Give thanks for Hanks
JUST a couple of bites into our afternoon tea, and I feel like I've known Tom Hanks for ever.
"I'm going to talk with my mouth full, but you'll figure out what I'm saying!" he announces, through a spray of crumbs, making it slightly harder to understand the memorable voice that breathed life into Forrest Gump and Toy Story's Woody.
Having grown up in the presence of this warm, likeable everyman, it doesn't really seem that unusual to be enjoying a relaxed cuppa with Hanks.
At one point, he clutches my arm, trying to remember the name of a film that's eluded him, just like an old friend, and then insists on taking our picture to tweet to his followers.
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And Hanks's latest role certainly serves to cement his image as Hollywood's Mr Nice Guy. He plays the eponymous hero in Larry Crowne, a Navy veteran who gets fired from his job at a superstore and goes back to college, transforming his image and falling for his disillusioned teacher, played by Julia Roberts, along the way.
It's a feel-good movie that touches on issues such as home repossession, marriage breakdown and the importance of education.
Hanks, who co-wrote the script with Nia Vardalos (of My Big Fat Greek Wedding fame) and directed, had been mulling over the story of Larry for years.
"When I was in junior college, a 17-year-old guy out of high school, there were retired businessmen and mothers whose kids had grown up, in my sociology and zoology classes.
"Just by coming to school their lives were much larger than they would have been. I always thought that would be a very interesting journey for a character to go through."
From this small seed of an idea, Hanks and Vardalos began work on bringing it to the big screen six years ago, and then the banking crisis took hold, giving it even greater relevance.
"The downturn in the economy affects people personally, it's not just something you read about on the business pages," says the 54-year-old father-of-four, who's just become a grandfather for the first time.
"The trick is making a movie that doesn't turn out to be the most depressing film you have ever seen."
It's been 15 years since Hanks first went behind the camera as director of Sixties-set comedy That Thing You Do!, which he also wrote and starred in. He's directed a couple of episodes of his own TV productions, including Band Of Brothers in 2001, but was waiting for the right project to tempt him again.
"It's like you have to be infected with a certain type of E.coli that takes you over until you're like, 'The only thing I can do now is direct a film', because it's two years of your life.
"Quite frankly, being a movie star is a much better gig: it pays better, you don't have to work as hard and they let you go home early sometimes – directing requires a personal investment in telling a story."
While wearing three hats at once as writer, director and actor may have saved him some valuable time, he admits multi-tasking occasionally takes its toll.
"About four o'clock in the afternoon, those three people got very tired, they got cranky and they needed to have a few moments to themselves and a nice cup of tea – and just enough scone – to make it through the rest of the day," he says, flashing the full Hanks grin.
Perhaps appearing to be the happiest man on the planet is Hanks's way of making up for an unsettled childhood. Born Thomas Jeffrey in California, his parents split when he was barely five years old and he was brought up by his father and two successive step-families.
He made his way to New York in 1979 to follow his dreams of acting after studying at college and California State University.
As UK students face rising tuition fees, Hanks is adamant about the value of an affordable education.
"My community college cost just 15 dollars, to register. Then state university cost 95 dollars a semester. This was a magnificent educational machine that made for an entire generation of educated people.
"As soon as quality education becomes unreachable for a segment of society, you're starting a domino effect that could tear down your republic quite frankly."
In 1980 he was cast in a short-lived sitcom, Bosom Buddies, and a guest appearance in Happy Days caught the eyes of director Ron "Richie Cunningham" Howard, who cast Hanks in mermaid romcom Splash, which proved to be his big break. The pair would team up again for The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons, with Hanks playing Dan Brown's professor creation Robert Langdon.
He met his second wife Rita Wilson on Bosom Buddies, they married in 1988 and had two sons, and he credits his two families with helping him to avoid a Larry-style midlife crisis.
"I had my first kids when I was in my early 20s and my second kids when I was in my mid 30s, so I always seemed to be in my child-rearing years no matter what," he says with a guffaw.
"When my 15-year-old decided to go to boarding school, all of a sudden Rita and I were empty nesters. But, hey, that's not a crisis, that's a celebration!
"The standard version of a midlife crisis is that people wake up one morning and realise they're unhappy even though they have everything. I might wake up tired but I don't wake up unhappy."
Perhaps as a way to 'get down' with his younger kids, Hanks has taken to tweeting. "It's kind of like sending out cool telegrams to your friends about once a week," he says.
But, left to his own devices, he tends to be more like the pre-college dowdy Larry than the scooter-riding cool guy we see at the end of the film.
"I tuck my shirts in, wear bad sandals and buy pants that I think look great and as soon as I get them home, Rita says, 'They're too short!'"
And he's certainly not about to take on baddie roles just to make sure we know he can deliver them.
"I don't need to explore the dark side just for the sake of it, because that ends up meaning you play a role with lines like, 'Before I kill you Mr Bond, perhaps you'd like a tour of our installation'.
"This is my countenance, this is who I am and I get to explore an awful lot of really great things that are recognisable to everybody."