When it comes to selling a movie, there’s no better ally than having Tom Hanks as your frontman. Always a genial, talkative and playful subject (he walked in the room and dropped the F-bomb just to get a laugh) he dominated our discussion on the making of Captain Phillips, which also featured director Paul Greengrass and newcomer Barkhad Abdi. But seriously, who wouldn’t want to ask Tom Hanks a question?
Mr. Hanks, you spend a lot of time in a small lifeboat, it felt very, very claustrophobic. Did you feel a sense of claustrophobia while shooting?
Tom Hanks: I’m not a particularly claustrophobic person but it is a very small space and there’s no other way to do it. We built the exact replica and put it on a gimbal and that’s where we shot. Environmentally, quite frankly it does an awful lot of 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’s a lot of places to bump your head and crack your knee and we all did that. Everybody had all sorts of various scars. We were in there for a very, very long time, but Paul [Greengrass] was sort of an– he sets up an environment that’s very realistic and I can’t imagine doing it any other way. I mean maybe a way that was perhaps more pleasant but that’s physical, but for everything that we needed to go through as actors, that tiny little hot cramped spaced with no windows on it were maybe two windows in it was– I think it was a great advantage for us.
Paul Greengrass: It enhances the drama really, you know? It brought everybody into close proximity.
Mr. Hanks, I don’t know how much time you spent on the sea making this movie, so when the camera weren’t rolling you were on the water, on a ship, on a little boat, what are you doing when the cameras aren’t rolling, is it fun in any way?
Tom Hanks: It’s fascinating. Fun is an interesting word, there’s a sense of camaraderie that comes with making all films. The fact that we were on the Maersk Alabama all day long, well yeah, you’re hanging out with a real group of people all working to the same goal. I found that there were moments where I wasn’t needed when they were shooting on the deck with the pirates, or in the engine room, and I had moments to go off and chat or read or sleep or whatever it is, or prepare for whatever was next, but when we were involved with long scenes that involves Phillips it’s easier to stay there.
Tom Hanks: Oh god yeah, we both did. There are a lot of places to bop your head. At one point they built rubber seats for some of the fight scenes, and literally, the rubber seats flapped around so I said “guy I don’t think those rubber seats are going to work” so they took those out, I believe we had a little bit of matting on the steel floor, but by and large it’s a tiny space and it got pretty physical in there so we all got a little bruised.
Tom Hanks: Oh it stank horribly. It was stuffy and small, but the actual lifeboat smells even worth because you’re breathing diesel fumes and we had some vomit in there at some point.
Paul Greengrass: Let me tell you a true story. The first day we shot in the lifeboat. We’ve got Tom in there, we’ve got the young guys, and Barry Ackroyd our cinematographer, our focus puller, my first A.D. and I was in the camera boat right next to it. We ran into the ocean with it pitching around and I had a walkie talkie with Christopher (Carreras) our AD, and the scene wasn’t going very well so I was badger Chris “What’s going on in there? What’s going on in there?” There was a pause and then he said “The focus puller doesn’t look so good,” and I was like “just going to keep on shooting.” And then I hear “The focus puller’s just thrown up all over Tom’s leg.” And I’m like “Keep on shooting.” “Barry’s thrown up now.” And it went from there, everybody going down, so we had to pull everyone up. But with Tom it was like “Do you want to come up” and he said “no, I’m fine.”
Tom Hanks: When we weren’t working we could just concentrate. “Oh we’re rising now, we’re pitching to the right, oh wait now were falling and going off to the left.” You could sense where you were. When we were on the gimbal on the set, it doesn’t rise and fall like the sea does so it pitches wildly like a ride but it doesn’t have that sudden fall where your stomach goes crazy. You keep your equilibrium. But on that one day…
So you’ll be doing that again soon?
Tom Hanks: Can’t wait.
For Tom, was there some insight that you got from the real Captain Phillips that helped really turn the page for you as to how you wanted to play this role?
Tom Hanks: Yes and it’s always surprising. You don’t necessarily go and talk to the real person in order to find some secret key to the lock. He is an accomplished merchant mariner, that’s the main thing. He’s very proud of what he does. He went to an academy. I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a merchant marine academy, but he studied long and has years and years of experience doing this very thing, being very responsible for his ship and its crew and its cargo, and having to get as quickly as possible to the port that is his destination. I found that he is absolutely– he’s a very pleasant guy. A very happy-go-lucky. He’s funny. When he’s not at work I don’t think you can ask for a better guy to hang out with because he’s just a dude. When he’s at work, he’s truly no-nonsense because it’s a very very serious, unglamorous business. All the rest of it, quite frankly, an awful lot of the terror and what not is the work that we do and it’s parcel to what we’re doing, but the background of all the pressures that he’s under. That was a door-opening hunk of knowledge.
Paul, you deliberately cast unknowns as the pirates. Was it difficult working with inexperienced actors?
Paul Greengrass: Well it was really important, I think, because it gave an edge to everything. I think it gave an edge to the actors and I think it gave an edge to the crew as well. We were all looking forward to that moment, you know. I mean obviously when you’re making the film you’re making a strong bet on the ability of four young men who have not acted professionally before, but I believed in them and I believed in what authenticity they could bring to that film as young Somali’s with their knowledge of their country and the people. I was incredibly impressed with their hard work and dedication. When it came to that moment, it’s a little bit like a sport. When they cross that white line, as it were, there’s not much else you can do and you have to believe in them. That was a fantastic moment I think for all concerned. I think in a way it helped Tom too cause it meant that he didn’t know them and they didn’t know him so there was no sort of intimacy. They were sort of antagonists at that moment, and that I think you can tell onscreen.
Mr. Hanks, great performance in the film. I thought that the final scene after Captain Phillips is rescued and back in the sick bay was really some exceptional piece of acting. That scene alone, I assuming the film was shot out of sequence so as an actor can you talk about how you emotionally prepared for that scene in particular.
Tom Hanks: We didn’t even know we were going to shoot that scene. It wasn’t in the script. We had a day in which we were going to be shooting another scene. We didn’t know we were making the last scene of the movie. There was another scene, and Paul can talk about this too, that was sort of like that and it was very accurate to the story and kind of what happened. It was when Phillips was alone, finally alone, and he was all cleaned up. It was satisfying to a degree. It wasn’t anything magnificent but it was okay. It was what we were going for, but the actual captain of the navy ship was with us when we were shooting that — I don’t know how it came about but we happened to ask “What did you do with Phillips when he first came onboard?” He said that he was a mess and we sent him down to the infirmary. Paul said let’s go see the infirmary, which we did and the actual crew, the people who were in the film had no idea they were going to be in a movie that day. And Paul said “Well, what would you do to a guy like this?” They talked about it for a little bit and they explained and then we decided to try and get something and Paul talked to those expert health technicians and said look, just treat this like it’s a training exercise. We shot it. It fell apart once because of natural things that happen within the course of making movies, and we said don’t worry, we’ll just do it again and we shot it for about a half hour, 40 minutes and out it came. I think that’s a testament of Paul’s willingness of going off the page, off the beaten path, off the schedule and shoot in a place with actors that weren’t ready and didn’t think they were going to be in a movie and 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 made.
Paul Greengrass: While Tom was getting ready for that scene, I said “Just treat it like a regular military exercise. It’ll be entirely routine.”
Tom Hanks: Two days later she was on guard duty out in front of the ship. Oh hey, how are you doing? Not in the movie today, are you?
Paul Greengrass: It was interesting because when we were shooting that last scene in the infirmary with Tom, I was outside and the second in command was standing next to me, just happened to be there at one point watching the scene on the monitor. I looked around about halfway through and he had tears running down his face. He said that’s really what… you want to know what trauma looks like. I’ve seen it a lot and it’s exactly what it looks like.
Paul, you’ve always been very good at documenting people in crisis mode, and I think this is the ultimate testament to that, and how it brings out the professionalism. Can you talk about trying to achieve that in a precise way?
Paul Greengrass: Well I think that’s absolutely the goal. What moments or situations of crisis do is create a ballet, I think, the tension building up. It tells you something about the world when you see it building in that way. But you have to catch that ratcheting up, so you can catch something underneath that, which is the humanity and compassion, and a sort of wisdom when actors don’t sentimentalize the brutal truth of what’s occurring, which in this case is kidnap and piracy, seeing some underneath it about humanity.
I’m curious about your perception of the history versus the more fictionalized elements. Was the thought that it had to be as accurate as possible? It certainly feels that way.
Paul Greengrass: The truth is that there’s a wide spectrum in movies made on true story, and I think that filmmakers tend to be on all points of that spectrum. From very loose adaptations to very faithful ones. Given my background I’m much more comfortable being on the faithful side, this is a very faithful account. The problem is that you have to compress an event that takes four or five days – and that’s from the point they get on the ship, not including the stuff that happens beforehand – into less than two hours. And actually, in terms of the challenges with this film, that was the biggest. How do you get that compression and still stay truthful to the fundamentals of what happened, the fundamental dynamics. We did a lot of work while working on the screenplay to know exactly the navy side, and who the young men were and where they came from, the clan structure of piracy. I remember thinking the last time I watched it that I was pleased and definitely confident that it was on the faithful.
Tom Hanks: You read the script and there’s a lot of stuff that’s been omitted but thematically I don’t think anything has, and we haven’t altered the motivations of anyone involved. They actually tried to put the pirates on a zodiac, that didn’t work out, it was broken before they tried putting them on the lifeboat. The Navy sent over food that was literally chocolate pop tarts, but everything we’ve done has been empirically accurate
For Tom and Barkhad can you talk about working together and working with a two-time Academy award winner. And for Tom, you’re working with somebody who’s never made a film before and I just think what did you learn from each other? Something fresh, maybe?
Barkhad Abdi: Yeah, I learned a lot from working with Tom. As big as he is he’s a really hard working guy.
Tom Hanks: Look, I think the four guys, Mahat [M. Ali], Faysal [Ahmed] and the little Barkhad [Abdirahman], this is big Barkhad, achieved something that is often times proved over and over again that there are a small percentage of people that can do it. There’s a very small percentage of people that get to do this for a living but there’s a swath of the population that’s 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 relatively quickly, but that other aspect of inhabiting a character and staying on story and on point while maintaining that character, is something that not everybody can do. These guys, particularly Barkhad, were evident from the get-go, and even though there was a true terror in the eyes of all the white guys who were on board the ship when they came onto the bridge that time, what transpired after that has to go beyond any sort of artificial trickery. They have to get up and deliver the goods, and the fact that they did throughout the course of the entire movie from the get-go, is I think a testament to the power of creative artists. It just so happened that Paul went to Minneapolis and found these four guys who are every much the creative artist that any actor is, and that any actor in the cast was, the only difference was that this was their first movie as opposed to their 17th. Learning from that, I think that there is no substitute for accurate behavior. There is no substitute for true reacting, and we can see that in somebody who’s doing that for the first time, even though they were rehearsed for weeks and weeks, to see somebody come in so primed and so ready, well it just amps up everybody’s game, mine included.
How do you compare who play in this film to the character you play in Cast Away or Philadelphia, and Barkhad did Mr. Hanks give you any advice on how to handle talking to the press?
Tom Hanks: Every movie is completely different and I wish they would relate one to the next, but they don’t. You start all over from square one and everything you’ve done in the past means absolutely nothing. You have to trust that your process you’ve learned over the course of your work.
Barkhad Abdi: Honestly, though I’ve had some media training, the first time I was scared and Tom did help me a lot cause he’s a comedian and is very comfortable.
Tom Hanks: I love it, media training. He had power point and bullet points of things you’re supposed to say.
Barkhad Abdi: Yeah, but it all went away.
Tom Hanks: You try to tell the truth and you’ll do okay.
Captain Phillips opens October 11. Check it out.