ATLANTA — 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.”
This, it turned out, was key to understanding both how Phillips worked with his crew and how he stayed alive during the kidnapping, which Greengrass recreated in “Captain Phillips” with the eye toward realism he developed while shooting documentaries for Britain's Granada Television. But because “Captain Phillips” is not a documentary, Hanks said he was frank with the captain about how things would go forward with the project. Even when they look real, docudramas make adjustments to reality.
“One of the first things I said to him was, ‘I'm going to say stuff you never said. We'll do things you never did,'” Hanks said. “But that being the case, you still want to be as truthful as possible. You don't want to go so far off the page that you're altering his motivations or some of the more concrete realities of what happened and why.”
Throughout the filming of “Captain Phillips,” Hanks tried to internalize Phillips' experiences based on the memoir, the script and his own interactions with the merchant mariner. Hanks' investment in bringing a thoughtful portrayal to the screen culminated in an emotional scene that takes place after Phillips' rescue on April 12, 2009.
In the scene, which was largely improvised with an actual U.S. Navy medic, Phillips finally lets go of his stoic exterior while being examined by the medical crew of the U.S.S. Bainbridge.
Hanks said the emotional scene, which is described in Phillips' memoir, was shot late in the production schedule on board the U.S.S. Truxtun, a 510-foot Arleigh Burke-class destroyer that doubled for the Bainbridge. Between having lived with the captain's story for several months and the realism of his surroundings, Hanks said he was able to tap into the emotions that would lend credence to his performance and do justice to Phillips' experience.
“They way you do that, I guess anybody would just have to have carried everything, both mentally and physically — and theoretically, as in what the interior process of being an actor is — but also the specifics of what we had shot all the way up to that. It wasn't at the exact end of the movie, but we were near the end of the film,” he said.
“And so there was an awful lot of firewood in the fire,” Hanks said, referring to the accumulated emotions he had stored throughout the production. “And man, you just let go.”
Travel and accommodations provided by Sony Pictures.