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Captain Phillips - Tom Hanks interview

Captain Phillips

Interview by Rob Carnevale

TOM Hanks talks about some of the challenges of playing Captain Phillips in Paul Greengrass’s latest movie and what it was like getting to meet and chat with the real kidnap victim.

He also discusses working at sea and why the lifeboat was a genuine hell on earth and elaborates on his recent revelation about suffering from type 2 diabetes. He was speaking at a press conference to mark the opening of the 57th BFI London Film Festival.

Q. Here you are playing Richard Phillips, who went through this experience a very short time ago, and someone you’ve presumably met?
Tom Hanks: I’ve hung out with him, yeah.

Q. Do those things bring with them extra responsibility to you as an actor and extra pressure?
Tom Hanks: Well, I think there’s a responsibility that goes hand in hand with anytime you’re going to stand up in public and say: “Hey, I’ve got a story to tell!” There is a bit of both an advantage and a pressure that comes along with something that is not fiction-ish. You do have advantages… if you’re smart about it you have very little that you need to make up. You have things you must condense, you have things you must translate to the screen, and you have to figure out how to take reality and turn it into a sort of dramatic effect. But that actually helps out because then you don’t have to spend an awful lot o time making up plot devices and what have you. The responsibility aspect is that as long as you’re making the same film that the filmmaker is making, you’re going for the same empirical sense of truth, you have to adhere to the truth as closely as possible.

It’s not a documentary, of course, and even in the first meetings I had with Rich, I said: “Look, I’m going to say things you never said and I’m going to do things you did not do, but based on that let’s get as close to the DNA of the authenticity as possible.” But that’s a trade off just for any other pressures you have with any other pressures or responsibilities you may have making a movie that’s completely made up.

Q. How did you choose Paul Greengrass?
Tom Hanks: I was sort of attached to this screenplay by way of the studio route. I said “I’m in” and then they said they were looking for a director and when they came around to “how about Paul Greengrass?” I said: “Well, that would just be fine and dandy!” [Laughter]

Q. How did you manage this incredibly emotional final breakdown scene?
Tom Hanks: Well, that’s a secret, so I’m not going to give that up. If you go to a press conference with the people that run Coca Cola and ask them for that secret formula, they’re not going to hand it over to you [laughs]. You know, I like to consider myself some brand of a creative artist and a professional and my job is to be able to get there when the moment comes on the day.

Q. What were the biggest challenges for you?
Tom Hanks: I think the challenges were to discover and establish the procedures of the two very specific worlds we were in, which is prior to the pirates’ arrival and after the pirates’ arrival. There are things that happened that are documented not only by Richard’s book, but also by reports and news events and what have you. But there is an internal procedure that has to be arrived at. We were lucky that we were shooting on literally the sister ship of the Maersk Alabama, the Maersk Alexander, and we always had a source of, “well how do you do this”? And “how do you get from there to there?” You can write it in a screenplay, which Billy Ray did to an expert degree, but when you are in the real space you have to operate to some degree of real-time and so you have to know what the procedure is. And in order to make that, you have to find it out and put it into practice and incorporate it into the filmmaking process, that was true legwork and homework that we had to do. In some degrees, it ate up time but, on the other hand, it provided a fabulous background and DNA to believing the scenes.

Q. What kind of questions did you ask the real Captain Phillips?
Tom Hanks: You know, it’s not the most realistic of moments to walk into somebody’s house and say, “hi, I’m the Forrest [Gump] guy, yeah that’s me and I will now be playing you in a film whether you like it or not”. It’s an interesting dilemma that you have. But Rich had been through the celebrity exposure. Right after this happened he was giving people a lot of interviews and spoke to the media a lot. So, he understood the oddity of it all and accepted it completely. When he’s not at sea, he’s a very happy guy. He’s very well adjusted, he’s funny, he’s kind of goofy… when I first met him he was only wearing socks and he was watching a basketball game in front of a lounge chair and we sat and watched the game for a while. But then we started talking in general about how he became a captain of such a ship as the Alabama. He got it completely, what we were going to set out to do.

And the questions I asked him were not so much a check-list of what he felt and what he did or what he saw, but I was just trying to get a general understanding of how complicated a thing it is to be a captain in the first place. And I discovered in the course of that that there is a moment, that is an interior one, for Phillips and for me playing him, in which he has one sort of algorithm that is playing off in his head, one set of rules, one set of very specific tasks that he, as the captain, has to perform, and as soon as he saw those skiffs on the horizon with armed men in them, he completely had to wipe that board clean and come up with a completely different mental and physical formula in order to see to its end.

And I would not necessarily have gotten that unless I had talked to him. And also to Andrea his wife, who said that Rich at home is one of the greatest, easiest going guys in the world, and Rich at work is one of the most unpleasant human beings. He’s a stickler, he’s a task-master, he’s no fun whatsoever because he can’t allow himself to let any kind of guard down – and that’s without any hijackers on the horizon. So, finding him and being his public face is… hey man, that’s a burden he’ll have to face more than I have to.

Q. Can you elaborate a little more about your discussions with him about being in the lifeboat? Did he find it difficult to recollect?
Tom Hanks: No, he has a pretty tactile memory of it. A lot of it, of course, was in his book but the more human details of it that came along were incredibly valuable. And this goes back to one of the other questions. In the long days, the five days that he was in the lifeboat, there were moments of great hilarity. They all laughed at some point. They started joking with each other and they started ragging each other about the Somali Navy versus the US Navy and the ability to tie knots. They made Phillips keep trying knots to demonstrate his knot tying expertise. At the same time, there was just a steady erosion of just the physical ability to keep going. He was continually worried about one thing – and that was that one big guy was a loose cannon and could shoot him in the head at any moment for any given reason.

He was also very much aware of the withdrawals the hijackers were going through as they ran out of khat, which is the leaf that they chew, which is a real stimulant. And he was worried that without that there would be some other kind of breakdown that wasn’t going to be healthy for him. I spent altogether probably five or six hours with him on two different occasions and in both cases some other tiny little detail would come out, like how hot it was inside. During the day, it’s an equatorial part of the world, so it would get up to 117 degrees inside, which means there was a lot of sweat and it also began to smell very, very, very, very badly for a lot of reasons. So, a constant stream of the tiniest details was what I was going for and was able to get.

Q. Can you talk about shooting at sea on a real boat? Can you tell me about your worst experience and how difficult it was?
Tom Hanks: In Malta, before we started shooting, I said ‘can I just get in that lifeboat to see what it’s like?’ It’s a very slow vessel, so there in Valetta we climbed in and it took about 40 minutes to get out beyond the breakwater and out into the open ocean. I needed about three minutes out in that open ocean to be able to say: “OK, I got it, we can turn this around now.” I remember saying: “This is going to be a particularly authentic hell on earth!” But when we were on the gimble on the stage, which was out at Long Cross, the gimble was a hydraulic thing, a bit like an amusement park ride, and it does rock and roll and pitch and do all that. But it doesn’t drop like the sea does, it doesn’t have that swell action, and that’s the bane of all focus pullers and DoPs. That’s what makes them throw up on the guy in seat 15.

Q. You announced recently on Letterman that you have type 2 diabetes and you’ve known that from the age of 36…
Tom Hanks: Well, I was fighting high blood sugar.

Q. In the interim 21 years you’ve taken on roles where you’ve put on weight and taken off weight. Did that have any effect on this? Are you comments a warning to actors like Russell Crowe who have done the same thing? And you also said on Letterman that something is going to kill you. So, could you talk about that a little more?
Tom Hanks: You’re trying to tie me into a quote about Russell Crowe? Anyone else? Miley Cyrus? Benedict Cumberbatch? [Laughs] Um, I didn’t blaze any territory by saying that something’s going to kill me. I think we can all at some point admit that something’s going to take us down. I don’t think it’s going to be type 2 diabetes. The gaining and the losing of weight may have had something to do with it because you eat so much bad food and you don’t get any exercise when you’re heavy. But I think I was genetically inclined to get it and I think it goes back to the kind of lifestyle I’ve been leading since I was seven years old as opposed to 36. But everyone is going to have some degree of health problems and as we get older I think we’ve got to make adjustments. I’m pretty good on cholesterol, I’m pretty good on a lot of other stuff that happens; it just so happens that my body type and my lifestyle gives me a preclusion for high blood sugar. I know what to do, I have access to good doctors, I can eat good food and after that it’s all up to the individual and I refuse, refuse, refuse, to tell any of those other celebrities what to do, even though that’s what you want me to do [laughs].

Q. Miley Cyrus?
Tom Hanks: I think she’ll be fine!

Q. Staying with diabetes, how are you feeling now? And will it affect roles going forward?
Tom Hanks: No, no! This is just life. That’s what it is. I mean, look, I need to do certain physical things. I’ve talked to a number of actors who have gained weight for roles and just out of the sheer physical toll on one’s knees and shoulders, no one wants to do it again! I think that’s more or less a young man’s game. I’m 57 and I don’t think I’m going to take on any job, or I don’t think I’m ever going to go on vacation again, and see to it that I gain 30lbs. Look, it’s not type 1 diabetes that you’re sort of born with and you have to take insulin, it’s not that – it’s eating right, getting exercise and taking the right kind of medicines. But I feel just fine. It’s just part of life and I’m fine

Read our review of Captain Phillips

Read our interview with Paul Greengrass