Interview: Tom Hanks


Last time Tom Hanks was nominated for best actor at the Oscars, 12 years ago, he had to go through the sea, the sun and wait for being rescued in “Cast Away”. And it is with these same elements, as well as pirates, that he might return to the Academy Awards. In “Captain Phillips”, Hanks delivers one of his bests performances as the captain of Maersk Alabama. Paul Greengrass’ (“O Ultimato Bourne”) latest movie is based on the real story of an american cargo ship hijacked by somali pirates in 2009.

Unlike in “Cast Away”, Hanks didn’t have to lose weight. “I didn’t care about keeping in shape, I could even gain some weight”, says the actor, days after revealing that he’s been suffering from type 2 diabetes for the last 20 years. However, Greengrass didn’t cut him any slack. With 75% of the shooting having been made at the sea, a real nightmare because of the climate inconstancy, “Captain Phillips” has the filmmaker documental style of recent action movies.

To be realistic, the director hid from Hanks the actors who interpreted somali pirates, led by the impressive Barkhad Abdi, who also has a good chance of being nominated. They were only face to face when the characters did so. “There was this tension in the air. We could hear our breathing while waiting to see them for the first time”, adds Hanks.

The story could be filled with superficial villains and american clichés, but Greengrass – gladly – didn’t go that way. After examining 9/11 on ”United 93″ (2006) and the american invasion to Iraq on “Green Zone” (2010), the british filmmaker made the somalis as complex as he could. ”I wanted that ambiguity”, says Greengrass. “But there’s no discussion: they are pirates, they’re not innocents. At the same time, they don’t have a choice. They don’t even get to keep the money.” Hanks, who was involved in the project since it began, says the politicized vision came from Greengrass. “I’d be happy if only they were scary”, he jokes. “But Paul wanted to include themes such as globalization and geopolitics.”

The movie was targeted by protesters before it opened London Film Festival. Members of the crew – some of them in litigation with Maersk, and others who didn’t like to see the captain as a hero – think Phillips was responsible for the hijacking, for being too close to the somali coast. ”I can affirm with 100% of certainty that Phillips is not guilty. I’ve investigated it. The verdict can contradict that, but I wouldn’t have made the movie if I didn’t think otherwise”, says Greengrass.


Tom Hanks comes in at the Claridge’s Hotel, one of the most luxurious in London. “Were you at the Gravity press interviews? Can you believe they brought half the cast to England?”, he jokes, but no one laughs. “Come on guys, Half the cast is just Sandy [Sandra Bullock, his friend]. That was hilarious! Admit it.”

He has a reason for being in a good mood. The actor knows that his role in “Captain Phillips” is being recognized as one of his best actings in more than ten years, and not even the fact of having announced he is diabetic has taken out his focus away. “I only need to feed myself correctly, exercise and take the medicines that everything is ok. It’s part of my life. When you get older, health issues show up. But I’m feeling great”, he says.

An Oscar winner (for “Philadelphia” and “Forrest Gump” in 1994 and 1995), Hanks says of his fascination for military movies, the experience with Greengrass and how was returning to the ocean 13 years after being isolated in “Cast Away”, by Robert Zemeckis – coincidently, also his last nomination for an Academy Award. This time, he again interprets a “common hero”, although in a more tense and political blockbuster than average. But he doesn’t oblige: “Captain Phillips was an asshole when he was in the sea.”

Below is the interview with Tom Hanks.

You were the first one to hop aboard on the project. Did anything change during these 3 years?
Tom Hanks – I read Captain Phillips biography, and I knew Sony was making a movie about it. I understood what had happened, but I wanted to know what route would the script take. I said I would do it, keeping my integrity and the certainty that we would show the events as they actually happened. Afterwards, I met Paul, who wasn’t in the movie yet, in Berlin. We had a long dinner, as if we were on a blind date, you know? “Oh, he’s going to hate me” or “I’m not going to like him”. But we started talking about the pirates aspects. I said they should be pretty scary and that would be it for me, but Paul wasn’t satisfied, he wanted to include themes such as globalization and geopolitics, that really should be in the story. I was fine with knowing that Phillips was one guy in the beginning, but he became a different person at the end. But Paul wanted his personal dilemmas. As a filmmaker, he had a lot he could do, and that’s when I saw this would be a lot of work.

How was working with Paul Greengrass, who has a very uncommon way of shooting, with a lot of improvisation?
I wanted to be part of the “Paul Greengrass experience” ever since I watched “Bloody Sunday”. That was probably one of the most magnificent movies I’ve ever seen in my life and one of the hardest ones too. I understand that a lot of people can’t watch it, and that must be great for Paul. His desire for honesty was the only way to move on with this project. He wouldn’t say how he wanted the scene. He would just prepare the scene and be like: “let’s see what happens next”. He had the desire for authenticity, so I didn’t have to make an effort.

What were the dilemmas of the character, for you?
I remember talking to Phillips and his wife and he would explain to me how I should have in mind every kind of extraordinary thing that could happen in a common day at the sea. It’s not the hijacking, but fights with the crew, coffee breaks, hurricanes, sea patterns. Andrea usually travelled with him from one harbor to another, but she stopped, because he is very annoying when he is on the ocean. Captain Phillips was an asshole who would only think of work when he was at the sea. On land, well, he is fine, relaxed, easygoing. That’s how I pictures my first scene with him getting in the ship and checking every detail in a very serious way. When he finds what’s wrong, he argues at the people who are responsible for that.

What else did you do to interpret this character?
Physically, that’s about it. But the costume sessions were hilarious. The sailors dress the most horrible way possible. Usually, when I try clothes on, I ask them to choose a pant that will make my butt look nice, and as I’m in shape, I try it on with the shirt inside the pants. But it was the opposite in this movie. We took the worse things. I also found some details, such as he carrying his radio in his hands the whole time so he wouldn’t lose time. I didn’t care about gaining some weight and the goatee was perfect.

Filming in the ocean is something very complicated and demands a lot of determination. Was there an extra pressure for doing it right in the first take?
Well, you’re in a real environment, so you’re put in a certain level of preparation. You take whatever’s necessary. 90% of the shooting was made in one shot, from the beginning to the end, without stopping, even if it didn’t came out right. The end of every one of these scenes would have an emocional impact on us and the next ones would have something different.

You said the captain was different in the sea and the land. Are you like that too? More serious when you’re working?
No, I mix it all up. Making movies is fun. There’s an undeniable convenience in this job. You have to be a little bit of a fool. For example, in the middle of the shooting, someone hired an Elvis Presley double to sing ”Love Me Tender” in the ship before shooting the scene in the buoy. You have to learn to be focused. otherwise there will be no energy for work. There are no accidents when you need to reach a certain level of interpretation. I don’t believe that.

You didn’t meet the somali actors so that would have a stronger impact when you did, right?
Yes. We were kept in separate. I knew there were guys, but I didn’t know who they were. I saw them training on the boats.We knew that on Tuesday, for example, we would meet the guys who were going to interpret the somali pirates. There was this tension in the air. We heard them arriving, and they were so different. A lot skinnier and intimidating than I thought. And they weren’t as excited for the moment as I was.

You met the real captain after he saw the movies. What did he think of being portrayed in a more sympathetic way than the hijacking leader?
He said he was a lot more scared with what we showed in the movie, but that we had captured well specific things. Look, no one’s saying they were poor guys. What we tried to do is showing a bigger comprehension of what Somalia is. Phillips was very scared that the somalis would end the stock of khat [a common stimulant plant in Africa] that they chewed on the ship, so he would make competitions of who could make knots faster. He was certain that when they stopped chewing that, they would shoot someone in the head.

The final scene is one of the most powerful in your career. How was the preparation for doing it?
Dude, I don’t know what’s the secret. You do whatever you can and you hope you’re not exaggerating. We were lucky, because we didn’t know whether we would have that scene in the movie. But a member of the real crew said that he only saw Captain Phillips after he had left the infirmary, so Paul wanted to shoot there and see what he got. The doctors are real and we asked them to shoot as if they were in training. The first time, it didn’t work, but after we explained that no one would be upset if it didn’t work, it worked. It wasn’t scripted, but there are many moments like this in the movie. When Barkhad Abdi’s character says “Look at me, I’m the captain now”, that wasn’t on the script and it’s one of the strongest scenes in the movie.

What was your relationship to the somali actors?
On that day? Terrible.

No, how would they behave on set, because most of them had never done movies before.
They are great people. Most of them are part of the somali community in Minneapolis. They are  artists, they had never made a movie before, but the difference is just a camera pointing to your face. But the jokes are the same. Inside the lifeboat, we were making fun of Mahat [M. Ali, one of the pirates] because he couldn’t do anything despite pretending that he was maneuvering it. It was a nice group, they were very excited. When they needed to act in a stronger way, they were a little awkward.

And how did you see the lawsuits against Captain Phillips?
Actually, it was just one member of the crew who sued him right after the book came out. What I know is that every one of these men could write a book or make a movie about the story. Look, it’s a lot of people taking part in an event. I shouldn’t say that, but there’s always a lawsuit, someone always sues someone.

You like to interpret common men living risky situations…
I think some characters are heroes. In “Saving Private Ryan”, there’s a history of combat and years of heroism. It’s a guy who’s scared to death of doing something wrong and killing someone. None of my characters is a fiction hero, but there are people who are trying to do their jobs as any other person. Phillips was an experienced man. Piracy is part of Phillips’ job, but he was saying the whole time that he was waiting for the heroes to come when the ship was hijacked. Most movies nowadays tend to glamorize heroes. I shouldn’t describe Captain Phillips as a hero, but as someone who was smart enough to be strong until he was rescued. It’s not a guy with an uniform and a shield travelling to destroy the Death Star.

Despite Captain Phillips not being military, there’s a whole war operation to rescue him. Why are you so attracted to military movies?
Look, the World War II projects came because, when I was a kid, everything the adults would talk about was the war. I was born in a956, the subject was epidemic. Theirs lives were basically divided between before and after the war. I only knew that my father fought at the Pacific when I was seven. The movies I grew up watching weren’t the movies about the war I grew up hearing about. There was mystery, danger and fear in what they said, and that stayed with me forever and has always fascinated me. In 1975, I was working at a hotel, and a man whose job was to pickup dirty clothes was gone for ten days. When he returned, I asked: “Hey, Richard, how was your vacation?”, and he answered that it was kind of sad, because some of the men he knew weren’t among us anymore, men who he had parachuted with in a region called Normandia. And he was picking up dirty clothes! My mind just exploded at that moment. I also read a lot about the war, but I like other stuff too.

What’s the importance of the study of history in your life?
History explains who we are now. Just because it was written a hundred years ago, you shouldn’t be interested? Humanity keeps repeating the same mistakes and I don’t know how will this generation behave, because they act as if they didn’t have to know anything. Education about the history of the United States… Let’s say people look at me as if I was some kind of specialist in history. Me?! I just make movies and some historical series. I don’t write detailed books and I’m not a teacher who spends two semesters giving fabulous history classes. One of the bests courses I had in high school was about american history, because my teacher would teach in a very exciting way. Movies could lead people to be interested about it, but they won’t replace a good class. That’s why I try to make all my projects based on facts with realism and precision.

A version of this story was originally published in Portuguese on Folha de S.Paulo.
Author: Rodrigo Salem