Sleepless in Somalia

Features, FILM, Film Festivals, Interviews
img_captainphillips2-hikaluclarkeCaptain Phillips’ Tom Hanks on pirates, high seas, and being a nice guy. Illustration by Hikalu Clarke.

I’m covering the mighty Captain Phillips’ New York Film Festival world premiere, and I can’t help chuckling. Tom Hanks is winningly making fun of journalists, describing his time with the real Captain Richard Phillips: “You don’t want to be an idiot, you don’t want to ask: ‘What was it like? What were you feeling? Are you a hero?’ You don’t ask questions like most journalists do. Everybody says, ‘We keep getting the same answers’; well they’re just the same questions.” Hanks flashes the mischievous wit enjoyed in Charlie Wilson’s War.

Given the harrowing experience he illuminates as the good captain kidnapped by Somali pirates with AK47s, Hanks is aptly dressed in black and blue. The 57-year-old has the poise of being only the second actor in history to win back-to-back Oscars—for Philadelphia and Forrest Gump—and three further leading man nominations (Big, Saving Private Ryan, Cast Away). Like Harrison Ford and Clint Eastwood, he was cited thrice as America’s Favourite Movie Star in the Harris Poll, and shared a record (with Tom Cruise and Will Smith) as the actor to star in seven consecutive movies grossing at least $100 million. Captain Phillips is possibly his most powerful performance yet, winning over the Hollywood disinclined New York Film Festival critics poll.

In person, he easily segues between charismatic movie star and affable regular guy, firing off some good anecdotes about the challenges experienced while shooting on Captain Phillips. “When you’re on the open sea and you drop 10-12 feet and your stomach goes up around your neck, that’s when you have problems.”

Hanks says they were on that skip for a long time. “People asked, ‘How did you shoot those scenes where you’re in the middle of the ocean in that speedboat?’ I said, ‘Well they put us on the speedboat in the middle of the ocean.’” He elaborates further: “There was one day where we were getting shots in the lifeboat, on the actual water and everybody who was not an actor in the lifeboat, ended up vomiting. First the focus-puller disappeared, and then Gary disappeared, and then the sound-mixer who was just in the back holding the boom; he made a rush to it. We got to just sit down and close our eyes and piss around a little bit, but for those guys who actually had to work it was terrible.” Barkhad Abdi, who plays lively chief Somali pirate Muse, chimes in from Hanks’s left:  “It wasn’t as easy as it looks in the movie—I didn’t even know how to swim. But we did a lot of practice; at times I would be seasick. That little lifeboat, it wasn’t that good.”

It’s a riveting thriller, peppered with socio-political comment. Early on Phillips laments his son’s work prospects in the changed, demanding corporate environment where there’s “fifty guys for every job.” There’s a vivid exchange where Muse tells “Irish” (Phillips) “I’ve got bosses.” “We’ve all got bosses. There’s gotta be more than being a fisherman or a pirate,” Phillips responds. “Maybe in America.”

img_captainphillips1-hikaluclarkeIt ends with an unscripted scene that Greengrass emotionally hails for its “shocking humanity, showing the great actor that Tom obviously is.” For his part, Hanks says it’s a moment he’s never had making films. “We had the actual captain of the Bainbridge [Navy who rescued Phillips] with us when we were shooting, and Paul said ‘What did you do with Phillips when you first got him on board?’ And the captain said, ‘Well he was a mess so first thing we did was took him to the infirmary to get him cleaned up.’ And Paul said, ‘Well why don’t we go look at the infirmary?’ We went there, it wasn’t on the schedule, it hadn’t been scouted, it wasn’t lit. But we went down there… what was extraordinary about it is Paul’s willingness to see that as a possibility—let’s shoot it, we’re here, you’re here, let’s give it a shot. There are a lot of motion pictures in which you don’t have room in the schedule to do that, or you don’t have the sensibility to try and see what’s cooking.”

The infirmary crew didn’t know they were going to be in a movie that day, except the possibility of being background extras. “Here they are, boom, with cameras and everything on them. There is a procedure that you can be very confident in, and there is the behaviour that, if you’re lucky, you can recreate. We did the first take, I remember, completely falling apart, because these people had never been in a movie before, and they could not get past the horrible self-consciousness of everything that was going on around them. But we just stopped, Paul said don’t worry about it, you can’t do anything wrong, it’s not a test, if it doesn’t work we won’t use it, so let’s just try it again and see what happens. And at that point those people were really quite amazing, particularly the woman [tending to me]…”

Hanks shifts from serious to joking about portraying two real people this year—“I’ve got to get out of this racket, it’s killing me” (Walt Disney in Saving Mr Banks is the other)—to another sombre reply on being Captain Phillips. “You have to load it up with an awful lot of facts, quite frankly. You’ve got to read, look at video, and listen to stuff, but there’s always some sort of detail that makes the final tumbler lock into place.” In this case, it was Andrea’s reply re: visiting the Captain onboard. “’I used to but it’s no fun because Richard’s a completely different human being when he’s onboard, when he’s on the job. He’s very easy going, I would describe him as happy-go-lucky and funny, but on board the ship it’s just always serious. Serious work that he is the captain.’ And that was the tumbler for me. I don’t know what it was but all the fifty-two cards became a bit of a shuffle and I felt as though I knew what to do every time Paul presented something.”

With the probable exception of Cloud Atlas, Hanks forever plays the nice guy. “The gosh-darned nicest guy in Hollywood,” The Guardian gushed this month. But there’s some steel beneath the surface. As Hanks told another journalist: “I do not want to admit to the world that I can be a bad person. It is just that I don’t want anyone to have false expectations. Moviemaking is a harsh, volatile business, and unless you can be ruthless, too, there’s a good chance that you are going to disappear off the scene pretty quickly. So appearances can be deceptive, particularly in Hollywood.” The guy who tends to get north of $20 million playing everymen once said he thinks about all the cash he snares. “I must say that I do wrestle with the amount of money I make, but at the end of the day what am I gonna say? I took less money so Rupert Murdoch could have more?”

He says it’s important to stay close to the true story. “It’s a very environmental movie, shooting it as we did on board more or less an identical ship to the Alabama at sea and in some very small confines. So I think that the task at folding ourselves into Paul’s good hands is always to be true to the motivations of everybody that are involved.” The truth Hanks embodies gives him sharp odds for another Oscar nod.

Great performances at NYFF:

  1. Adèle Exarchopoulos, Blue is the Warmest Colour
  2. Tom Hanks, Captain Phillips
  3. Bruce Dern, Nebraska

Bomb: Lydia Wilson, About Time

ILLUSTRATION © Hikalu Clarke 2014. All Rights Reserved.

Alexander Bisley is covering the 51st New York Film Festival for The Lumière Reader. Thanks to Alice May Connolly and Kimaya McIntosh for transcription assistance on this article.