Q&A with ‘Captain Phillips’ star Tom Hanks

Based on a true story about the 2009 hijacking of a U.S. container ship by a gang of Somali pirates, the new movie “Captain Phillips” is undeniably action-packed — which is not to say that Tom Hanks plays the title role as your typical Hollywood “action hero.”

As director Paul Greengrass (“United 93,” “The Bourne Ultimatum”) puts it, “Over the years, Tom has crafted a series of immortal performances portraying ordinary men in extraordinary circumstances, drawing from a deep reservoir of humanity that always makes his characters seem like real people, first and foremost.”

That’s certainly true of Hanks’ Oscar-winning performances in “Philadelphia” (1993) and “Forrest Gump” (1994), and of his other work in projects as wide-ranging as “Splash,” “Big,” “Apollo 13,” “Saving Private Ryan,” “Cast Away” and “The Green Mile.”

Hanks, 57, spoke about the latest film in his illustrious career during an interview here last week.

Q: How did meeting with the real Richard Phillips inform your performance?

A: Well, it wasn't a matter of grilling him with questions or taking copious mental notes about him. I didn't want to approach it like an anthropologist on some kind of a fact-finding mission, you know? It was much more casual. The first time we met, he was in his socks, watching a basketball game, so basically we just watched the game and chatted a bit. There was a certain presence and countenance about him that came through, and I guess I might have picked up a little something from that, but I wasn't really looking for specific traits that I wanted to work into the character or anything like that. I found him to be a very pleasant and happy-go-lucky sort of guy, funny, pragmatic.

Q: Is playing a real person any harder or different than playing a fictional character?

A: There's just a greater responsibility to tell the story as truthfully as you can. One of the first things I told Rich was that I was going to be saying certain things he never said, or doing certain things he never did. Things are going to get condensed. There are going to be omissions. That's just part of the moviemaking process. You can't get everything in. I think he understood that from writing his own book about it ("A Captain's Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs and Dangerous Days at Sea," on which Billy Ray's screenplay was based). There were probably a lot of things he had to leave out, too. We wanted to fake or make up as little stuff as possible, making an exciting and compelling movie without going so far off the page or off the record that we altered the concrete realities of what really happened. We didn't want the character to be some type of action hero. Phillips himself says he wasn't a hero. He was waiting for the hero to show up. He was just a guy who got dragged into this.

Q: You’ve worked with some great actors. What’s the difference in doing a scene with, say, Paul Newman (in “Road to Perdition”) and working with these four inexperienced, untrained co-stars who play the Somali pirates?

A: You know, they're all creative storytellers in their way. They'd just never made a movie before. The truth is, the racket of making movies isn't a difficult thing to figure out. You can learn it in half a day. All of them were really pumped up, with the power and ability to make believe. At the end of the day, that's the only difference between being an actor and not being one. Of course, they were very well-rehearsed for weeks before shooting began, but their so-called inexperience didn't cause so much as a bump over the course of making the movie.

Q: Given the physical and emotional demands, is a film like this inherently less fun to make than one that’s lighter in tone?

A: It's a very intense movie and you're always having to take things very seriously, but it wasn't a relentlessly uncomfortable experience by any means. There was enough hang time to go blow off a little steam between takes. At least until it was time to retool and gear up for the next one. (He laughs.) I'm not saying we were sitting around telling all sorts of hilarious jokes, but we're regular folks, doing a job that we love, and so in a way it's always fun.

Q: Are there general guidelines you follow when choosing your projects, and what specifically appealed to you about “Captain Phillips”?

A: It's just an instinctive thing, whether or not the story warrants having a movie made about it, what it's examining or saying about the human condition. I tend to read a script and view it as an audience member. Would I want to see this movie? It can be very hard to say "no" to some things, when the other people involved are great, or when it means getting to shoot in Paris with a lot of days off or whatever. The material and the characters may be interesting enough, but if I'm not compelled by it, if there's nothing particularly enthralling or enlightening or entertaining or educational about it, that's part of the problem. To tell you the truth, though, the other part of it is that I'm older now and there are fewer choices than there used to be. I'm 57. I've been around a long time. Finding the right parts for a guy who's 57 is a little harder, but "Captain Phillips" was definitely one.

Q: What’s more important, your personal satisfaction with a film or the response it gets from critics and audiences?

A: Look, if you're not translating to an audience how fabulous you thought it was when you decided to make it, then you've really missed out on something. But here's the thing: Once you get past the thumbs-up, thumbs-down aspect, the marketing campaign, the release pattern and all of that kind of stuff, movies can end up being something different over time. They last forever. When you realize that movies like "The Wizard of Oz" or "It's a Wonderful Life" or "The Shawshank Redemption" were largely dismissed by the critics and weren't originally big hits at the box office, well, you just never know.

Q: Which of your films or performances were the most challenging or rewarding for you?

A: That's almost impossible to answer, because they all represent moments in my real life. Even the movies that stink or don't do much business can be life-changing experiences. It's like your first summer job or your freshman year in college. I can come across one of my movies and tell you where I was in the rest of my life at the time, how old my kids were when I made it, stuff like that. Every role is a journey. Sometimes you get there, sometimes you don't. Films like "Cast Away" and "Saving Private Ryan" have really stayed with me. By the same token, one of the hardest things I've ever had to do and one thing I'm especially proud of is going all-out for 12 straight hours trying to get one little scene right with that dog in "Turner and Hooch." (He laughs.)

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