IAR INTERVIEW: Tom Hanks Talks 'Captain Phillips'

Tuesday, 08 October 2013 08:54 Written by  iamrogue
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IAR INTERVIEW: Tom Hanks Talks 'Captain Phillips'

In Captain Phillips, hitting theaters nationwide this Friday, our affinity for Tom Hanks is used against us, bringing a real-life incident of maritime peril to the screen with an almost unbearable intensity.

Even for an international movie star, Hanks is unusually loved by audiences.  Rather than projecting unapproachable glamor, he has maintained an affable persona that often makes him feel like America's favorite uncle; we're pretty much always happy to see Tom Hanks.

Richard Phillips, meanwhile, is a bona-fide hero.  He was the captain of the Maersk Alabama, a commercial freighter.  When the unarmed vessel was boarded by four pirates 240 nautical miles off the coast of Somalia in April of 2009, Phillips was taken hostage, spending three days on a lifeboat with the armed pirates in a dramatic incident that made headlines around the world.

The new dramatic thriller is the latest feature from director Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Ultimatum), who honed his attention to verisimilitude with searing docudramas Sunday Bloody Sunday and United 93.  Screenwriter Billy Ray (Shattered Glass) adapts A Captain's Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy Seals, and Dangerous Days at Sea by Phillips himself and Stephen Talty.

Even with such talent behind the camera, the film largely rests upon its lead actor's shoulders.  IAR Managing Editor Jami Philbrick was on hand at the Los Angeles press day for Captain Phillips, during which Hanks discussed tackling this true story of endurance, what he learned from the real Phillips, the spontaneity of the production, working with the Navy, and the pressures of playing heroes.

The two-time Oscar winner isn't taking to the sea for the first time here, having starred in the likes of Cast Away and Joe versus the Volcano, but having a nautical adventure or two under his belt did not make Captain Phillips any simpler.  "Every movie is completely different," he said. "I wish they would relate one to the next but they don’t. It would be a nice shorthand if they did.  But you start all over from square one. Everything you’ve done in the past means absolutely nothing. You’ve just got to trust your process and everything you’ve learned in the course of doing the next one."

As with any film based on a such a well-publicized recent incident, the accuracy of Captain Phillips is a source of curiosity. "If you read the book, a lot of stuff has been omitted. But thematically, I don’t think a thing has," the actor said. "We didn’t alter the motivations of anybody involved. They actually tried to put the pirates on board a Zodiac [vessel] that didn’t work out. It broke before they put them on the lifeboat. The Navy sent over food that was literally chocolate Pop Tarts. We don’t have a scene of that in the film. But, by and large, everything we’ve done in the film is empirically accurate, if that makes sense."

Asked if he gained any crucial insights from Phillips, Hanks replied, "Yes.  It’s always surprising. You don’t necessarily go in and talk to the real person in order to try to find some secret key to the lock. But just he is an accomplished merchant mariner. That’s the main thing. He is very proud of what he does. He went to an academy. I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a merchant marine academy. But he studied long and has years and years and years of experience doing this very thing, being responsible for a ship and its crew and its cargo and having to get as quickly as possible to the port that is his destination."

"I found that he is a very pleasant guy, very happy-go-lucky. He’s funny. When he’s not at work, I don’t think you could ask for a better guy to hang out with because he’s just a dude," he continued. "But when he’s at work, he is truly no-nonsense because it’s a very, very serious, unglamorous business. That’s what I found out. All the rest of it, quite frankly, an awful lot of the terror and whatnot is the work that we do and it’s part and parcel to what we’re doing. But the background of what’s going on in the guy’s head and all the pressures that he’s under, that was a door-opening hunk of knowledge."

For much of the film, Hanks is playing off the four pirates, played by Barkhad Abdi, Faysal Ahmed, Barkhad Abdirahman, and Mahat M. AliCaptain Phillips marks the screen debut of all four actors, but Hanks said that their relative inexperience was no handicap. "There’s a small percentage who get to do this for a living. There’s a swath of the population that are able to keep a story in their head and fight all the battles against self-consciousness and the surreal unnaturalness of acting in a movie. The technical aspects you can learn fairly quickly. But that other aspect of inhabiting a character and staying on story and on point while maintaining that character is not something everybody can do," he explained. "These guys—particularly Barkhad [Abdi]—were evident from the get-go. Even though there was a true terror in the eyes of all the white guys when they came aboard the ship, when they came onto the bridge (for the first) time, what transpired after that had to go beyond any artificial trickery. They had to get up and deliver the goods. The fact that they did, through the course of the entire movie, is a testament to the power of creative artists. It just so happens that Paul went to Minneapolis and found these four guys, who are very much the creative artists any actor is, and any actor in the cast was. The only difference is that this was their first movie as opposed to their seventeenth. Learning that there is no substitute for accurate behavior, there is no substitute for true reacting. When you can see that in somebody who’s doing it pretty much for the first time even though they were rehearsing for weeks and weeks, to see somebody come in so primed and ready, it just lifts everybody’s game, mine included."

The drama ratchets up when the principal setting shifts to the lifeboat itself.  Of the cramped and difficult location to shoot, Hanks said, "I’m not a particularly claustrophobic person but it is a very small space and there’s no other way to do it. We built the exact replica and put it on a gimbal and that’s where we shot. Environmentally, quite frankly, it does an awful lot of work for you. It’s a very uncomfortable space. It smells horrible. The air is bad. It’s hot and you are right on top of each other. There’s a lot of places to bonk your head and crack your knee. We all did that. Everybody had all sorts of various scars. We were in there for a very, very long time. But Paul sets up an environment that is very realistic and I can’t imagine doing it any other way. I mean, there’s ways that would have been perhaps more pleasant. But for everything we needed to go through as actors, that tiny, little, hot cramped space with no windows on it, like maybe two windows in it, I think was a great advantage for us."

Much of the conversation and praise for the film has centered around the wrenchingly emotional final scene. "We didn’t know we were going to shoot that scene," Hanks revealed. "It wasn’t in the script. We were supposed to shoot another scene that day. We didn’t know we were making the last scene of the movie. There was another scene that was sort of like that."

That such a scene was created essentially on the fly, Hanks said, was "a testament to Paul’s willingness to go off the page and off the beaten path and the plan and off the schedule and shoot in a place with actors who weren’t ready, who didn’t think they were going to be in a movie in a location that we hadn’t scouted and to do a scene that wasn’t in the script. But it all made sense in the environment of the entire movie that we made. We had done variations of things like that on the Maersk Alabama, on the lifeboat and now we were doing it on board the Truxton, which is the sister ship to the [USS] Bainbridge [the American destroyer involved in the actual incident]."

The production involved extensive cooperation with the U.S. Navy, and the actor sang the praises of the Naval professionals with whom he worked, saying, "I was dazzled by the professionalism, expertise, and training. A ship like that is loaded with people who are experts at what they do and what they do is hard. Right down to the cooks, who have to four meals a day. All they do is cook all day! It’s astounding the precious that it all operates at. There is a sense the Navy of being this like cruise ship mentality. You’ll go out and sail around the world. You got to swab the deck, but no, this is a very impressive group of young people that live at sea in a place that is incredibly uncomfortable [laughs]. I was knocked out by these people. Their teamwork, they exude a pride that is well deserved."

Hanks has played many a heroic figure over the last three decades, but he was nonetheless quick to make the distinction between himself and such characters. "I’m just a guy who’s got a pretty good gig pretending to be other people," he explained. "'Hero' is almost like a branded term now. It’s bandied about all the time. People get labeled it left and right. In the end, heroes are ones who voluntarily walk into the unknown and try to do the right thing. It’s all relative. Everybody has variations of it. Sometimes it’s death-defying and sometimes it’s just living up to one’s responsibility. The work that I have done has not been more impactful in my concept of trying to do the right thing than the examples that are evident every day that you see in the news media and the common things that people do that I end up admiring. Richard Phillips doesn’t view himself a hero. He was a guy who sat there and waited for the heroes to show up, which is different. We all have times in our lives where we can either be a hero, a villain or a coward and I just hope that I’m a coward as little as possible, and hopefully never a villain and on the occasions when I have to be, I would hope to be able to do the heroic thing, but I’ve never been tested in any way, shape or form—other than facing down members of the fourth estate."

"That’s a joke," he concluded with a laugh. "C’mon."

Captain Phillips, which also stars Catherine Keener, hits theaters this Friday, October 11th.

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