On the high seas: Tom Hanks

Tom Hanks talks about the challenges and responsibilities of playing real people, including the title character in Paul Greengrass' “Captain Phillips.”
BY GEORGE LANG glang@opubco.com Published: October 11, 2013

— Tom Hanks has a track record of playing real, flesh-and-blood men, and most of them are alive, or were when Hanks portrayed them, including astronaut Jim Lovell in “Apollo 13,” U.S. Rep. Charlie Wilson in “Charlie Wilson's War” and his latest role as Richard Phillips, the captain of the MV Maersk Alabama who was kidnapped by Somali pirates in 2009.

Hanks said that, like those earlier roles, he felt a personal and professional responsibility to give an honest portrayal in “Captain Phillips,” and it takes a certain amount of detective work to get it right.

“You have to find out what happened, and you have to keep following all those tracks for as much information as there is,” Hanks said during an interview at the St. Regis Hotel in the Buckhead district of Atlanta. “And if the guy's alive, you might want to weigh whether or not you're actually going to want to get together.”

In this case, Hanks said there was no question that he would meet Phillips — it was part of three stages of preparation to play the captain, who endured the hijacking of the Maersk Alabama and his subsequent kidnapping over the course of four grueling days before U.S. Navy SEALs rescued him from a commandeered lifeboat in the Gulf of Aden.

Hanks, 57, read Phillips' memoir, “A Captain's Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea,” once he knew that the script by “Hunger Games” screenwriter Billy Ray was coming his way. And once he read Ray's script and knew that Paul Greengrass (“The Bourne Ultimatum,” “United 93”) was attached to direct, it was time to make contact.

“After the movie was kind of like ‘on the clock,' so to speak, and Paul was engaged, I arranged meetings,” Hanks said. “I went up to his house and found him to be this happy-go-lucky, pleasant individual: funny, very pragmatic.”

Most of that process, Hanks said, simply involved hanging out with Phillips. There was nothing scientific, but in the process of getting to know the man during his down time, he discovered the difference between how Phillips behaves when he's relaxing at home in Underhill, Vt., with his wife, Andrea, and how he operates when he is commanding the bridge of a shipping vessel.

“I'm just watching and listening,” Hanks said. “I'm just having a bona fide conversation that I'm not outside of, you know? The first time I met Rich, he wasn't wearing shoes. He was in his socks, and he was watching a basketball game. So we watched the basketball game for a little bit, and I got some stuff from that.

“It's not a matter of taking copious notes,” he said. “I'm not like an anthropologist on a fact-finding mission. It's not a matter of checking off boxes. It's waiting for that stuff to come on that lands in your ear in a unique way.”

Key to understanding

And one thing that landed in Hanks' ear came from Andrea Phillips.

“Andrea says, ‘Rich is no fun when he's at work,'” Hanks said. “And he's not. He's just a stickler for everything. There's the by-the-book thing and then he's got to deal with regulations and physics and weather and what have you. There's a ton of human behavior, people skills that are always being tested, and he's always having to try to stay one step ahead of everything, including how people think.”

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