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Tom Hanks on clicking into his role as the real-life Captain Phillips

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It's been a fascinating few years for Tom Hanks — having won two Oscars, produced and shepherded several epic miniseries to popular and critical acclaim, and remained one of the most beloved movie stars in the business. The only question is: Where does he go from there?

The short answer, as well as the pithy one, is wherever he'd like. After last year's remarkable, deranged (and tragically underseen) Cloud Atlas, it seemed the Hanks experience was moving into fascinating new territory. And now Captain Phillips, his collaboration with director Paul Greengrass (Bloody Sunday, United 93), finds the actor taking an intriguing approach to acting in a realistic context.

Based on the book A Captain's Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea by Rich Phillips and Stephan Talty, Captain Phillips retells the hijacking of the Maersk Alabama by a band of Somali pirates in 2009. We were able to speak with Tom Hanks as part of the press conference for Captain Phillips at the 2013 New York Film Festival, where the film was making its world premiere.

How in-depth a process did you undertake in getting to know both the real-life Rich Phillips and your character of him?

I read his book prior to reading the screenplay, and I was able to get together with him and his wife Andrea on a couple of occasions and explain to him, "I will say things that you never said, and I will be places that you never were, but if we do this right, then thematically it will be spot-on."

Did that approach affect how you went about finding Captain Phillips as a character?

You have to load up on facts, listen to audio and watch a lot of video, and there's always some detail that will make the final tumbler fall into place. I asked Andrea if she ever visited Rich on his ships, and she said, "No, it was no fun, because he's a completely different human being when he's on board and on the job." He's very easygoing, and I would almost describe him as happy-go-lucky and funny. But on board the ship, he's very serious; there's always serious work to be done. And that's what made the tumbler click.

Is it difficult to try and do justice to someone who can see and evaluate your performance?

The task, when we put ourselves in Paul's good hands, was to remain true to the motivations of everyone who was involved. If you were to start manufacturing moments, things that didn't happen during those five or six days, then I think you can get into trouble there.

I could walk you through and say, "Here's a moment that didn't literally happen but thematically did," and that's tricky, and can get away from you. But we were always searching for that combination of procedure and behavior that was going to be — not just reminiscent — but reflective of what happened. And that's tough when you're doing nonfiction entertainment.

How did shooting in and on actual ships change the experience for you?

Well, it's a very environmental movie; shooting it on board a ship very much like the Alabama, at sea, and in very close confines. ... And Barkhad [Abdi, who plays Muse, the leader of the pirates] was out on that skiff for hours, and whenever people ask, "How did you shoot those scenes out on the ocean in a speedboat?" he'd say, "They put us out on the ocean in a speedboat ... "

There was one day when we were getting shots in the lifeboat out on the ocean in Malta, and everyone who wasn't an actor on that lifeboat ended up vomiting. First the focus puller disappeared, then [cinematographer] Barry [Ackroyd], and then the sound mixer — who was just in the back holding a boom mic — made a rush for it, and we [actors] were able to just sit back and close our eyes ...

In London, on the stage with the gimbal, it moves you around, but it pretty much just does roll, pitch and yaw. It doesn't drop the way you do in the open sea. It looks like it does, because of the handheld camera, but without the drop, it's much more like an amusement park ride.

The last few minutes of this film are incredibly overwhelming, both in the range of emotional responses it evinces and in the helpless intensity of your performance. How did that come to be?

It was a moment like I've never had before in making films. It wasn't on the page at all. ... We had a scene that sort of covered the same thing, and it worked fine, and we were on schedule. But we had the actual captain of the Bainbridge [one of the ships involved in Phillips' rescue] with us when we were shooting, and Paul asked, "Well, what'd you do with Phillips when you first got him on board?" And they said, "He was such a mess that the first thing we did was take him to the infirmary and get him cleaned up." And Paul said, "Well, why don't we go have a look at the infirmary?"

We hadn't been there, it wasn't on the schedule, it hadn't been scouted, it wasn't lit, but we went down there and we had the actual crew of the ship that we were shooting on.

So it was just an incredibly fortunate confluence of elements?

What was extraordinary about it was Paul's willingness to consider it as a possibility. There's a lot of motion pictures where you don't have the scheduling for something like that; you can't get into it and see what's cooking. The other thing is that we had the actual crew of the infirmary, and they didn't know they were gonna be in a movie that day. They thought they might be dress extras in the background, and all of a sudden, here they are. And this goes back to the procedure/behavior dynamic — there's a procedure that you can be confident in, and there's a behavior that, if you're lucky, you can re-create. We did the first take, I remember, completely falling apart. Because they'd never been in a movie before, and they couldn't get past the horrible self-consciousness of everything that was going on around us.

So we just stopped, and Paul said, "Don't worry about it. You can't do anything wrong, this isn't a test. And if it doesn't work, we won't use it, so let's just try it again and see what happens."




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