Captain Courageous: Tom Hanks and Capt. Richard Phillips
September 22, 2013
For five harrowing days in 2009, Capt. Richard Phillips was held hostage by Somali pirates. Now he and Tom Hanks, who plays him in a new film, discuss bravery, fear, and that moment when an ordinary person finds himself doing extraordinary things.
What makes a hero? Though heralded worldwide for his heroic actions after Somali pirates attacked his ship, the Maersk Alabama, in April 2009, Capt. Richard Phillips is too modest to go there. “Most heroes don’t have a choice; they just do the best they can,” says the forthright 58-year-old. “What’s that saying? A hero is someone who [is braver] five minutes longer?” Still an active merchant mariner, the Vermont resident is in New York City on this June day to reunite with Tom Hanks, who plays him in the riveting film Captain Phillips, based on his ordeal.
Hanks, of course, knows a hero when he sees one. Sporting the mustache he grew for his Tony-nominated role in the play Lucky Guy, he greets Phillips warmly, inquiring about the captain’s next trip (he’s due to set sail shortly from Japan for the Persian Gulf). The actor, 57, has his own take on the psychology of heroism: “A hero is somebody who voluntarily walks into the unknown,” he says.
No matter how it’s defined, heroism is at the heart of director Paul Greengrass’s film. In theaters Oct. 11, Captain Phillips details the first hijacking of a U.S. cargo ship in 200 years, the time Phillips spent as a hostage in his vessel’s lifeboat, and the ultimate showdown between the pirates and Navy SEALs. “Every one of us hopes that if put to the test, we could acquit ourselves,” says Greengrass. “That’s why these stories inspire.” Here, Hanks and Phillips discuss everyday heroism and the challenges of portraying a real-life incident onscreen.
When did you two first meet, and what did you talk about?
Tom Hanks: I went up to his house in Vermont; it must have been March 2012. I asked him about his first go-round of being a celebrity, the world tour he had to make upon his rescue. And, you know, “How do you be a captain of a ship?” The standard [answer] takes in the romance of the sea; every now and again you stare at the horizon and breathe in deeply. But if you did that on the Maersk Alabama, you’d essentially get diesel fumes. So [this role] was more about portraying the pressure-filled, workaday aspect of getting goods to port.
Capt. Richard Phillips: A team of guys working together with the same purpose, that’s basically what it is.
And then your routine was disrupted by the pirate attack. A lot of people will be wondering how they might handle themselves in that situation.
Phillips: One thing I learned is that you’re stronger than you realize. I was afraid, but you’ve got to put that fear on the seat next to you and do what you have to do. I was pretty much in problem-solving mode the whole time.
Tom, when something like this happens in the news, do you think, “That’d make a great movie”?
Hanks: Here’s what I always think: “Will this have to be blown out of proportion to make it a movie? Or can we adhere to the behavior as it really went down?” An example would be Apollo 13. The movie added a bit of baloney, but not much. No bad guys were added; no spies were put in.
Phillips: No chase scenes.
Hanks: [laughs] No. By and large, the making of motion pictures is all about “Let’s ratchet it up.” And I always think, “We don’t need to ratchet this up.” If you do, don’t call it Captain Phillips or The Maersk Alabama. Call it something else, and then you have carte blanche to do anything, down to sea serpents and aliens.
How was the shoot? Paul Greengrass also directed United 93, another film about a real-life crisis in a confined space [the plane that was hijacked on 9/11 and crashed in Pennsylvania].
Hanks: On that movie, they would shoot the entire flight in the morning in real time, because it was only an hour and a half at most, then shoot it again in the afternoon with the cameras in different positions. It’s a fascinating way of working because it’s all about behavior and procedure as opposed to “Let’s get the shot where we establish this.” I called up Matt Damon, who made [two of] the Bourne movies with Paul, and he said, “Look, the first time you do it, it’s a disaster, because everyone’s talking on top of each other. But then it settles down.” We were able to do that mostly with the scenes on the bridge, prior to the pirates boarding. It’s a weird thing—you’re almost not performing; you’re behaving.
Captain Phillips, how did you feel reliving the incident when you watched the film?
Phillips: For me, it wasn’t bad. It’s in my past; I don’t think about it anymore. I was lucky enough to get through it, that’s the way I look at it. My wife cried at the end—it did affect her.
Did you have any sense of what was going on outside the lifeboat?
Phillips: No, not at all. I didn’t know about the maelstrom of media going on at home. And even with the navy boat there [the USS Bainbridge arrived on the scene a day after the hijacking], what could they do? The normal routine was to escort the pirates to shore and wait for the ransom to be paid. As a hostage, I can say I’m glad they didn’t stick to the normal routine.
Hanks: Paul would say, “We have to shoot some Navy SEAL porn today.” Guys jumping out of planes with all their gear, stuff like that.
Phillips: Since the incident, I’ve seen footage of the actual people going into the water. And it’s unbelievable. It’s more Hollywood than Hollywood. They are true titans, superheroes of our age.
You seem reluctant to be labeled a hero yourself; in your book you call it “the H-word.” Do you feel, looking back, that you did have heroic moments?
Phillips: Oh, for me, it was my job. You take the paycheck, you do the job. As captain, you get all the blame, pretty much, and in this situation all the recognition, when it was 19 of my crew who were involved in it also.
I’ve been more scared on ships. I’ve had a fire in the engine room where I thought I had dead engineers. I’ve been through hurricanes. I mean, I feel glad that I didn’t lose any of my crew [on the Maersk Alabama].
Tom, you must have thought about the role’s heroic aspects.
Hanks: I have gone through so many examinations of what a hero is, between the World War II stuff and the astronaut stuff. I once asked Jim Lovell, “Did you ponder your fate up there?” And he said, “No, because we were so familiar with the spacecraft and the procedures and physics of what it was going to take.” He felt he always had a card to play in the game of solitaire that was making it back. As long as there was a card to play, there was no fear. But you can’t help but think, well, that guy is willing to put himself in that position; the definition of heroism is in there. I have never met someone who did a heroic thing who didn’t say, “I was just doing my job.” The guys in World War II all say, “The heroes were the ones who never came back.”
Do you think we all have the ability to rise to the occasion?
Hanks: Not everybody, no. Some people are cowards. … I think by and large a third of people are villains, a third are cowards, and a third are heroes. Now, a villain and a coward can choose to be a hero, but they’ve got to make that choice.
Captain Phillips, when you went to sea, did you always think that a pirate attack was a possibility?
Phillips: Oh, yeah. I always told my crew it wasn’t a matter of if, it was a matter of when. Because we don’t deal with piracy just in Somalia; Nigeria is worse. It’s in Malacca, Vietnam, the Sulu Sea, the Philippines, off of China, off both coasts of Africa and South America.
Hanks: I watched a lot of video of you, and there was some guy who said, “Wasn’t it a mistake to take the ship where pirates are?” And you went, “Well, the pirates are all over the place.”
Tom, is there a special responsibility attached to playing a real person?
Hanks: I think so. A lot of times it’s not just within your hands; you have to see eye to eye with the filmmaker on a basic philosophy. I think it’s important not to redefine somebody’s motivations. [In a movie] you have to have people do or say things they never did or said, and be in places they never were. But you can take that to an extreme where it’s not really why this person does what he does, and that’s the key. You’ve got to be a journalist and a historian and a filmmaker all at the same time.
The Somali pirates are not depicted simply as “the bad guys”; you get a sense of them as individuals with pressures of their own.
Hanks: This could easily have been about bad guys who are just evil. Most movies are like that. But the dynamics of who these four Somalis are and the pressures on them are palpable—because Paul decided to make them so.
The actors who play them all live in Minneapolis, you know. They’re part of a Somali community up there. When I met them, I never felt more like an out-of-shape, middle-aged white man in my life. [laughs]
What are you hoping people take away from the movie? Hanks: I would say that Rich puts this incredibly well: You can always try to do something. Keep moving forward. Keep trying stuff.
Phillips: Nothing is over until you choose to give up.
Source : Parade