Interview: Tom Hanks

Tom Hanks as Captain PhillipsTom Hanks as Captain Phillips
Tom Hanks as Captain Phillips
A dramatic hijack on the ocean is the backdrop for the latest performance from Tom Hanks – but reality was the key to the character as he tells film critic Tony Earnshaw.

MAJOR Oscar buzz surrounds Tom Hanks’ latest performance as the American mariner taken hostage by Somali pirates in Captain Phillips.

There is even talk that Hanks, like Daniel Day Lewis, could achieve the triple – winning three Academy Awards and thus joining the Irishman in an exclusive club of two.

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The 57-year-old is no stranger to Oscar glory. In 1995 he became only the second actor since Spencer Tracy, in 1939, to win consecutive awards for Best Actor, first in 1994 for Philadelphia and then the following year for Forrest Gump.

For Hanks playing real men led to fine performances in Apollo 13 (as astronaut Jim Lovell) and as a Cold War congressman in Charlie Wilson’s War. Playing Richard Phillips meant meeting the man himself and admitting from the off that some things would have to change.

“It is not the most realistic of moments when you walk into someone’s house and say ‘Hi. I will now be playing you in a film, whether you like it or not.’ It is an interesting dilemma that you have,” says Hanks.

“Rich had been through quite the celebrity exposure mob and did many interviews after the event, so he understood the oddity of it all.”

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Hanks reveals that in one of those early meetings he told Phillips: ‘I am going to say things that you did not say, and I am going to do things that you did not do. But based on that let’s get as close to the DNA of the authenticity as possible.’

“That is a trade-off just for any other pressures and responsibilities that you have making a movie that is completely made up.”

Phillips wrote his story in a book, The Captain’s Tale. It was optioned by Columbia and Hanks attached himself to the project in 2011.

The story, pared down, is that Phillips’ vessel the MV Maersk Alabama was boarded by four Somali pirates on April 8, 2009 240 miles south-east of the Somali port of Eyl.

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Members of Phillips’ crew locked themselves away and prevented the ship from being hijacked but Phillips himself was taken hostage. Held in a lifeboat for three days he was eventually released when US Navy marksmen killed the hijackers. The responsibility of playing a real-life individual – and someone who, like Jim Lovell, is still living – is not something Hanks shirks but he recognises that compromises have to be made.

It is, he agrees, one of the pitfalls of an actor’s life: presenting a real-life figure as a characterisation rather than an impersonation or impression. It helped that Hanks and Phillips are the same age though as the captain pointed out, Hanks didn’t gain weight or “become better looking” to play him.

“The questions that I had for him were not a checklist of what he felt or what he saw, but I was just trying to understand how complicated a thing it is to be a captain in the first place. Phillips has one set of rules and one set of tasks that he, as captain, has to perform.

“As soon as he saw the skiffs on the horizon with armed men in them, he had to wipe that board clean and come up with a completely different mental and physical formula in order to see it to its end. I wouldn’t necessarily have gotten that unless I had talked to him.”

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And what of the actor’s responsibility – to the man, to the story and to his filmmaking partner, director Paul (United 93) Greengrass?

“The responsibility goes hand in hand with any time you want to stand up in public and say, ‘Hey, I’ve got a story to tell.’ There’s an advantage and a pressure that comes along with something that isn’t fiction(ish), the advantage being that if you’re smart about it, you have very little which you need to make up.

“The responsibility aspect is that as long as you’re making the same film as the filmmaker you’re going for the same empirical sense of truth. It’s not a documentary.”

The film climaxes – as did the real events – with claustrophobic scenes inside the lifeboat. Hanks talks about “human details” and Phillips’ tactile memories of being in close proximity to extremely dangerous individuals.

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The actor spent more than five hours with the seaman seeking out tiny details that would inform his performance. “A constant stream of the tiniest details was what I was going for – such as how hot it was inside the lifeboat. It would get up to 117 degrees inside. That was what I was able to get from Rich.”

There were moments of levity, too, such as when Phillips and his captors ribbed one another about the merits of the Somali Navy. And the hijackers made the captain tie knots to demonstrate his expertise.

“At the same time,” recalls Hanks, “there was the steady erosion of the physical ability to keep going. He was continually worried about one thing: one big guy [who] was a loose cannon and could shoot him in the head at any moment for any reason. He was also very much aware of the withdrawals that the hijackers were going through as they ran out of Khat, which is the leaf that they chew which is a stimulant. Without that, he was worried that there was going to be some kind of breakdown, which wouldn’t have been healthy for him.”

Hanks adopts the understated demeanour of Phillips. Yet the film’s thrilling finale as Phillips is rescued provides him with arguably the greatest challenge of his 30-plus year career: how to have an emotional breakdown of genuine power and effect on camera. It’s an unfair question, demanding he reveal one of the tricks of the actor’s trade. But how did he do it?

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“That is a secret; I am not going to give that up,” says Hanks.

Star with a string of hits

Five-time Oscar nominee Tom Hanks was born in Concord, California in 1956.

He made his film debut in 1980 in He Knows You’re Alone.

In the 1980s he enjoyed enormous success in a string of hit films that included Splash, Bachelor Party, The Money Pit, Big and Turner and Hooch.

His first big flop was The Bonfire of the Vanities based on the Tom Wolfe bestseller and co-starring Bruce Willis and Melanie Griffith.

Hanks is a self-confessed “space aficionado” and aggressively pursued the role of astronaut Jim Lovell in Apollo 13.

Captain Phillips (12A) is on general release from today.

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