Hanks heads back to school
Tom Hanks tells Paul byrne that working behind the camera and taking on small-scale movies is keeping him satisfied
On some level, I'm sure he's proud, but it still must rankle Tom Hanks that his son, Colin, probably has a better future in Hollywood than his dad does. Not that Colin is particularly brilliant, it's more that Tom Hanks might just have passed his sell-by date.
It happens to the best of them. It's unlikely that Nicole Kidman is ever again going to front a major blockbuster. Nor John Travolta. Or Russell Crowe. Or maybe even Colin Farrell, who is having to crawl back into Hollywood's favour after Alexander and Miami Vice in 2004.
And if the next Mission: Impossible doesn't put a huge number of bums on seats, Tom Cruise's career as a leading man will be over.
Oh, and let's not forget Julia Roberts, who has had nothing but indifference greet her films over the past 10 years, and who is Hanks' co-star in his latest offering, Larry Crowne.
Ever since, Hanks has been hiding out with cameos (turning up in various guises on Letterman), cartoons (the Toy Story behemoth continues to grow, with a new short due this year), certifiable cr*p (2008's The Great Buck Howard didn't even get a release here) and the contemptible Da Vinci Code franchise. When he's not producing (The Pacific, Big Love and The 3-Minute Talk Show, etc), that is, Hanks is spending more time behind the camera these days than he does in front of it.
"I enjoy working behind the scenes as much as I do working in front of it," says 54-year-old Hanks of his latest offering, which sees him working both sides of the camera, including directing.
"It's just being familiar with how this world works, and being in love with that still. I don't feel the need to have my face stamped on everything I do. And there's a special kind of joy when you can help someone else get something out there that people love . . ."
Co-written with Nia Vardalos (whose breakout hit My Big Fat Greek Wedding Hanks and his missus, Rita Wilson, brought to the big screen), Larry Crowne has our boy playing a Navy veteran who, after losing his job at a superstore, sees his midlife crisis going into overdrive. And so, he enrolls in college. Where he falls in love with Julia Roberts' speech professor.
Like a weekend break for two faded movie stars, Larry Crowne has its low-watt charms. And Hanks plainly enjoyed it. "I love this kind of movie," he smiles, "mainly because it's not trying too hard. We live in a time when most movies have a very big gimmick running through them -- the selling point, the carrot to get that audience in -- and it's often the only good thing about them.
"Or it becomes like one big commercial, just selling that big novelty at its marketing core, like the big remedy for all your ills.
"I'm not interested in making those kinds of movies. I want people to feel something emotionally, to find something truthful about themselves and the world around them, to walk out with something that might just make them a little warmer inside."
I ask Hanks if he's revealed this secret agenda to any Hollywood studio bosses.
"I have, I have," he laughs. "And some of them even agreed with me.
"I'm totally aware of the market, and how it works, and I'm not making a movie here to try and knock Transformers off the number-one spot. I would hope, though, that Larry Crowne is around for a little longer than its opening weekend, and that, down through the years, it'll keep catching people by surprise.
"We haven't sold this movie on any one thing, and that leaves the viewer wide open to the story, how it evolves,and the complexities inherent in everyday people's lives."
Talking about movies with big carrots and gimmicks, is Hanks aware of the fact that his 2000 blockbuster Cast Away, about a FedEx executive who crashlands on a deserted island, gets an emotionally charged scene all of its own in Kristen Wiig's current blockbuster comedy Bridesmaids?
"That is kind of sweet, isn't it, when your work pops up in other people's work?" he nods.
"We did quite a bit of that in Forrest Gump, as far as I can recall. I think movies are such a part of our popular culture, they become major reference points in our lives. And you can instantly feel and taste a certain way just by the mere mention of a movie that means a lot to you.
"You only have to mention Star Wars to some people and their eyes mist over with joy. Or The Godfather, or Duck Soup, or Harold & Maude."
Or Forrest Gump. Or Splash. Or Big. Or Sleepless In Seattle.
"Yeah, I guess there might be one or two in there that hopefully have that kind of effect," smiles Hanks.
"That's what you hope for with every movie -- that it just takes the audience somewhere they didn't expect, and they are genuinely moved. Or thrilled. Or gobsmacked."
The move to directing isn't anything new for Hanks, having made his helming debut with 1996's Beatles-baiting That Thing You Do!.
Having directed in TV before and since (on shows such as Band Of Brothers, which Hanks also produced) might mean we're looking at a semi-retirement plan here.
It works for Clint Eastwood and Woody Allen, slowly vanishing from our screens but remaining in the game by directing more and more.
"I don't think I could ever match the work rate of those two guys," says Hanks. "They both bring out a movie a year, which is pretty amazing. I always need a little more time, so I can figure out a gameplan, and make sure I'm happy with every single detail.
"Ultimately, though, it means the movie that goes out there is one I'm completely satisfied with. And that's a great feeling."
Going from cinema-goers' favourite Everyman to just another guy up on the screen over the years has no doubt been tough on Hanks. Attempts to break out of his boy-next-door image with the Coens' dark remake of the Ealing classic The Ladykillers and in Spielberg's minimalist true-life drama The Terminal found Hanks suddenly without an audience.
Which may explain why he embraced the surefire franchise of The Da Vinci Code so readily -- even if both films produced so far have been almost farcically bad.
Currently shooting Stephen Daldry's adaptation of the feelgood novel Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close alongside another box-office champ, Sandra Bullock, and lined up to take part in the ensemble short film collection Cloud Atlas, Hanks is, he says, "just happy to be still in this game that I love. It's what I know, and it's what I'm good at, and as long as I can find those stories that move me, I don't think I'll ever truly retire.
"Heck, what else would I do . . ?"
Larry Crowne opens on Friday