Tom Hanks Fights Cynicism With Cinema In 'Crowne'

Originally published on June 27, 2011 10:02 am

In his long Hollywood career, Tom Hanks has often played the hopeful character — so his latest film, about reinvention amid recession, isn't much of a stretch.

It's called Larry Crowne and in it, Hanks plays the ever-optimistic Larry, a loyal employee of a big-box store whose life gets turned upside down when he's unceremoniously downsized. Underwater on his mortgage and suddenly unemployed, Larry decides to reinvent himself by heading off to community college, where he falls in with a colorful group of scooter-riding students and even develops a crush on his teacher.

Hanks, who also co-wrote and directed Larry Crowne, tells NPR's Michele Norris that he drew on personal experience to make the film: He didn't have the grades or the means to go to a university after high school, so instead he went to junior college.

"I was sitting sometimes right next to people who were twice my age," Hanks says of his time at junior college. "Mothers whose kids had gone out of the house; there were divorced guys; there were people there who were retired and taking on new jobs; there were also guys who were just back from Vietnam. "

He says that's where he developed the idea of community college as a cross-generational meeting place, something that couldn't really exist at a four-year university. And that idea stuck with him.

"We were in the same exact boat as far as our fears go and our possibilities for what the future was," he says. "I was just starting out in my adult life and they were all starting out brand-new versions of what their adult life was going to be."

The Tom Hanks In Larry

Hanks has a lot in common with the amiable Larry. For one thing, both Hanks and Larry are comfortable in the kitchen.

"In my house, breakfast is my thing, get out of my way," Hanks says. "I'm no good at any other meal, but breakfast with a cup of coffee and Click and Clack the Tappet brothers playing in the background — that's a fine Saturday or Sunday."

Hanks also understands the draw of the kind of big-box store at which the fictional Larry spent much of his working life.

"When we were scouting for our film we ended up shooting at a Kmart and, I gotta say, I was amazed by the bargains," he says. "I bought everything from a 5-pound sack of Japanese rice, a pitcher for ice tea, a fishing pole, some camping equipment."

A Regular Renaissance Man

Hanks played three very distinct roles in the making of Larry Crowne, and he says being that involved in a project can make for quite the challenge.

"Writing a movie and then directing the result of that script is ... a personal virus that you have to fight. It's a fever that you get that takes you over," he says.

But the challenge isn't actually in the filming itself; it's in the six months of preparation that come before any of the cameras start rolling.

"That's when it's hard to go back and forth between being a director who wants to tell a story with a specific sort of sound and look to it, as opposed to the actor just saying, 'And what am I going to say here exactly and why am I saying it?'" Hanks says. "That's where the battle between being a director and an actor is really fought."

It All 'Comes Down To The Guy Who Makes The Film'

Hanks says it can be impossible to catch your breath when you're wearing so many different hats on set. He views it as more of a sprint than an endurance test, but that doesn't make calling the shots any easier.

He concedes that there were moments of uncertainty in the making of Larry Crowne, but he got through those moments by looking to fellow filmmakers for guidance — at least internally.

"I thought, 'Well, what would Nora Ephron do in this position? What would Jonathan Demme do? What would Steven [Spielberg] do? What would [Robert] Zemeckis do?' " he says. "And they're never the same exact things, but what they would do is they would plow forward. You're always protecting the color and the timbre and the shade, the tenor — whatever descriptive word you want to use for what the movie is somewhere on the storytelling graph — and that comes down to the guy who makes the film."

And there's no question that the guy who made Larry Crowne is an optimist. Hanks says as far back as he can remember, he's started every morning with a positive outlook. And it shows.

"This is a movie that is about the battle against cynicism, of not giving in to that form of cynicism," he says. "I think that if I wasn't in show business I would still be a guy who has little cynicism."

He says he could have been perfectly happy as a tour guide at some great historical site, making history come alive for his visitors. But even that wouldn't be so different from what he does today.

"I'd still be telling stories somehow and I would still be searching out the least cynical stories to tell."

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

And we're going to spend some time now with actor Tom Hanks, or should I say Larry Crowne, the hero of his new movie also called "Larry Crowne." But Hanks isn't just the star, he's also the director and co-writer.

In the film, Larry is a loyal employee at a big-box store, UMart. He loves his job, and he knows a lot about his merchandize. But he gets fired, he's told, because he never went to college.

So Larry dusts himself off and heads to community college. There, he meets a margarita-swilling speech teacher played by Julia Roberts, and she has some navigation issues of her own.

(Soundbite of movie, "Larry Crowne")

Ms. JULIA ROBERTS (Actress): (as Mercedes Tainot) Oh, I'm just drowning out the GPS. See? It never stops.

Mr. TOM HANKS (Actor): (as Larry Crowne) No wonder. That's a Map Genie. Back when I sold you such things, I would've steered you toward a Vortex because the Map Genie has - it's very complicated.

Ms. ROBERTS: (as Mercedes Tainot) Oh.

Mr. HANKS: (as Larry Crowne) Well, no wonder. The auto-on feature is engaged. So, menu, select, features, auto-voice select, change, yes. On, off. Off, change, yes, save and back, back, back, back and exit.

NORRIS: It was fun watching you in the UMART.

Mr. HANKS: Oh, yeah.

NORRIS: It made me wonder if you spend time in Kmarts or Wal-Marts or...

Mr. HANKS: Of late? I go to places like Kmart and Wal-Mart when I am in location in other places. And I was here in L.A., and I was doing some Christmas shopping out in the valley, and I went to a Target. And I swear it was such a big store that you could see the curvature of the Earth...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HANKS: ...as you look down the main broadway aisle that went all the way to the other end of the store. When we were scouting for our film, we ended up shooting in a Kmart. And I was - I got to say, I was amazed by the bargains. I bought everything from...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HANKS: ...a 50-pound sack of Japanese rice, a pitcher for ice tea, a fishing pole. I bought some nice, kind of like sandals, open-toed mandals, you know, those kind of things that you wear in the summertime.

NORRIS: Do you wear them with or without socks?

MR. HANKS: Oh, without socks. I'm not from Denmark.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NORRIS: You're pretty comfortable in the kitchen in this film. Do you do a lot of cooking yourself?

Mr. HANKS: Oh, I'm really great at breakfast, man. I tell you, I'm the happy morning guy. In my house, breakfast is my thing. Get out of my way. I can put on a breakfast table that, honestly, we could charge, you know, 40 bucks and call it a Sunday brunch. I could do a 20-minute segment on - what is it? The Roving Kitchen?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HANKS: What's the name of that show? That thing - I'm very...

NORRIS: Oh, "Splendid Table." Is that what you're talking about?

Mr. HANKS: Oh, that's it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HANKS: That's it. Yeah. That's the one.

I don't know. Breakfast with a cup of coffee and Click & Clack, the Tappet Brothers...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HANKS: ...playing in the background.

NORRIS: Of course.

Mr. HANKS: ...that's a fine Saturday or Sunday.

NORRIS: Your character, Larry Crowne, he has to reinvent himself, and he does it in part by starting to take classes at a community college. And you yourself spent some time at a junior college, and that's where you met someone who helped inspire this character?

Mr. HANKS: Well, I went to two years of junior college right out of high school because I had nowhere else to go, really. I didn't have the grades or the finances to go to a real university. In my classes, which were all those kind of, like, ology 101 classes, you know, Sociology 101, Zoology 101...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HANKS: ...I was sitting sometimes right next to people who were twice my age: mothers whose kids had gone out of the house, or there were divorced guys, or people there who were retired and taking on new jobs, and there were also guys who were just back from Vietnam because this was '74, '75.

And we were in the same exact boat as far as our fears go and our possibilities for what the future was. I was just starting out my adult life, and they were all starting out brand-new versions of what their adult life was going to be. And that did always stick with me as this kind of great meeting place for cross-generational learning.

NORRIS: Mr. Hanks, you not only starred in this movie, you also co-wrote and directed this film, and that means that you're the guy who calls the shots.

Mr. HANKS: You bet.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NORRIS: And as good as that feels, I wonder if there's a moment where you weren't quite sure of what to do, if you questioned your own judgment and perhaps wished for just a second that Steven Spielberg or Robert Zemeckis was there behind the camera...

(Soundbite of laughter)

NORRIS: ...to give you a little bit of guidance.

Mr. HANKS: Well, they sort of are because, you know, I've been to a clinic every time I've gone to work as an actor with all the directors that I've worked with. Directing a movie - certainly, writing a movie and then directing the result of that script is a real - it's a personal virus that you have to fight. It's a fever that you get that takes you over.

And from the moment I decided to direct a film, I thought, well, what would Nora Ephron do in this position? What would Jonathan Demme do? What would Steven do? What would Bob Zemeckis do? And they're never the same exact things, but what they would do is they would...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HANKS: ...they would plow forward. You're always protecting the color and the timbre and the shade, the tenor, whatever descriptive word you want to use for what the movie is somewhere on the storytelling graph, and that comes down to the guy who makes the film.

NORRIS: So why are you doing all this? You're also the guy that stars in the film, so when do you ever get a moment to catch your breath?

Mr. HANKS: Well, you don't, but you understand that it's a sprint. I must say that, you know, I'm in costume, I'm there. The whole thing is in one's head and laid down anyway. I don't want to discount the amount of work that goes in prior to it because that's where the real preparation is.

On the day, on the set, getting ready for the shot, it's not all that different from other positions that I've been lucky enough to be in as an actor, where you work all day, you're in, more or less, every scene, and the best place to be is right next to the camera all day. So you're just ready to step into it when the lights are set. That's not that different.

The big difference is in the six months prior to that day. That's when it's hard to go back and forth between being a director who wants to tell a story with a specific sort of sound and look to it as opposed to the actor just saying: And what I'm going to say here exactly, and why am I saying it? That's where the battle between being a director and actor is really fought.

NORRIS: This movie is really about reinvention, and it made me wonder if you weren't as good as you are in what you do, if you weren't acting or directing or writing or...

Mr. HANKS: You mean if I wasn't in show business?

NORRIS: ...scoping the world, if you weren't in show business...

Mr. HANKS: Yeah.

NORRIS: ...what would you be doing instead?

Mr. HANKS: Well, this is a movie that is about the battle against cynicism, of not giving in to that form of cynicism. And I think if I wasn't in show business, I would still be a guy who has little cynicism. I mean, I have kept my sense of humor and I've kind of like wake up in a positive outlook as much today as I did when I was 8 years old, according to my own memory. And if I had my druthers, I think I will get the most satisfaction by being like...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HANKS: ...like a tour guide at some great historical location. Have you ever taken, for example, the Circle Line in New York City?

NORRIS: Yes, I have.

Mr. HANKS: All right. I went on the Circle Line when we were doing "Bonfire of the Vanities," it's that long ago. And this older gentleman, he must have been in his 60s, he kept up the most gracious conversation. He talked about how the Maxwell House Coffee Factory over in New Jersey. He said on the days when he was growing up, the smell of coffee would come across the river, and you could smell it in lower Manhattan. And I swear when he said that, I thought I could smell the coffee myself that day. It's those kind of - that's the job that I would love to have because it'd still be telling stories somehow, and I would still be able to, I think, be searching out the least cynical stories to tell.

NORRIS: You know, you still can. Tom Hanks, the docent.

Mr. HANKS: Not bad. What's not - you know what? As soon as "Larry Crowne" opens, I'm going to start giving tours at Independence Hall in Philadelphia.

NORRIS: I'd sign up.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HANKS: Listen, you'd have a good time, and you'd learn a few things too.

NORRIS: I know I would.

Tom Hanks, it's been a pleasure to talk to you.

Mr. HANKS: Thank you, Michele.

NORRIS: Thank you so much.

Mr. HANKS: My pleasure. Hey, everybody, send in those pledge checks.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NORRIS: And you might get a coffee mug.

Mr. HANKS: Thank you.

NORRIS: Tom Hanks, his new movie is "Larry Crowne," and it opens next week.

During our interview, he also confessed to a love affair that, in his words, has taken over his life. You can hear about Tom Hanks' passion for vintage typewriters at npr.org.

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.