Legendary two-time Oscar winner Tom Hanks returns behind the camera for the only the second time in his distinguished feature film career. Arriving fifteen years after his directorial debut, That Thing You Do!, Larry Crowne sees Hanks take the title role – a blue-collar divorcee who finds himself laid off from his store job in the midst of the global economic recession. To cope, he decides to go back to college as a mature student and gain a degree. Enrolling in two classes – economics and public speaking – he not only becomes a favourite of fellow pupil Talia (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) but even takes a shine to his tutor, the frosty Mercedes Tainoit (Julia Roberts). Reuniting Hanks with Roberts – last seen together in Charlie Wilson’s War – Larry Crowne emerges as a charming romantic comedy that deals with contemporary issues in a deft way. Below Hanks talks about why it took so long to direct again, why he cast his Larry Crowne co-writer Nia Vardalos as the voice of the Sat-Nav and reveals all about his mouth-watering collaboration with the Wachowskis, Cloud Atlas.
Q: It’s been fifteen years since you last directed. How did it take so long to make a second film?
A: Well, it’s not my regular job. That’s one thing. Directing a feature, you have to be infected with a certain kind of Ecoli or something like that. It has to take over and you have to be like ‘The only thing I can do now is direct this film. I’ve got to see it all the way through!’ Because it’s about two years of your life. And quite frankly being a movie star is a much better gig. Pay’s better. Less is expected of you. You don’t have to work as hard. They let you go home early…sometimes. So it requires that personal investment of telling a story. It took about six years for Larry Crowne to come to pass, and I didn’t start really taking it seriously as something that I would want to spend this much time with, until I had finished my own draft and even that was close to three years ago.
Q: The film speaks to Baby Boomer generation. Do you think they’ve been well served by films these days or have they been left behind?
A: Well, television has never been as good as it has been right now. I’ve been lucky to be involved with a number of things, like Big Love. And I love stuff like Mad Men and Breaking Bad. There are so many truly great television series on there, that it’s actually taking the onus off motion pictures. Movies are very expensive to make. The studio only wants to make a certain type of movie. Anything else that comes out almost comes out by luck. And you also have to say the audiences are not quite there anymore. Only because we have so many other distractions that are available to us.
Take a decade like the Seventies, where you’re seeing the great Marty Scorsese films and Sidney Lumet was making movies, Paul Mazursky was making movies, Woody Allen was cranking them out like crazy. Those were adult films that adults went to see. Well, adults can be quite frankly dazzled by stuff that they can see at home right now. And the market place has been left open to the people who actually choose to go to movies. As opposed to just the folks who go to the movies just because it’s part of the social contract of being young or wanting to meet chicks. That make sense? I don’t know if it did or not.
Q: Will this film find an audience with people who have been laid off? Do you know many this has happened to?
A: I don’t know anybody personally. But as an actor/artist, if I can make that claim, I can’t help but know, point blank, that the turn-down in the economy affects people personally. You don’t have to be a real-estate developer whose condo unit went belly-up. Or somebody who is trying to buy and sell 19 houses at the same time and flipping for a profit. To understand that if you lose your job and you can’t make your mortgage, it’s a personal crisis that you’re going through – not just something you read about on the business pages. Now the trick is how can you possibly make a movie about that, that doesn’t turn out to be the most depressing film you have ever seen? We still wanted to make a movie that was going to be funny. That, if not upbeat, is at least an example of how to fight cynicism, how to combat the depression that could go along with losing one’s job. And how to still have faith in one’s self, that as long as you make some pro-active motions to improve your life, things might get better.
Q: So do you think Larry learns this?
A: The end result of our movie is that Larry Crowne can maybe look back and say ‘The best thing that ever happened to me was losing my job. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have gone to college, I wouldn’t have got a scooter, I wouldn’t have met this magnificent woman.’ Now that’s the fantasy of a movie about it, as opposed to the reality of it. But you cannot deny, if somebody out there has lost it all, and says ‘I’ve got nothing to do. I’m going to go back to college’ and ends up falling in love with being a welder or something, it can happen. I think that’s the…rather than adhering to the fake version of how if you pursue things your dreams will come true, maybe it’s just that if you hang on long enough things might work out for you. In reality, Larry lives in a worse apartment, in a worse neighbourhood, and he has a worse job than he had. But he’s actually a little bit better off than he was at the beginning, but that’s the magic of the movies.
Q: How was it directing yourself, as there’s no-one on set to help you fine-tune your performance?
A: Oh, you’d be surprised at how many people on this movie said, ‘Why don’t you do that again? Why don’t you give that another shot?’ So much of making a movie is about the communication that goes on. Naturally as an actor, all I have to do is do it. I don’t have to talk about it. I just have to put on the costume and show people what I’m thinking. I got to be able to take that conversation between an actor and a director and a writer out of the time frame. Because I wrote it, I knew what I would be willing to live with. As the director, I knew what the tenor and the colour of the scenes would be. And as an actor, I had the ability in order to control the take, even just as we were doing it right now…so actually, I think we saved a little bit of time, because the director and the writer and the actor were the same person. That being said, about 4 o’clock in the afternoon, those three people got very tired, they got very cranky, and they needed to have a few moments to themselves and have a nice cup of tea and just enough scone in order to get through the day.
Q: Who are your inspirations as a director then?
A: Oh! Outside of everybody I’ve ever worked with, who got something good out of me, there is a type of ensemble atmosphere that I’ve actually heard that actors have…like Robert Altman. I understand that sometimes, when he was shooting, you wouldn’t even know that the camera was operating in this way. I grew up worshipping the movies of Stanley Kubrick. I’ve since worked with people who worked with Kubrick. And he said, the crew was so small and the atmosphere was so relaxed, that even though the movies would take 280 days to shoot, it wasn’t expensive. And there was no pressure. And that’s the antithesis of what you would expect of somebody like that. I had some pretty decent primers from people who directed – hard-charging, get the shots, let’s bang it out. As well as some people that said, ‘Let’s see what’s going to happen here. We got it once. Let’s move on.’ So I took a little bit from everybody, and just tried to always force myself not to leave until I heard it and saw it the way I imagined. And still had faith in the serendipity of whoever would bring along something different.
Q: Are there any directors you’d still like to work with?
A: Oh, tonnes of them. Eight million people that are now working! Scorsese – come close a few times. You see something like Carlos…jeez, I’d love to work with that guy. Mark Romanek…who did Never Let Me Go. Stuff like that. You just see so many people and you say ‘How come I can’t make a movie like that? How come I can’t be in that? What’s that about?’
Q: Have you had any conversations with them about it yet?
A: Many, yes. Tonnes. Boy, that’s going to be a beast. It’s going to be wild. Those guys are geniuses! I admire those guys’ films because they throw deep and long. Those are uncompromising movies that are forcing the audience to go on a very deep and different track. Very adult kind of journey. Quite frankly, I want to be tested like that. Then you match it up with the material of Cloud Atlas, which is pretty spectacular. And the screenplay is off the scale! I just want to be part of something that is much, much bigger than showing up and hitting the marks. I’ve had good experiences of being the guy in a movie, and in huge pieces of commerce, like the Robert Langton movies, and it’s part burden and part challenge. It’s part ‘Let’s just get the friggin’ thing done’, as well as how as artists do we make sure this beat is about something. And that is a little bit about what the Wachowskis are going to demand from Cloud Atlas, of me, and plenty of other people. It’s a big ensemble – so it’s not a vehicle for any one of us that are in it.
Q: You’re a big Twitter user. And you also drive electric cars. What’s the attraction?
A: Oh, that! Well, I think tweeting is like sending out cool telegrams to your friends, once a week. If you send out tweets, and you read the tweets that people tweet back to you…they’re kinda gibberish. You can’t make sense of them. I’m not the kind of guy who says [stoner voice] ‘Just chillin’ at the house today!’ I don’t do that kind of stuff. I just try to compose a little hi-tech haiku that goes out to people. It’s a bit of a creative bash that’s fun. And I’ve always been a fan of electric cars because I admire the technology, and living in Los Angeles, you’d be surprised at how long you can drive an electric car that only has a range of sixty miles. You can drive the thing almost all weekend, and not have to fill it up with gas. And not filling it up with gas means I’ve saved thousands of dollars!
Q: Like Larry, did you change around middle age?
A: No. I don’t think so. I had first kids when I was in my early 20s. I had my second kids when I was in my mid 30s. So I always seemed to be in my child-rearing years, no matter what. The biggest thing that happened was my 15 year-old decided to go to boarding school. So all of a sudden, Rita and I were empty nesters – yahoo! That’s not a crisis. That’s a celebration! The standard version of a mid-life crisis is that people wake up one morning and realise that they’re unhappy, even though they have everything. I don’t know what that is. I might wake up tired in the morning but I don’t wake up unhappy.
Q: Have you ever wanted to explore the dark side in your characters?
A: I don’t need to explore the dark side just for the sake of it because that ends up meaning you play a role where you have lines like ‘Before I kill you Mr Bond, perhaps you’d like a tour of our installation!’ But this is who I am, and I think I get to explore an awful lot of really great themes that I think are recognisable to everybody. Even so, I made Road to Perdition or Green Mile, which were pretty dark movies in a lot of ways, all the press said, ‘Ah, but you’re still such a nice guy!’ How can you say that? I shot guys in the head! ‘Yeah, but you did it in a nice way!’
Q: Has anybody tried to tempt you down the superhero way?
A: Normally, I would say ‘Ah, that would be boring. How much fun would that be?’ But then you get to see Anthony Hopkins in Thor. He’s like a 70 year-old guy, with one eye, killing people. And I’m thinking ‘Maybe it’s a good gig.’ Well, Cloud Atlas is going to be a completely different sort of thing. So, I’m not interested in an inorganic choice. People offer me all the time – would you like to play the bad guy in this thing? And I read it and I say, ‘This is not about anything! It doesn’t really explore anything.’ So I’ve got no reason to do it.
Q: You wrote Larry Crowne with Nia Vardalos. But you get the starring role, and she got the voice of the Sat-Nav. How come?
A: Ah, well – she’s done plenty of other things! We started working on this about six years ago. Nia did the first three drafts. We all knew that this wasn’t the movie it was going to be. And very quickly we realised the strength was going to be…my male version of it was going to be accurate, her female version of it was going to be accurate too. How many times have you seen movies written by men in which the women say ‘When are you coming home?’ They don’t really have a role. They’re just the chick of the piece. And she was always able to make sure that the script wasn’t full of scenes that make you go ‘That’s not how women think.’ And I got to do the other side of it too. That’s not going to happen because that’s not how guys think. But after a while, she went off, and I took it under my wing. But she was at every read-thru, and on the set almost every day. And she was always coming by with a tweak or an idea that would keep as grounded in an authenticity that we were going for. And there weren’t any roles for her. The best she could do was the voice of the Map Genie – but I think she did a really good job!
Larry Crowne is now available on Blue-ray and DVD.