouring coffee for two. "If someone proves there's an economic reason to make these movies, yes. And here's the thing, I'm 55 years old. These days there's a bit of a distinction between us and people who used to be 55 in that we don't smoke, and we didn't get shit-faced everyday at 4.30 in the afternoon with a bunch of cocktails. We are a little more mobile than the 50-year-old born of an earlier time, so there's a degree of vibrancy, and generations don't mean as much as they used to." He pauses. "But in all honesty, our movie was independently financed because studios don't want to make movies like this at all anymore."

The script was written by Hanks, together with Nia Vardalos (whose My Big Fat Greek Wedding he helped produce) and uses Hanks' effusive childlike demeanour to its full extent. He plays a store clerk and all-round nice guy who finds himself suddenly fired on the basis that his lack of higher education has deemed him impossible to promote.

He then enrols in a local state college, makes some "wacky" friends and, big surprise, establishes a relationship with his teacher, played by Roberts.

Watching this celebrated award-winning actor/director/producer portray an average Joe requires a leap in the audience's imagination. It's difficult to imagine Hanks has had any experience in the realm of minimum wage-earners, let alone the world of unemployment.

"Listen, I distinctly remember the world of unemployment," he laughs. "It's not difficult. I've lost gigs as an actor, and there's not a person in the world that can't empathise with the idea of walking into the workplace where you think you're king, and the next thing you're outside with all your possessions before lunchtime," he says. "And if you're asking me why should anyone buy me as a department store clerk? Well, why would you buy me as anything? I'm an actor. This is what I do."

Larry Crowne follows That Thing You Do, 15 years ago, as the second film he's directed. Although the movie didn't take the world by storm, it had an endearing storyline and Hanks proved he was a decent director. Why so long between directing gigs?

"Well, I don't specifically look for scripts to direct. These two films were very personal and grew out of a very natural, organic place. I had these ideas and puttered around with them and they snowballed until they came closer and closer to being a reality. Larry Crowne took six years to get made. After all that time I didn't want to give it up to somebody else's artistic vision."

Given that his job as director is quite an undertaking on its own, as leading man in almost every frame, the task he put himself through took an enormous effort. "Well, it was a good role and I wanted to play the part," he smiles.

As one of the directorial perks, Hanks had autonomy over the cast, which includes his wife, Rita Wilson. "I handed her the script and I said, "Okay, Julia Roberts is playing the teacher. Pick a role. Who do you want to play?" and she picked the lady in the bank. She said, "How deep can I go on this?" I said, "Go nuts. Go find the perfect wig. Find the perfect high heels. We'll rip it up while we're there, so make it happen."

As for Roberts, they have undeniable on-screen chemistry together. Hanks says, "We met a long time ago, but we really got to know each other when we were making Charlie Wilson's War. I don't know what it is, man, but we laugh at the same things. We have more or less priorities that are about work and family that measure up. I think that she is a kind and nice lady, and I think I am a kind and nice guy."

Niceties aside, there are many examples of couples who share on-screen chemistry but can't stand to be in the same room as each other when the cameras aren't rolling.

"Yes, and that's a goofy thing, because it's possible to be lovers on-screen and really hate each other and it proves that this is a superficial artform. For me, I make it a point to like the other person because it's just a better way to go to work."

His career as TV and film producer has included such ambitious fare as The Pacific, Band of Brothers, and Where the Wild Things Are. A risk-taker of sorts, he hasn't chosen the predictable route of superhero movies or action franchises, either in front or behind the cameras.

"To a degree yes, I suppose I've avoided that version of my career, otherwise I'd be here talking to you about Forrest Gump 5. The only sequels I've done are the Toy Story movies, and that's because they seem to be a different brand of perennial story," he says. "I'm not saying that I sit around and have strategy sessions with my crack team of show business experts, but I will say that there's a ton of stuff that just doesn't interest me," he explains.

"It takes a long time to make these movies and then you have to go out and promote them and sell them. You have to really embrace them, and I have no interest in a lot of movies out there of a certain kind."

Watching Hanks and Roberts zip around on a 1983 Yamaha Riva 180 scooter might be too adorable for some to stomach, however it's refreshing to see romance can bloom after 40.

"I suppose you could say there's a message, but it's not an overt one. I don't trust movies like that. I look at them askance, I don't buy it," he says. "I think our movie is about the battle against cynicism, which is not an easy thing to wage. And to be open to the opportunities that life may bring you is oddly enough the antithesis of being cynical about what those opportunities are," he says. "So, I think that would be the message. But not with a capital M. Please make it a small-case m for message."

LOWDOWN

Who: Tom Hanks
What: Larry Crowne
When: Opens August 4

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