It’s late morning on the Cal State Dominguez Hills campus, about 30 minutes south of Los Angeles. Doubling as the fictional East Valley Community College, the area is filled with background actors posing as the school’s fresh-faced student body. Standing out from them all is Tom Hanks, purposefully a bit awkward as Larry Crowne, a 53-year-old man who, just when he thought he had his life figured out, lost his job and has found his way to EVCC with a chance to reinvent himself.
The second feature from Hanks as director, Larry Crownes big scene of the day involves Hanks’ character being introduced to some of the student body. One of them, Talia Francesco, is played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, best known to American audiences for her leading role on last year’s TV series “Undercovers.” She’s taken Larry under her wing and has given him the nickname “Lance Corona,” which is how he’s introduced her to her boyfriend, Don Gordon (Wilmer Valderrama), the leader of a scooter bike gang.
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“[Talia] is a very vivacious scooter riding chick,” Mbatha-Raw laughs, “…She sees this sort of older guy at college and she thinks he’s very sweet and in dire need of some style advice… She adopts him and sort of takes him and gives him a makeover, goes around to his house and introduces him to Feng-Shui and all of this and gets him a haircut from her friend who’s a hairdresser. She gets a manicurist around and basically sort of re-boots this guy who has been just divorced and lost his job and really needs a bit of a makeover.”
Born and raised in England, community college was literally a foreign concept for Mbatha-Raw, though she cites watching “Friends” growing up as an easy gateway to capturing the accent.
“I get to speak Spanish in this as well,” she says, “we had a whole scene in Spanish, which was really fun. You just keep kind of playing around with it. But, as I say, it’s great for me because I really enjoy the musicality of it. And it makes it easy because everybody’s American, so I can just if I have a problem with anything, I can just ask or listen out. I’m always stealing.”
Valderrama approached the issue of an accent from a very different side of things, trying to divorce audience perception of him as an film actor from his role on “That ’70s Show.” Since the series went off the air in 2006, Valderrama has very consciously avoided taking any big roles specifically to get some distance from his well-known TV character.
“I was saying no to the most predictable roles,” he explains, “I could have done ten movies with characters that obviously resemble something I would have been known for. It was a tough decision that I had to make with my representatives, who were not very happy at the time… It wasn’t easy, but once people got to know me and understood what I maybe, possibly could do, all of a sudden, things started going.”
For both young talents, the chance at working with Hanks was a dream come true. Interacting with someone who had been a childhood icon, both Valderrama and Mbatha-Raw describe the on-set experience less like working and more like playing.
“He was so great about giving you that freedom,” says Valderrama, “One of the things I really understood with him was that he really trusts his cast. He really trusts the people he puts in it. When he entrusted with me with this character, he said, ‘Man, we’re going to get to play. Forget about the script, we’ll be doing a bunch of stuff.’ I was given license to now do my job, to do what I was hired to do. I wanted to make him proud.”
Mbatha-Raw did have one additional challenge to overcome to bring Talia to the screen. Since both her and Valderrama’s character ride scooters throughout, the British actress had to practice to receive her American driver’s license.
“I couldn’t drive at all,” she laughs, “I couldn’t even drive a car. So to learn to ride a scooter is for a job while they’re paying you to do it is just ridiculous fun… You can’t interpret it. You can’t sort of charm your way around it. You just have to kind of tick the right box. So that for me was a bit of a challenge and it was like going back to school, studying this book. I wanted to burn it by the end.”
Though both actors belong to a larger ensemble cast that includes Julia Roberts, Bryan Cranston, Cedric the Entertainer, Pam Grier, and many more, the pair represents the youthful heart of Larry Crowne. While on film it may be their characters who are teaching Hanks’ Crowne about the world, it’s Mbatha-Raw and Valderrama who are learning from the master what directions to take on their burgeoning Hollywood path.
“I’ve been so blessed in my career,” says Valderrama, “and I’ve been so blessed to have the love and the support of so many people, especially the people that are giving me these films that contradict everything you thought I would ever do. That’s been amazing. Waiting around and finally being in something like this, opposite my hero Tom Hanks, it’s a dream. This is the top of things that I want to be remembered for. It’s a really great part, and I’m really excited that I’m making the boss happy.”
Larry Crowne hits theaters on July 1.