American Icon

Talking with Tom Hanks about his gripping new film, 'Captain Phillips'

It’s no news that Tom Hanks is America as it wants to see itself: brave, boyish, modest, loyal, sometimes bewildered, always kind. The real news is that, like Jimmy Stewart in his later roles, Hanks is starting to become seriously interesting as an actor.

This week, Hanks stars in Captain Phillips, director Paul Greengrass’ account of the real-life hijacking of the cargo ship Maersk Alabama in 2009—the first kidnapping by pirates of an American citizen in two centuries. Hanks plays Merchant Marine Captain Richard Phillips, who was captured and held hostage by the pirates for five days in an enclosed lifeboat, just a few hundred yards from American Navy ships waiting for their chance to strike.

Hanks arrived last week for an interview at the Four Seasons on San Francisco’s Market Street, dressed head-to-toe in Johnny Cash black: black sports coat, black shirt and a thin brown leather bracelet studded with small blue gems on one wrist. We convened in an empty ballroom, myself and two long-time colleagues, in which the management had placed some large banquet tables. After sitting down, Hanks’ theatrical background shows; his voice fills the room. I haven’t been insane about all of Hanks’ movies, and I’ve been fairly rude about a few of them. Forgive me, and believe me when I say that in person, Hanks radiates those qualities you want to see when you view a serious movie star in real life: a great glowing tan, a sense of ageless vitality, health and confidence, a style of unforced courtesy. His talk is saltier than you’d expect. Or maybe he’s in a chipper mood because he’s just made one of the best movies of the year.

“I felt that in Captain Phillips,” Hanks says, “number one, I could explore all the details, which is what I love to do. Number two, the film could look at the true essence of piracy today. It’s global organized crime. There are big figures involved in it. It’s not just thugs with guns trying to get rich.”

Phillips gently reminds us in his memoir, A Captain’s Duty, that almost everything we own in America comes here on a ship. I mention to Hanks how odd it is that there haven’t been movies about life aboard these container ships.

“I’d like to see a documentary where we’d just follow one container, as it goes around the world and arrives at its destination,” Hanks responds, fascinated by what he’s learned about the shipping process from shooting the film. “I asked Richard Phillips, ‘Do you have those moments where you have a cup of coffee in your hand, and you’re watching the sea at dawn, thinking, “Ah, my true mistress?”‘ He said, ‘I haven’t done that in 35 years.’ The pressures are relentless. He told me, ‘I’ve got to deal with three unions as a captain. Three unions that don’t give a shit about the other unions’ grievances.’ There are constant emails and texts from the shipping company: ‘Why are you burning so much fuel? Why aren’t you there yet?’ And when you get to, say, the port of Mombasa, there’s a line of people who have to be bribed with everything from ballpoint pens to $1,500 in cash, just to get the paperwork signed.'”

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The shoot for Captain Phillips, off the coast of Malta aboard the sister ship of the Maersk Alabama, was fast paced. “There was one scene that was 16 script pages long,” Hanks says. “Getting that into acting shape, it takes hours. You’re toying with dialogue. You’re negotiating the physical stuff, and you just shoot that all day from first moment to the last. Before I saw the movie with the subtitles, I didn’t know what the guys playing my captors were saying in Somali. Greengrass comes from that documentary background with that ideal: ‘I’m not going to make the story; I’m going to capture it.’

“A lot of filmmakers are really not interested in that truthful element at all. There are people I respect who say you’ve got to take what really happened and just throw it right out if you’re going to make a movie. I disagree. When you can find the real-life procedures, you can react to them. I can learn the procedures, and then I can do the behavior, based on that procedure. I can then react to what goes on. This is the only stuff I know as an actor. Basically, that’s what the job is. Lawyer, cab driver, physicist, alien from Mars: you’ve got to figure out what the procedures in their lives are, and then react to that.”

The scene in Captain Phillips everyone will be talking about is when Phillips is examined by Navy corpsmen while in a noticeable state of shock: it’s one of the most impressive moments Hanks has committed to celluloid. “We didn’t know we were going to do that scene,” Hanks tells me. “While we were aboard the Navy ship, we learned that Phillips had been in the infirmary. We decided to have a look at it, and brought the cameras. The poor people in there, they didn’t know they were going to be in a movie that day. If the scene had been on the schedule, it might not have ended up as freeform as it did.”

Hanks talks a bit about Toy Story (“It’s actually grueling work”), and Greengrass’ previous films (“I was one of the few people who saw United 93 and I thought it was one of the best pictures of all time”), but with Captain Phillips, it’s the movies Hanks hasn’t yet made that are starting to look most enticing. Once upon a time, Hanks told a reporter he’d done 20 movies and that only five were any good. It’s some 70 movies now. I wonder out loud if he feels his acting is getting better as he ages.

“I’ve learned how to manage the distractions,” he replies. “I finally lost most of the degrees of self-consciousness that came with acting—I think it was working on Cloud Atlas (2012), which was so magically demanding every day. Being older is a help—you become less vain.”

To illustrate this last point, with his voice reverberating in the giant room, he launches into a story that only Tom Hanks could tell.

“When we did The Green Mile (1999) we had these prison uniforms. We’re trying them on. Frank [Darabont, the director] is worried the hats look silly. I said, ‘Frank, we need the hats. Because we’ve kind of got this thing. When they first bring in the prisoner, we have to have the hats, because we’ve gotta say, “OK, you’re on Death Row.” You know how you can tell that? Because we’re wearing our hats. Then we’ll take off the hats, and we’ll become regular guys.'”

“But when I first saw myself, I realized I look goofy in a hat, and I have to accept that,” he recalls. “I think in the old days, I would have said, ‘I’m not wearing that fucking hat, it’s stupid.’ Now I don’t care.”

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