Tom Hanks meets Movie Fanatic and tells us right off he’s no hero, and in fact, the real-life guy you see him as on the Captain Phillips posters doesn’t even see himself as a hero. “I’m just a guy who’s got a pretty good gig pretending to be other people,” Hanks said.
“Hero is almost like a branded term now. People get labeled it left and right! In the end, heroes are ones who voluntarily walk into the unknown and try to do the right thing. It’s all relative. Everybody has variations of it. Sometimes it’s death-defying and sometimes it’s just living up to one’s responsibility.”
The Captain Phillips trailer shows that Hanks is the title character, the leader of a merchant marine ship that was overtaken by Somali pirates in 2009. Phillips led the hijackers off his ship and into a cramped lifeboat where the four pirates and Phillips would float towards Somalia for several days… until the Navy SEALs embarked on the most harrowing of rescues and saved him.
“Richard Phillips doesn’t view himself a hero. He was a guy who sat there and waited for the heroes to show up, which is different,” Hanks said and then stressed the difference.
“We all have times in our lives where we can either be a hero, a villain or a coward, and I just hope that I’m a coward as little as possible, and hopefully never a villain. And on the occasions when I have to be, I would hope to be able to do the heroic thing. But I’ve never been tested in any way, shape or form.”
Portraying a real-life person, hero or not, is a complicated web to weave. Sometimes meeting them can help and other times it can muddle the characterization process for an actor. Hanks found Captain Phillips an impressive soul.
“It’s always surprising. He is an accomplished merchant mariner. He’s very proud of what he does. He has years and years of experience doing this very thing. He’s responsible for his crew, his ship and his cargo, and getting as quickly as possible to the port of his destination,” Hanks said.
“He’s a very pleasant guy. He’s funny. And when he’s not at work, I don’t think you could ask for a better guy to hang out with, because he’s just a dude. But when he’s at work, he is very no-nonsense because it’s a very serious, unglamorous business. All of the rest of it -- the terror -- it’s the work that he does. It’s part and parcel to what we’re doing. The background… what’s going on in the guy’s head and all the pressure he’s under, that was a door-opening hunk of knowledge.”
Phillips is a man with a wife and kids back home, and although it would be temping as an actor to personalize the situation, Hanks stresses you can only go to that well so many times in a career before you become completely demoralized.
“I love my family, I love my kids, but when the moments come, it’s not as though you can just substitute your own life with what you’re doing on film. You have to go to some other place where it’s bigger than your own life. And it has more impact than that,” Hanks admitted.
The two-time Oscar winner admitted he used to do that. “Early on, when I wasn’t 57 years old, when I hadn’t done that much or seen that much, yeah, I would say I would turn to images of my family quite a bit in movies in the work that I did. But as time goes by, you’ve got to see it in a broader picture than just your own personal world.”
The most harrowing part of Captain Phillips has to be when the ship’s leader goes with the pirates onto the lifeboat as they bob in the ocean towards Somalia with four guns pointed at the American’s face. It is a tiny space, and proved one difficult place to shoot for weeks on end. “I’m not a particularly claustrophobic person, but it was a very small space. There was no other way to do it,” Hanks said.
“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 bonk your head and crack your knee. We all did that and we were in there for a very, very long time. There’s ways that may have been more pleasant but for everything we needed to go through as actors, that tiny hot cramped place with only two little windows on it was a great advantage for us.”
Hanks admitted that it was a small price to pay, given what the real Captain Phillips went through. And is he eager to get back out on a boat again soon?
“Can’t wait,” he said and laughed.