In “Captain Phillips” (opening Friday), Tom Hanks plays the title role in the film about the 2009 hijacking of the American container ship Maersk Alabama by a small crew of Somali pirates — another biographical portrayal for the two-time Oscar winner, who previously has played astronaut Jim Lovell (“Apollo 13”) and the flamboyant Texas congressman in “Charlie Wilson’s War, and will be seen as Walt Disney in the upcoming “Saving Mr. Banks.”
During a recent Chicago visit, the actor sat down with me to talk about the experience of making “Captain Phillips,” getting to know the real Richard Phillips, working with Somali-Americans who had never before acted, how he decides which films to make, and one life experience that well-prepared him for an actor’s life.
Q: What was the most important thing you learned from getting to know Capt. Richard Phillips, before you began filming?
A: I flew up to Burlington and drove to his and [Phillips’ wife, Andrea’s] farm. Richard was in his socks, on a barcalounger watching the NCAA basketball tournament. He had been through the celebrity maw already, after the incident — so the idea of an actor walking into his house wasn’t that surreal, compared to other moments he had experienced.
I was hoping to get a sense of him as a man, as a person, as a husband and father. I hoped he’d talk about stuff that’s neither in his book [“A Captain’s Duty,” Phillips’ book, on which the film is based] or that I had read about the hijacking. I learned he’s a very happy, go-lucky, kind of goofy guy — when he’s at home. But as soon as he gets on the ship. It’s no nonsense from the get-go. I would have thought there would have been some aspect of the romance of the sea out there — breathing in the sea air, pondering the horizon. Rich told right off, ‘Tom, I haven’t done that in 35 years,’ because the pressures of being captain of a huge container ship like the Maersk Alabama are unrelenting.
Q: I understand you never met the young Somali-Americans who play the pirates until the very moment they burst into the ship’s bridge and take over. How was that?
A: That was an amazing first day. [Director] Paul [Greengrass] hadn’t announced it, but we pretty much figured out we were not going to meet those guys beforehand. It was brilliant. Then here they came, just like a bunch of pirates actually taking over the ship. They were pumped, because they had been working and training for this for six weeks. It was hairy and loud and scary…with them screaming at us and carrying on, just like it happened for real.
Q: How was it working with such key cast members who had never before acted?
A: They were sweet guys who had the powers to become actors. They can make believe. The racket of being an actor, if you’re smart, you can figure it out pretty quick and they did. … There are a little bit of mechanics to film acting you have to figure out, but you can figure out that part pretty quickly. What’s harder to be ramped up for it and be prepared when the time comes and the director calls, ‘Action!’ — and they really were, especially Barkhad [Abdi, who plays the pirate crew’s leader, Muse].
Q: At this point, you can make any kind of film you want. How do you make those choices?
A: It’s really the theme of the film — about what the film examines. I mean, now more than ever you really adopt these [movies]. You pour yourself into it. You have to embrace it and live with it for many, many months. Then, when it’s finished you have to talk about it and promote it. So, it’s better to be doing something you love and are passionate about. … I love making movies where you get the chance to hold the mirror up to some aspect of human behavior. Not all films are interested in doing that. That’s okay, but that’s not what I want to do.
Somebody asked me a long time ago, if it wasn’t hard to say ‘Yes’ to some projects. Actually, it’s easy to say ‘Yes.’ It’s much more difficult to say ‘No.’ Because often there are a lot of reasons to do it. Sometimes they’re going to pay you a lot of money. Or you get to kiss a pretty girl, or go to a fabulous place to shoot it, or work with a great actor. But at the end of the day, there’s that little voice inside telling you, ‘I’m sorry, but I’m going to be faking my way through this thing.’ So you have to say ‘No.’
Q: You are one of the most successful actors in Hollywood. There are many, many talented actors, but a tiny few reach your level of success. What in your background helped you achieve that success — besides your innate talent?
A: When I was a kid, we moved around a lot. So the idea of having a comfort zone or the security of a home was non-existent. You just packed up your stuff and you went! I never went, ‘Boo-hoo, I’m moving.’ I always thought it was great to see what’s going to happen next. I always loved taking a chance on trying something new. I was never intimidated by putting myself in an uncomfortable, new situation and seeing what would happen. That’s acting to me: Being required to jump into anything.
Q: When you talked about this film with director Paul Greengrass, what was one of the more important things he told he wanted to convey with this film?
A: Paul got into the geo-political and economic aspects, making clear that things like the mall bombing in Nairobi by those Somalis was fundmentalist terrorism. These Somali pirates in our story are like members of organized crime. They are thugs, robbers. They come from a place that is hopeless and there’s chaos and unbelievable poverty…lots of guns and war lords. They are not the most benevolent guys in the world, but they’re hungry and they want to have money and see this as their only alternative.