Wilmer Valderrama & Gugu Mbatha-Raw star in Tom Hanks’ new romantic comedy, Larry Crowne, about a guy who undergoes a personal reinvention when he’s downsized from his job by today’s recession. When Larry (Hanks) heads to college to start over again, he becomes part of a colorful group of fellow scooter-riding students – including the charming Talia (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and her boyfriend, Dell (Wilmer Valderrama) – all trying to find a better future for themselves. Talia’s free-spirited ways make for some very funny moments in the film as Dell begins to wonder if Larry might actually be a rival.
MoviesOnline sat down recently with Wilmer and Gugu at a press conference in Los Angeles to talk about their new movie. They told us what it was like being part of a movie co-written, directed by and starring Tom Hanks and what they liked most about their characters. Wilmer described the challenges he faced when he left Venezuela to pursue the American dream and shared with us what he learned as an actor and a filmmaker from having the opportunity to work on a Tom Hanks set. Talia discussed her theatrical debut on Broadway playing Ophelia opposite Jude Law in Hamlet and how she was preparing for a new role after landing the female lead in the Fox drama Touch.
Q: This film is so timely right now in terms of people being downsized. Have you guys been affected either directly or through family or friends that you know that have had to start a second chapter because they’ve been downsized from their jobs?
Wilmer: I can honestly say from my experience, my family and I had to start from scratch. We left Venezuela back in 1998 and sold the few things we had to come to America in search of the American dream. We went through really tough times. There were moments where we were wondering are we going to make it. Are we really going to do this? There comes a time in your life where you’re called to not only reinvent yourself but to rebuild your spirit. It’s so relevant today. I think everyone is losing so much hope and if there’s any hero that we have in the United States that could send this message that in your darkest times there’s always room for a little light, it’s Tom Hanks. I think what’s really special about this movie is that it reminds us that no matter what our situation is, there’s always a way to celebrate life and there’s always a way to start again. In those moments that I remember very vividly, you know that when things get dark, they’re going to get darker, and at that very moment, that’s when you hang on that much tighter because that’s when salvation and light come. It’s just one of these movies that of all the amazing things it has and the incredible people that are in it, it reminds you of those times but it gives you that hope that it’s okay to start over again.
Gugu: In terms of personally the idea of reinvention, when I got this film, this was my first film. I had just come from the U.K., not from dire circumstances or anything like that, but in terms of starting again when no one knows you and no one knows what you’re about as an actor or where you’re coming from. So yeah, I can relate on that level, but I think that Larry Crowne particularly takes it in a much more hopeful and invigorating direction and particularly with Talia being such a free spirit and sort of a vivacious light. It was really fun to be able to play the person that brings the light rather than the negative force, so that was really nice for me.
Q: Gugu, in real life are you as lively and free-spirited as Talia is in the movie?
Gugu: Well, for me, I can be. I mean, I’m sure. I think all characters that we play are facets of ourselves. When I read the script, I really connected to Talia and just her sass and her confidence. But I’m a multi-faceted human being. I have different sides too and that’s the great thing about this job. And even when you look at Tom Hanks’ career, coming from the comedies that he’s done, then to doing the really serious dramas like Philadelphia and Saving Private Ryan, and then to return to comedy. I think it’s such a wonderful job for that reason that you can play up and play down your different strengths. So yeah, I love my Talia side, but there’s more to me too.
Wilmer: Well she’s definitely sunshine. I had the pleasure and the privilege of working with her every day. I know it’s hard to say that about yourself, but she definitely brought such a special element. In the movie, it’s really important that she’s so influential on an effortless and free-spirited level that it inspires Larry Crowne to start again somehow. She really achieves that and it’s really easy to fall in love with her in the movie.
Q: Wilmer, in one of the scenes you had to stare at Tom Hanks in his underwear
Wilmer: I can definitely elaborate on that. When it comes to the most difficult scene in Larry Crowne, it was challenging on so many levels. First of all, I’ve been saying this for a while now, but that day the three of us became really close and now we’re best friends, we hang out a lot, and we have a lot of respect for each other. But it was one of the funniest days to shoot, man. It was. One of the things I can say about Mr. Hanks is that he really empowers his actors to do what they do. He really empowered all of us to allow ourselves to live and breathe these characters and just do what we would do as them. That day was really hard. What you see in the movie is one option of many situations that happened with his pants down. It was one of the funniest days. It was really hard for me to keep [serious] and I had to really be super dead stone straight face. Imagine this. You pull up on a motorcycle and here you see Larry Crowne with his pants down. It’s magical, magical to say the least. But it was really fun. It was really great. And by the way, amazing moments like that in the movie. The movie is really funny. There’s a lot of stuff for the men and a lot of stuff for the women, a lot of stuff for the boys and the girls. It’s a family affair. It’s really funny.
Q: Since the film is reflective of the recession right now, if Hollywood went away, what would you go back to a college or trade school to study?
Gugu: For me, this is probably where the Talia side comes in, probably not very practical, but I was very much into art and painting and sculpting and creative, artistic pursuits. If I had to get that side going, maybe the fashion thing would be the way.
Wilmer: My dad had a couple of professions in mind for me. He either wanted me to be a doctor because he said male doctors make a lot of money, or he wanted me to be a soccer player. Myself, I thought that I would really love being a pilot for the Air Force. I really wanted to be a part of the Air Force. I’m currently a member of the USO and I’ve traveled to Iraq and Afghanistan and I’ve flown with the Blue Angels and all that so I’ve lived up to it a little bit already. I think a lot of it had to do with the movie Top Gun. There’s something about a high five that just made me want to put a uniform on. I want to be some kind of a pilot. And the other thing that I really like is psychology. I love the human mind. I love the choices you make based on your experiences and instincts and your development based on such experiences and so I guess that’s why I love acting so much. I think psychology would be an easy transition and figuring out the human mind somehow.
Q: Wilmer, you got quite a lot of laughs in the screening at some of these faces that you make. Was that all there in the script or was it just happening in the moment?
Wilmer: Moment. In the moment, and I’m so glad that it did because I didn’t know it did, because you do some things and you just hope people will laugh. I tell you it goes back to Tom’s empowering the actors. One of the things is my first meeting with Tom was incredible because we talked about absolutely everything except the character in the script. The last 10 minutes of the meeting was “Okay, and about the script, it’s a good guy line. When you get to the set, we’ll play, we’ll improvise, whatever. We’ll play around.” I gotta tell you it was just like that. I hate to say it. He and I were constantly trying to figure out dynamically how we were going to be more effective towards this rivalry. We improvised a lot so there were a lot of great moments and a lot of things. There were a bunch of scenes that I wasn’t even supposed to be in because Tom would give me a call and say “Hey, what are you doing Thursday?” I’m like “I guess I’m off.” And he goes “Come in. Let’s put you in this scene.” I’m like “Okay.” So he was really amazing at empowering us to have fun with our characters. But every moment was one option of many awesome takes. So, hopefully in the DVD, you can really see a lot of these outtakes because there are some great options there too.
Q: You mention figuring out the dynamic and the rivalry, but it’s not seen by anyone else except for you. That’s the great part about that.
Gugu: In Talia’s defense, I think that’s just very much her personality. She’s not like leading Larry Crowne on in any ulterior motive way. Her gift is for people to make their lives better by styling them, by liberating their style, so I think she’s a little bit like “Oh well, this is just me.” She’s just doing her thing. So yeah, it’s all the more funny that she’s totally oblivious to it.
Wilmer: Even where there’s a scene in the movie where you understand, and you know that Dell Gordo understands, I know my girlfriend is free-spirited. I know she’s so charming that it’s disarming. I get it. And I know that every man is going to fall in love with her. But Larry Crowne poses a different threat. He’s a little more experienced than I am and he’s a little older and she’s an old soul.
Gugu: And then he gets a scooter.
Wilmer: And then he gets a scooter and he starts dressing very close to how I’m dressing. Darker colors, jeans, he’s got boots. What’s going on? So I start getting a little more insecure about it. But he makes it very fun. It’s like a boy mentality. Okay, what’s going on here? Then, needless to say, by the end everybody learns what that outcome is going to be. But it’s fun. We really worked on it. What is it going to be? What are the dynamics? And I think it worked out pretty good.
Q: Gugu, this past year you’ve had a lot of success playing Americans. Can you talk a little about the nuances involved with that and do you play an American on the Fox Show, Touch?
Gugu: Yes, well yes, thank you. It’s been an incredible year full of lots of different experiences. I came out to America for the first time ever to play Ophelia on Broadway with Jude Law and that was my introduction. And then, as I said, I ended up doing Undercovers, the pilot with J.J. Abrams, and that was my first American role in America. I mean, for me, obviously it’s tough because sometimes you get the chance to play American roles in the U.K. I’d done an American play. But here, the harshest critics are all around you. So, I’m always working and I don’t feel like I’m ever relaxed on the accent thing because, like you said, it’s all about the nuances. And it comes with character as well, I think. You don’t just put on a voice, you hopefully build a person. So I do work with dialect coaches and I listen and I’ve always got my ears open wherever I am. And yes, the character I’m playing in Touch is American. I’m just developing her at the moment. It was exciting for me. I’ve always had an ear for languages and music so it’s something I’m continually working on but it’s fun.
Q: What was the experience like working with Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts in general?
Gugu: For me, in general, it was incredible. I was so thrilled when I got the call. I had an audition and then, similar to Wilmer, I had a chat with Tom. We discussed everything from Shakespeare to theater and it really wasn’t just about the movie. And, for me, the chance to be on set with such experienced and established actors, it really was like a master class. Whenever I could, I’d sneak around and watch either Tom’s or Julia’s shots on the monitor and see what they were doing, trying to steal – not steal, that sounds mean spirited – but just absorb their ways and their professionalism. It was an incredible experience.
Wilmer: It was definitely very special. I mean, you do a lot of stuff and I’ve done some really interesting things that I’ve been very fulfilled whether it’s children’s programming or Disney or whatever independent film I’ve done with subject matter starting out, but you get a phone call like this. I’ve said this before that some of my idols growing up were Desi Arnaz, Anthony Quinn and Tom Hanks. When I got a phone to work with him, it’s one of those moments when you go “Okay, you better be good.” And then, you have this meeting with him and he’s so disarming and so empowering and inspiring, and he really just trusts you, and he just made me feel like I was really part of the team. Once you’re on set and you start playing with him, I thought one of the most rewarding moments was when you’re doing a scene and the moment you finish the scene and you look behind the monitor and you did something or you improvised and you thought it was funny and you look behind the monitor and he’s laughing and he’s tearing like you. It’s almost like, I don’t want to say it’s like a father figure, but it’s almost like when someone validates your work. I wanted to bust my ass for him. I wanted to be as good as I could be for Tom, because an opportunity like this… I mean, how many Tom Hanks movies can you do? So it was a really great opportunity to be part of something that was so special to him since he co-wrote it with Nia (Vardalos), directed it and starred in it, and he’s part of the Playtone family. So it’s a privilege and now they’re somewhat my mentors, him and Gary Goetzman, we talk a lot about different things in the business and all that. I’ve been very blessed to have him now as a great example to me.
Q: Gugu, with respect to your debut on Broadway, how challenging was it to do Hamlet in that big theater after you’d had the intimacy of the Donmar Warehouse in London?
Gugu: We weren’t actually in the Donmar Warehouse which is only a 300-seat theater. We were in a unique one-year project where they took over a West End theater and it was called the Donmar West End season and you had Judi Dench, Kenneth Branagh, Jude Law and Derek Jacobi all heading four different productions. We were still in a big theater, but it was a challenge because actually the West End stages are totally different to Broadway. The West End stages are narrow but they’re tall and the Broadway stages, like Broadway, they are very broad. They’re more panoramic. So the acoustic is entirely different. And, in between that, we’d actually gone to Denmark and performed open air at Kronborg Castle which is the original castle that Shakespeare wrote the play around. So we had a little spell in the open air in the Baltic breeze. It was technically very challenging vocally. We were always doing vocal warm-ups and everything like that. It’s such a different energy, Broadway. By then, we’d already done the play over 200 performances. We’d done 3 months in London, 3 months in New York, so by then everybody is working like one organism to try and create and tell this story. You get very keyed into each other’s rhythms and energies so it was great.
Q: You’ve got a lot on your plate right now. Does this mean you’re turning your back on classical theater?
Gugu: Oh no, of course I’m not turning my back on classical theater. It’s all about opportunities and timing a lot of the time when things come up. It’s my big ambition to play Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra. That’s my next Shakespearean heroine so I’ve got a few years until I can really pull that off convincingly. To play Cleopatra on Broadway would just be incredible. But no way am I turning my back on it. I’m just broadening my craft and stretching my skills a little bit in different directions.
Q: Wilmer, you’ve done your fair share of work behind the camera. I’m just curious what you took away from the experience of a Tom Hanks set?
Wilmer: It was really educating. For me, I understood the gift of being able to empower others and to not do everything yourself. I think that was really important. Sometimes when you’re producing or directing something, and which I’ve been at fault to do in the past, you find yourself trying to do a portion of everyone else’s job because you’re just trying to be so in control and you think that you have to be hands on, on absolutely everything. You give your sense, you give your keynote to make sure the DNA is consistent. I think that’s all you can really do. I think at some point you have to empower others and really allow everyone else to do what they’re hired to do and what they’re brought onto the team to do and that’s something that I learned so much from Tom. He doesn’t worry about his DP. He doesn’t worry about his AD. He doesn’t worry about anything, or his other producer, because Gary Goetzman is also an incredible captain too. He really puts an amazing crew together that eventually becomes a family. I mean, that crew has done probably over 8 movies with Tom and they have a shorthand. They have a vocabulary. There’s something to say about that. I feel like there’s a smooth sail on the set. I mean, we finished several weeks ahead of schedule and that’s unheard of on a movie this size. It’s interesting. So I learned that you should just trust others for what they’re hired to do. Sometimes you’re so nervous about piloting something that you could probably just not empower others to finish what they’re supposed to. So that was really interesting to me and I learned a lot about that and about being consistent with your DNA. I mean, he’s so in tune with his DNA, with his genre and the tone of things that he does and the formula that it’s just mind blowing. Something else I learned was stay consistent with your message and who you are and making sure that everything you produce and create is organic to you. But from Tom, most importantly, [I learned] to never forget that this is also supposed to be fun. That’s really the thing that I took away from the set more than anything technical is that sometimes we put so much pressure on ourselves with any kind of job we have that we kind of forget that we do this because it’s supposed to be fun because we love it. You get caught up sometimes in the deadlines and the pressures and certain things that you can’t really control that you forget that this is supposed to be an enjoyable journey. I think that’s the biggest one for me.
Larry Crowne opens in theaters on July 1st.