Hollywood, it should come as no surprise, is a town built on artifice. No matter the quality of the story or the message at the heart of a film, movie making is still a business and even at its very best, there’s a constant reminder that these things often are built out of powerful egos and bottom lines.
And then Tom Hanks comes riding over the hill with a merry band of scooters jockeys and even the most cynical of hearts has to smile.
“I get to brag about it now,” Hanks beams with mock bravado, having just dismounted from his scooter, “Yeah, I did my own stunts… We roll pretty dangerously here.”
The scenery belongs, in real-life, to Cal State University’s Dominguez Hills campus, but it’s doubling for Larry Crowne’s fictional East Valley Community College. In the film, Crowne (Hanks), winds up reinventing his life after losing his longtime job as a result of the recession, something that Hanks and his longtime friend and Playtone production partner Gary Goetzman hope is relatable in this day and age.
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“We’re older guys and we ain’t dead yet,” explains Goetzman, “We’re all forced to live longer. To realize, ‘Hey, I thought we were going to be good. Working at the gas company. I had a retirement plan.’ But then you find out, before your retire, that you’re getting laid off. That you don’t have enough money. That’s really what it all comes from. That new energy and that news is sometimes naiveté and sometimes curiosity. You learn new things about yourself and actually have a more interesting life.”
For Hanks, who co-wrote the script with Nia Vardalos (My Big Fat Greek Wedding), Larry Crowne also marks a return to the director’s chair, something that he hasn’t done for a feature film since 1996’s That Thing You Do.
“There are lot of jobs that will provide you with the skills to direct,” Hanks explains, “Acting is not necessarily the best avenue for that. Film editing is. Writing is. Cinematography is. Producing is. But if you’re actor, sometimes the whole day is free haircuts and a sandwich anytime you want. You don’t really have to talk to anybody about what you’re doing. So I directed ‘From the Earth to the Moon,’ ‘Band of Brothers’ and I kept my hands in creatively on other things. They just keep showing me what I’ve done wrong. So I’ve started paying attention to the other things I’ve done and asking why they’re moving so fast and how come they’re not as precious as I think they’re supposed to be? How does a director really communicate with the cinematographer and everybody else? So I’ve just learned the more important lessons about what not to do as opposed to what to do.”
Goetzman, meanwhile, offers a slightly different take on what has taken he and Hanks so long to bring Larry Crowne to the screen.
“Number one, we’re slow as s–t,” he laughs, “We don’t do anything fast. We let thing incubate and think about them. We don’t really feel a hurry to do anything. He does go off and be a movie star fairly often.”
Being as successful a star as he is, Hanks is the first admit that there’s always the danger that his character’s recession-based experiences might not ring true. That’s why the focus of the film, while set in the specific economic climate of the last few years, also offers a broader sense of loss and self-discovery.
“It is all relative,” says Hanks, “That is one aspect of it. And, look, all these things are biographical somewhat. I remember losing a job and feeling horrible about it. I remember very well the anxiety of not being able to pay your rent and trying to make a plan over a long course of time. And also, quite frankly, pubic education — specifically junior college — changed my life. Now, I wasn’t 53, but the atmosphere that I remember is distinctive and still pays off now. I think that whatever motion picture you’re doing, whether it’s a huge budget [film] or something like this as well, it still has to hold the mirror up to nature.”
Current events did manage to work their into the script, however, letting Hanks place his timeless tale very much in the here and now.
Some key elements of present-day struggles did manage to find their way into the script, however, with the broader, timeless theme finding its home very much in the here and now.
“About a week ago, I was watching a story about strategic foreclosures on ’60 Minutes,'” says Hanks, “and the next day we issued new pages in order to get this whole concept into it. Originally, Larry lost his house but just not being able to make the payments. Now he loses his house by walking in and saying, ‘You know that bad debt of mine? It’s yours. My house? Take it. I don’t care about my credit. I have no credit. I don’t owe you 400 grand anymore. I owe you nothing. So the bag is yours.’ That’s what people are doing. So we’re trying to stay current to the flavor of society and what’s going on.”
The cast of Larry Crowne is rounded out by a very diverse cast that includes Julia Roberts, Bryan Cranston, Cedric the Entertainer, Taraji P. Henson, Gugu Mbatha Raw, Wilmer Valderrama, Pam Grier, Rami Malek, George Takei, Grace Gummer, Rita Wilson and Jon Seda.
“You missed George Takei by a day!” Hanks laments to the visiting journalists, “…For Pam Grier, we were just sitting around one day and said, ‘Hey, could we get Pam Grier in this movie? Let’s find out.’ And she said sure, so that was it.”
“His wife did commercials with my wife, Rita, a million years ago,” Hanks smiles, “I’ve known him for 20 years. He played Buzz Aldrin [in ‘From the Earth to the Moon’]. He was actually in ‘That Thing You Do.’ He was in ‘Band of Brothers.’ He was in even in ‘Saving Private Ryan’ independent of me. Steven just cast him because he was perfect.”
Mostly, though, Larry Crowne represents for Hanks the chance to put something out that stands out in a crowd. There’s no denying that the film is the odd man out in a summer of big-budget blockbusters.
“No one gets laid,” he laughs, “There’s no gambling or tigers involved. Nothing explodes. No one gets punched in the face. It’s almost like you just take the rock and roll sequences out of ‘That Thing You Do.’ It’s a character analysis as well as a situational one… [N]o one is making movies like this right now.”