Tom Hanks Talks About 'Captain Phillips' and Somali Pirates
October 05, 2013
Tom Hanks is not an actor one can comfortably imagine in a superhero costume.
"He has made lasting, immortal characters out of ordinary men," says Paul Greengrass, who directed the 57-year-old in the new thriller, "Captain Phillips," due Oct. 11.
In the film, Mr. Hanks plays Richard Phillips, a real-life container-ship captain who in 2009 offered himself as a hostage for the safety of his crew after his vessel, the Maersk Alabama, was boarded by four armed Somali pirates seeking to extract millions of dollars in ransom. Like previous Hanks characters such as Andrew Beckett, an AIDS-stricken lawyer in "Philadelphia" and Chuck Noland, a stranded FedEx executive in "Cast Away," his character discovers over the course of his ordeal that he's tougher than he realized. (Mr. Phillips, who got a writing credit, was rescued by the U.S. Navy.) Excerpts from an interview at New York's Carlyle Hotel:
A lot of your films happen against the backdrop of broader social issues, whether it's AIDS, the death penalty, World War II.
I know. I gotta get away from the heavy themes.
This film deals with the disparity between the global haves and have-nots. Was that something that appealed to you?
It was really Paul's thing. Paul's desire, in order to make sure these four guys aren't just punks who robbed the liquor store, was to have this other thing going on, this dynamic amongst the guys. There's this underlying hopelessness because of the geopolitics of what a disaster Somalia has become. The place has been fished out and all these goods go by their country in ships all the time—everything from Mercedes-Benzes to soybeans. That just adds to the fabric of the movie that makes it rise above the concept of "scary aliens have invaded us and we have to make it home."
You were on board right from the beginning, before Paul Greengrass?
Yes, this is one of those things where Sony I guess had been developing the story and [screenwriter] Billy Ray had been writing it for quite some time. I had heard from my crack team of show business experts: [CAA president] Richard Lovett said [whispering], "I'm tracking a project at Sony for you. It's called 'Maersk Alabama.' " I said, "OK. I remember that." Knowing that it might be coming my way, when I was here in New York shooting [2011's] "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" I read Richard Phillips's book. Eventually the screenplay came in, and I was like, "I get it." Then it was in the studio's hands, and Scott Rudin's. Who's going to direct it? They went through their shenanigans, and eventually it was Paul.
Paul Greengrass has said he wanted people to understand the position of the pirates, their humanity. Are you concerned some people may find this sympathy misplaced?
I gave up trying to figure out what's going to happen with anybody's reaction. It's always across the board. On the one hand, there's almost a pro-gun argument in the film, you know?
Yes, I kept thinking how astonishing it was that the ship was unarmed in those dangerous waters.
I asked Richard Phillips, "What's the deal there? How come no guns?" And first off, there are parts of international law saying you can't ship guns into a foreign port. And there's this other concept. You've got 25 guys who argue a lot. You might not want them to be packing heat in their sea bags.
Before you got involved in this film, were you familiar with the story of Richard Phillips?
I was aware of it because it was in the news. When it was over, I remember being like, "Wow, they got 'em! Son of a gun!" But I didn't know anything more than that.
What was it like playing a real person who is alive and well and similar in age to you?
What's interesting about Richard is that he and [his wife] Andrea have been through the maw. There was no glamour in the idea of me coming in and saying "We're going to make a movie." They had met the president of the United States. So there was no "Oooh, this is going to be fun" for them. Rich is a very funny guy and he's very easygoing. But Andrea said that when he's aboard the ship, he's no nonsense and no fun whatsoever.
What kind of input did you get from Richard Phillips to help you play him?
I once said, "So you're at sea. Do you ever go out and ponder the horizon, this vast ocean and the glories of nature and the mysteries of the sea?" And he said, "I haven't done that for 35 years." So you can get rid of that. I realized there is nothing unique, nothing romantic about him going off and doing this. The script at certain points said things like "Phillips is looking out the porthole and the stars are coming out. He wonders: does his family know where he is?" Then we get in the lifeboat and discover there's no porthole to even look through!
You've played a lot of ordinary guys who become heroes, like Phillips. What was it about this character that felt fresh to you?
In "Saving Private Ryan," that wasn't a real guy, but it took place in a real place. That has a real particular logic to it. "Cast Away," certainly did, once you figured out he was alone. "Apollo 13" had a very specific thing. With "Captain Phillips," once he's off that boat [and on the lifeboat with the pirates], it's all his own instinct and he has to constantly keep it in play. He's not waiting for anything to happen. He's trying to stay alive for another hour or so, because he really did think that one hothead was going to shoot him or bash his head in. That added an element that was different from all the other nonfiction stuff I've done.
But, despite the danger of the situation, there were these moments that the pirates and Phillips—nicknamed "Irish" by his captors—almost got a bit chummy.
He told me there were times he laughed with the pirates. They made jokes as best they could. He'd say something and they'd come back, saying "I like you, Irish. You're funny." So I got to do all this work of hidden preparation and I never have to tell anybody about it. I don't have to even show it. I just have to know it. And then when it comes out, it comes out in a palpable way.
The pirates have lost as soon as the Navy ships arrive, but the Somalis don't seem to comprehend the power of the U.S. military.
Exactly. When the Navy showed up Phillips said to them, "Guys, it's done. It's done!" They don't get it. It's like, "Jeez, it would have been so much easier if you guys just cashed in [on a smaller bribe]." But it didn't happen. Then there's that scene when you realize [the lead pirate] has got a boss who's gonna kick his ass unless something happens. That raises the stakes of everything.
Paul Greengrass wanted to keep you away from the first-time actors playing the Somali pirates until you meet for the first time, while shooting the scene when they held you up at gunpoint while screaming in your face.
A lot of times when the unit gets into town and you're starting principal photography, you have a party or a dinner. We didn't do anything like that. The day that we did meet them, it was funny. We shot a scene where we could see them in the distance on the skiffs, and we could see little flashes of them running around as they were coming up, but when we shot the scene where we heard them getting closer and closer and closer and there they were. And, let's just say it achieved the effect that Paul desired.
Then what happens after the director says "Cut"? You shake hands?
It was very ephemeral and very tactile for three takes—and then when we were done with that moment and moving on to the next piece of it, and I say, "Hey, I'm Tom. How are you?" Because we had that powerful sensory experience, continuing on was not far under the surface. When the hair stands up on the back of your neck the way it did, you can remember what that was like.
Were you concerned about sharing most of your screen time with four guys who had never been in a movie before?
Making a movie is kind of a racket. You just gotta learn these particular kind of things, and what you actually have to be disciplined about is not to be self-conscious. Some people can never get over that self-consciousness. And other people can. I think our four guys could. They had rehearsed a lot—like six or seven weeks before we even got down there, so they were ready to make it work. After that initial rush in, there was a little bit of awareness that they were making a big movie with me and Paul and everybody else. But we were over that in seven minutes and got back in the teeth of it. So I never had a moment's discomfort or worry about working with these guys.
Nora Ephron once said that you bring a "no crying in baseball" philosophy when it comes to work.
There's something to be said for you the actor being accessible. Very early on, by way of the first job I ever had, I realized you can be a real ally to the production. You can make things happen easier if you show up on time, if you know your lines well, if you have ideas.
How do you feel about actors who demand to be in character while on set, even if they're not shooting?
There are long sequences where, you know, you just want to keep it going. It actually does aid the process. But I've found you can let it go, then bring it into sharp focus and let it go again. Say, for example, if you require a sort of camaraderie amongst the other people in the scene, you might not be able to create that if you maintain the reality of the thing you're doing—but you can get it if you're just a bunch of guys making a movie. The fact is that you can't substitute the truth when the camera's rolling. So I respect anybody who gets there any way they can. I've worked with people who [stay in character], and I think it's fabulous. And I've worked with other people where all we do is laugh all day long, and that brings something to it as well.
Steven Spielberg predicted this summer that Hollywood will implode because of all these action-driven tentpoles. Do you agree?
The business is driven by businessmen and women. They are not dealing with themes. They are not dealing with stories. They are dealing with business. But when artists come up with surprises, businesses often move forward. I remember when [filmmaker] Irwin Allen first came out and everybody said, "All movies are now going to be big-budget disaster movies with Ernest Borgnine and Gene Hackman and Shelly Winters."
Do you think quality television is increasingly becoming the place to see good, character-driven dramas?
There always will be, and has been every single year, a collection of movies that draw people in. They are not the movies that the business people see as a possibility. In a lot of ways, this other movie I am in, "Saving Mr. Banks," which is a good movie [about the making of "Mary Poppins"]—they were petrified. I don't want to put words in anybody's mouth, but they didn't know what to do with this thing. The marketing people don't necessarily know how to sell it. All of the business of it said "Boy, maybe we shouldn't do this because there's other things that might be more quote-unquote 'surefire.'"
Any plans to return to Broadway after your Tony-nominated debut this year in "Lucky Guy"?
Here's what I learned about Broadway: It's a physical process. I did go into it with this question in my head, whether I could live up to the rigors, both physically and artistically. All I can tell you is that it was more of everything than I thought it was. So, I am going to come back as soon as I can—that might not be for another four years, but I will come back.
The Oscar race has already begun, and you are already being talked about as a best actor contender for "Captain Phillips" and best supporting actor contender for "Saving Mr. Banks." This is a high-class problem.
You know, it never works out the way they want it to work out.
Source : The Wall Street Journal