Tom Hanks Talks CAPTAIN PHILLIPS, Meeting the Real Title Character, Filming on a Lifeboat, Shooting the Movie’s Final Scene and Working with the U.S. Navy

     October 8, 2013


Directed by Paul Greengrass, the intense drama Captain Phillips tells the story of the 2009 hijacking of the U.S. container ship Maersk Alabama by a crew of Somali pirates.  During the ordeal, commanding officer Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) managed to keep his crew safe, but was taken hostage by Somali pirate captain, Muse (Barkhad Abdi), and forced into the middle of a stand-off with the U.S. Navy.

During a press conference at the film’s press day, actor Tom Hanks talked about what he took from meeting the real Captain Phillips, just how small the space once when they were filming on the lifeboat where his character is held hostage, how everyone got bruised during the shoot, shooting the final scene of the movie on the fly, how much he was dazzled by the professionalism of the Navy, how accurate the film is, and what he did when they weren’t shooting.  Check out what he had to say after the jump.

captain-phillips-tom-hanksQuestion:  Was there any insight that you got from the real Captain Phillips, that helped With your performance?

TOM HANKS:  Yes, and that’s always surprising.  You don’t necessarily go in to talk to the person to try to find some secret key to the lock.  He is an accomplished merchant mariner.  He’s very proud of what he does.  He went to an academy.  I had no idea there was such a thing as a merchant marine academy.  He has years and years of experience, doing this very thing.  He’s responsible for his crew, his ship and his cargo, and getting, as quickly as possible, to the port of his destination.  He’s a very pleasant guy.  He’s happy-go-lucky.  He’s funny.  And 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.  But, when he’s at work, he is very no-nonsense because it’s a very serious, un-glamorous business.

Did you put yourself in Phillips’ place, at all, and think about your family, when you made this?

HANKS:  There are times in your work where you do that, but after awhile, that well has been gone to a few times too many, and it has to be more of an empathetic reaction to the actual people.  I got to know Rich a little bit, but I don’t have anything in common with him.  I love my family and I love my kids, but when the moments come, it’s not as though you can just substitute your own life with what you’re doing on film.  You have to go to some other place where it’s bigger than your own life.  I don’t know how to explain the process, and I certainly wouldn’t, but it’s not merely thinking about my wife and my kids, and what would I do in these situations.  It requires being open to a bigger, holistic vision of what the story is, as well as the truly tactile experience of what we’d been through, over the course of making the movie.  Early on in my career, when I wasn’t 57 years old and I hadn’t done that much or seen that much, I would turn to images of my family quite a bit in the work that I did.  But as time goes by, you’ve got to see it in a broader picture than just your own personal world.  You’ve got to look at the bigger world and be a part of that.

What did you learn from working with Barkhad Abdi, since he’s never acted before?

captain-phillips-barkhad-adbiHANKS:  The four guys – Mahat Ali, Faysal Ahmed, little Barkhad [Abdirahman] and big Barkhad [Abdi] – achieved something that often is proven, again and again.  There’s a small percentage of people who can act.  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. 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 the first) time, what transpired after that had to go beyond any artificial trickery.  They had to 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 17th.   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 rehearsed for weeks and weeks, to see somebody come in so primed and ready, it just lifts everybody’s game, mine included.

Did you feel claustrophobic while you were working on the lifeboat?

HANKS:  I’m not a particularly claustrophobic person, but it was a very small space.  There was no other way to do it.  We built an exact replica and put it on a gimbal, and that’s where we shot.  Environmentally, it does a lot of the 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 are a lot of places to bonk your head and crack your knee.  We all did that.  Everybody had all sorts of various scars.  And we were in there for a very, very long time.  But, Paul [Greengrass] sets up an environment that is very realistic, and I can’t imagine doing it any other way.  There are ways that may have been more pleasant, but for everything we needed to go through, as actors, that tiny, hot, cramped place, with only two little windows on it, was a great advantage for us.

captain-phillips-tom-hanksDid you get knocked around on that lifeboat?

HANKS:  Good Lord, yeah!  We all did.  There were lots of places you could bonk your head.  At one point, they built rubber seats for some of the fight scenes, and rubber seats literally flapped around. So, we said, “Guys, we don’t think rubber seats are going to work,” and they took those out.  We had a little bit of matting on the steel deck of the floor, but by and large, it’s a tiny space and it got pretty physical in there sometimes.  We all got nicks and bruises.

And it must have gotten pretty smelly, too.

HANKS:  Oh, it stank horribly!  It was stuffy and small, but the actual lifeboat smells even worse because it reeks of diesel fumes, and we had some vomit in there, at some point.  That’s always fun.  It was really filthy by the time we got out of there.  With the gimbal on the set, even though it rises up, it doesn’t fall like the sea does.  It pitches wildly, so it’s a crazy ride.  But, it doesn’t have that sudden fall where your stomach rises.  You keep your equilibrium, as opposed to that one day at sea that had a degree of misery to it.

What was it like to shoot that very emotional scene in the sick bay?

HANKS:  We didn’t know we were going to shoot that scene.  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 was very accurate to the story, and it happened when Phillips was alone and all cleaned up.  It wasn’t anything magnificent, but it was okay.  It was what we were going for.  The actual captain of the Bambridge itself was with us when we were shooting that.  I don’t know how it came about but he asked him, “What did you do with Phillips when he first came on board?,” and he said, “He was a mess so we sent him down to the infirmary.”  So, Paul said, “Well, let’s go see the infirmary,” which we did, and the actual crew was there.  The people in the film didn’t know they were going to be in a movie that day.   Paul said, “What would you do to a guy like this?,” and they talked about it a little bit and explained it.  And then, we decided to try to get something.  The actual crew members were told to just treat the scene like it was a training exercise, and we shot it.  It fell apart once because of the natural course of things that happen when making movies.  We said, “Don’t worry, we’ll just do it again.”  We shot it for a half-hour or 45 minutes, and out it came.  That’s a testament to Paul’s willingness to go off the page, off the beaten path, off the plan and off the schedule, and shoot in a place with people who didn’t think they were going to be in a movie, in a location that we hadn’t scouted, to do a scene that wasn’t in the script.  It all made sense, in the environment of the entire movie that we had made.  We had done variations of that on the Maersk Alabama, on the lifeboat, and then onboard the Truxton, the sister ship to the Bambridge.

captain-phillips-movie-imageWhat did you think about the Navy, after making the film?

HANKS:  I was dazzled by their 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 prepare four meals a day.  All they do is cook all day, and it’s astounding, the precision to which it all operates.  There’s this misconception that the Navy is this cruise ship, and you get to go out and sail around, and every now and then, you have to swab the deck.  But, no, it is a very impressive group of young people that live at sea, in this place that’s very uncomfortable.  They exude a pride that is well-deserved.

How accurate is this film to what really happened?

HANKS:  If you read the book, a lot of stuff has been omitted, but thematically, I don’t think a thing has.  We didn’t alter the motivations of anybody involved.  They actually tried to put the pirates onboard a Zodiac 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.

What did you do when the cameras weren’t rolling?  Were you able to have any fun? 

HANKS:  Fun is an interesting word.  Without a doubt, there’s the same sense of camaraderie and being part of a team that’s magnificent in making films, and the fact that we were on the Maersk Alexander all day long, hanging out with a really great group of people, who are working towards the same goal.  There were moments when I was not needed. T hey were shooting scenes with the pirates on deck, or down in the engine room, that I was not in.  At those moments, I went off to chat or read or sleep, or prepare for whatever else was coming up.  When we were involved in the very long scenes that had Phillips in them, it was easiest to hang out by the camera and stay  nearby. 

Captain Phillips opens in theaters on October 11th.


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