For Hanks, ‘Larry Crowne' isn't just acting gig

Tom Hanks breezes into the room, leaving a whiff of cheerfulness in his wake.

His suit, a handsome navy number, is impeccable. The large black glasses framing his kind eyes give him an aura of middle-aged studiousness.

Within seconds of bursting into a 42nd-floor residence at The Mansion on Peachtree in Buckhead -- a palatial unfurnished apartment rented for the day for interview purposes -- Hanks removes both suit jacket and glasses, closes the door on the small entourage trailing him and cracks open a bottle of Diet Coke.

As he bustles, he chitchats about how little he’s seen of any of the cities on this 30-day, 13-city international promo blitz for his new film, “Larry Crowne” -- “I see signs for things that are IN Atlanta. You drive by and go, ‘Oh, there’s where the Hawks play.’ ”

But that’s OK. He’s Tom Hanks -- multiple Oscar winner, highest all-time box office star, iconic voice of Woody in the “Toy Story” trilogy. Surely he can make a return trip to visit the World of Coca-Cola if necessary.

Hanks has just arrived from an appearance at CNN downtown. The day before, he assured himself a slot on the highlight reels of numerous entertainment shows by doing a goofy, Hanks-ian cha-cha with a weather girl during a visit to Univision.

He’s now going to confront a volley of questions he’s likely answered 100 times this month: How did it feel to direct again? Is he confident about competing against the stream of CGI-infested summer superheroes? Do he and Smyrna native Julia Roberts share an off-screen chemistry as fizzy as their theatrical one?

But Hanks, who turns 55 in a couple of weeks, fields everything with trademark nice guy-ness. Part of it is his sheer professionalism. The other part is that he really, really believes in “Larry Crowne,” the subtle adult dramedy (opening Friday) about a guy who loses his job, goes back to school and learns that riding a scooter isn’t just an economical convenience, but a transformative life decision.

Hanks not only directed and stars in the movie, he also co-wrote the script with pal Nia Vardalos (“My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” which Hanks and wife Rita Wilson produced).

“I’ve made a lot of movies where I’ve worked every day just as an actor and the best place to be is next to that camera,” he said. “But just because my name is on the movie in as many places as it is ... I don’t want to discount how exhausting it was, but I was never the sole entity.”

The idea for “Larry Crowne,” Hanks said, percolated about six years ago with a simple premise: Guy loses his job and his teacher is Julia Roberts.

He and Vardalos discussed setting the film in a traditional university, but Hanks found himself returning to the memories of his junior college years at Chabot College in Hayward, Calif.

“It’s such a diverse group of people, people who aren’t on a specific trajectory but seeking that exposure and inspiration that might come from somewhere else,” he said.

The environment is the ideal setting for Larry, a sweet, simple guy whose life unravels after his long-held position at the local U-Mart is unceremoniously axed -- a development blamed on his lack of higher education.

Larry’s choice to attend community college leads him into a speech class steered by Roberts’ alternately feisty and marriage-miserable Mercedes Tainot, as well as a group of scooter-riding fanatics who reshape, but don’t change, him.

The scooter was “an element in the very first draft” of the movie, Hanks said. “Riding in the open air completely alters Larry’s existence. If you want to change your life doing one thing that literally alters the way you live your day, ride a scooter to work, man. That’s why I still have one. I ride it around on a warm, sunny day, puttering around doing errands. I have yet to spend more than $40 in gas on it. I’m on the third tank of gas, and I’ve had it since we wrapped the movie.”

When it’s noted that “Larry Crowne” is being released in the heaviest period of cinematic competition -- summer -- Hanks chuckles knowingly.

“We would be better off if this was the second ‘Larry Crowne’ and it was a sequel. There is some CGI in this, but none that would impress you at all,” he said. But still, “the whole point of the movie is that this is recognizable society, that this can happen to me. But since it’s a movie, there’s still glamour in it.”

As for his work with Georgia girl Roberts, whom he worked with for the first time in 2007's “Charlie Wilson’s War,” Hanks never considered another actress for the role of Mercedes.

“If I’m playing the guy, you need someone who is as familiar as me, and the balance between us is great,” he said. “If you’re making a movie in which you’re supposed to be playing people having a good time, it’s much better if you’re having a good time and enjoy each other’s company.”

In the midst of his response, Hanks pauses and points toward the floor-to-ceiling glass window overlooking Phipps Plaza.

“Is that Stone Mountain?” he inquires.

But within two seconds, before a definitive answer can be provided, he laughs.

“It’s OK. Just say yes.”