It isnt as if Tom Hanks had to direct Larry Crowne, an amiable recession-themed morale booster that opened last Friday. Not with paydays that have been estimated as high as $49 million a film, a laundry list of coveted acting jobs in upcoming titles (including the 9/11 drama Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close) and a production company, Playtone, that boasts an enviable hit-to-miss ratio among its movies (Mamma Mia!) and miniseries (HBOs John Adams).
That thing tom does
What is left to prove for the one-time cross-dressing star of the oh-so-80s sitcom Bosom Buddies after scoring two Oscars in a row for 1993s Philadelphia and 1994s Forrest Gump? Thats on top of maintaining the best career box-office tally of any actor, a cool $4 billion and counting.
Besides, he already has shown himself to be fully capable of calling the shots with his directing debut, That Thing You Do!, the 1996 toe-tapping ode to 60s pop dreams that launched such barely knowns as Liv Tyler, Charlize Theron, Steve Zahn and Giovanni Ribisi. Plus, theres that off-the-charts likeability factor, which comes in handy as a critic-proof shield against occasional stumbles (2004s Ladykillers remake and that Da Vinci Code hair-dont in 2006).
Its really personal, says Hanks, explaining in part why it took 15 years before he tried directing again. Its like youre possessed by a demon. Its such a personal fun club that you join while doing it. After That Thing You Do! came out, I kept wishing we were still doing it. But it required a huge amount of affection for what the story was, and personal things take a long time to do.
He might have turned 55 on July 9 and recently become a grandfather for the first time, thanks to actor son Colin. But just like his downsized and divorced middle-ager in Larry Crowne, who discovers a world of unexpected opportunities after losing his job at a Walmart-ish store and enrolling in a junior college, he isnt about to rest on his laurels and stop challenging himself.
Settling into a booth in an empty restaurant on the panoramic 35th floor of the Mandarin Oriental [New York] for a cup of tea, Hanks exhibits few signs of wear and tear as his globe-spanning promo tour winds down. Smiling even when a waiter tries to serve his order to a companion, he seems energised from the experience of donning multiple hats for Larry Crowne.
Besides the summery straw fedora at his side, they include leading man, co-writer, producer, securer of financing and the lucky fellow who gets to lock lips with the girl. In this case, its the Pretty Woman herself and Charlie Wilsons War cohort Julia Roberts, whose bitter, boozy burnout of a speech teacher could probably rival Cameron Diazs delinquent instructor if not for the arrival of Larry Crowne into her classroom.
I wanted to play a guy who has the rug pulled out from underneath him, Hanks says of the script he wrote with Nia Vardalos, whose sleeper smash My Big Fat Greek Wedding put Playtone on the map in 2002.
Thats kind of the way it started. Not a highfalutin guy, not one of those fall-from-grace movies where he is a real-estate magnate or in politics. I just wanted a guy who thought he had risen to the top level of what a guy like him could be, with no college, out of the Navy, working in retail. What if that guy experiences the great firing?
Those who know their Tom lore, however, might suspect an ulterior motive in his going behind the camera a second time. Namely, an opportunity to hang with the helmsman of the USS Enterprise, Mr Sulu himself, otherwise known as George Takei of Star Trek.
Hanks doesnt just laugh but brays loudly at the suggestion.
There is a lot of weight that goes on with that show and the cultural zeitgeist that I carry around in my head, says the unabashed Trekker, who, despite what it says on the Internet Movie Database trivia section under his name, never was offered a part in 1996s Star Trek: First Contact.
Its not unlike the Rolling Stones, where you tick off moments in your life when you happened to meet the members. Same thing with Star Trek. At one point or another, I have met the members of the original Star Trek cast. I wanted my brush with greatness.
His co-stars suggest there is another reason behind his need to direct: the pleasure Hanks derives from working with others and the pride he takes from running a cheery set.
Hes having fun most of the time, says comic Cedric the Entertainer, who plays Lamar, Larrys best buddy and next-door neighbour. Even his directorial style aims to please. Tom is really well-prepared, Cedric adds. He knows what shots he wants, but he likes to give the actors enough room to decide what it is you want to do with the character. He is particularly amused by the catchphrase employed by Hanks whenever he is fine with a take: What is wrong with that? Meaning, says Cedric, Its time to move on.
Roberts says she found her experience on Larry Crowne to be a joyous group effort and relished the little details that defined her character, from the frozen margaritas she churns in the blender the minute she arrives home to how she sings along to Gilbert & Sullivans Poor Little Buttercup in her car to drown out the GPS directions.
Ill tell you that Tom loves his job, she says. He loves the process of making movies. He loves being joyous and happy. He takes creating a happy environment very seriously, and he knows that showing appreciation is the way to get the best out of people.
Not that he was shy about being the boss. As Roberts, a mother of three, says, He has four kids, so he knows how to let people know there is a better approach.
But if there was one lesson he took from his first time at bat with That Thing You Do!, it was not to micromanage. I thought certain decisions were so overpoweringly important that if I didnt make them and enforce them, the movie would be less good. I should have had faith in the alliances I had made artistically. Someone with Hankss level of success could hardly be categorised as an underdog. Especially when he not only possesses access to Mick Jagger, but also to the crew of a certain starship.
Heck, even though he based Larry Crowne on his own two years spent studying theatre at Chabot, a community college in Hayward, California, before enrolling in California State University in Sacramento, he never got a degree. Instead, I got an offer to go off and do the thing I was studying to do.
An authentic comedy with romance
‘An authentic comedy with romance’
Yet here he is, pitting his relatively low-budget romantic comedy (or, as Hanks prefers, an authentic comedy with romance) against the metal-crunching, mayhem-filled 3-D behemoth known as Transformers: Dark of the Moon, which is executive-produced by pal Steven Spielberg, no less.
Add marketing to his hat collection, too. When you are possessing a movie as much as we are on this, with the name in five places, then you start having those meetings, Hanks says. Like, when do you release a movie? The truth is, there is no such thing as a safe weekend. Every weekend, a big movie comes out, and it usually has somebody with a secret identity and/ or robots from outer space.
But at least the July Fourth weekend [the film released in the US a week before it did in India] offers an extra day to attract those who like their entertainment populated by humans, not robot warriors. The closest Larry Crowne comes to explosive action is when its gang of fuel-efficient scooter riders turns a corner in unison on a neighbourhood street.
Though some critics have been taken aback by just how outright square and old-fashioned nice-guy Larry and his movie feel, one senses that this is exactly the effect that Hanks was hoping to achieve.
He is proud that Larry is not tempted to pursue his free-spirited classmate, Talia (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who decides to adopt the stodgy newbie, untuck his old-man polo shirts and provide much-needed friendship.
There are a couple of assumptions that people make, such as he obviously is going to sleep with the young girl, he says. I say, No, that is creepy, and he would not go for that. Besides, that is a totally different kind of movie that everyone else is already making.
He knows what early viewers are whispering about behind his back. Oh, people will say its a feel-good movie, Hanks says. Nah. Instead, the economy came along and made it possible to plumb a little deeper. He has lost what he had, but he has gained enough.
No film school could match the on-set education Tom Hanks has gained from observing some of the best filmmakers in the business. The actor on what he learned from five directors who played pivotal roles in his career
Hanks says that former child star Ron Howard, probably the quintessential actor-turned-director (here on location for The Da Vinci Code), is a master planner. Ron breaks down the scenes into very specific shots. He has a shot list. Some directors have them. Some dont. But the scene is not complete until you are done with all 27 or whatever of those beats.
Hanks says Howard doesnt shy away from encouraging actors to add their two cents. He will go to everyone in a scene and ask, How are you feeling about this? Are you comfortable with what is going on? Do you know what you are working on here? He views that as the directors job.
Steven Spielberg, here filming The Terminal, rarely makes lists. His brain has always worked in cinematic terms. He does not have shots written down. He gets there and goes bang, bang, bang. He once asked me, Hey, Tom, come here. Where would you put the camera in this scene? And I thought, I dont even think that way. Hanks, who also worked with Spielberg on Saving Private Ryan, adds that the director is wondering what is the unknown angle that is going to visually capture this scene in a brand new way. He shoots ridiculously fast. Hes not precious at all.
Nora Ephron directed Hanks in the 1998 film Youve Got Mail, in which he co-starred with Meg Ryan. The writer-turned-directors style is probably most akin to what Hanks was going after in Larry Crowne. He asked her to check out the movies script. I said, Just tell me if this is a movie or not. She said, Absolutely, it is. Dont worry about it. Hanks and Ryan had previously worked with Ephron on Sleepless in Seattle. He says the key to her work is her strength with words. She is a phraseologist. Her prose is in every shot that she makes.
Director Robert Zemeckis has been behind some of Hankss more difficult acting feats, especially the one-man show that is 2000s Cast Away. Bob will never do any scene, any shot, any beat in an easy way, Hanks says. He will always say, Well, anyone can do that.
Of Penny Marshall, director of 1988s Big (in picture), Hanks says she tends to wait to make sure she has every angle of a scene covered, no matter how many takes or how much time it requires. She directs by attrition, Hanks says. Her thing has always been, I dont know what I want. Im not going to know what I want until six months from now.
Marshall also directed Hanks in A League of Their Own. You shoot a lot with Penny. And thats fine. Its not a big deal. It is a very malleable process with her because she is not someone who says, I know exactly what I want.