Tom Hanks stars as the titular character in 'Captain Phillips.' To ramp up the drama, he didn't meet the actors who took his character hostage before filming the scene. (Sony - Columbia Pictures)
Chicago —Tom Hanks was shaken.
He was surrounded by four young Somali men he’d never seen before. They were waving guns and shouting in a language he didn’t understand, demanding money and threatening to kill someone.
Yes, it was just a scene in Hanks’ new movie, “Captain Phillips,” which arrives in theaters Friday. But director Paul Greengrass had purposely kept Hanks and his attackers from meeting one another before that scene. These were not old friends, these were scary guys with guns who’d never acted before, playing pirates who’d just hijacked the boat being commanded by Hanks’ character.
“They were pumped because they’d been rehearsing and been working on it for six weeks, and we were vibrating — we could literally hear them coming,” Hanks says. “And then they came in and it was hairy and loud. And the first take, it just goes on and on, probably 12 minutes of them screaming at us and doing stuff.”
After a few more takes, introductions were finally made and Hanks met the four Somali immigrants, who are actually friends based in Minnesota.
“We exhaled and said, ‘Nice to meet ya, this is crazy, are you really from Minneapolis?’ ” Hanks recalls.
Hanks is talking in a Chicago hotel room in early October. He’s looking fit with an open-collared shirt beneath a suit jacket and laughing a lot. Just one of the guys. Very Tom Hanksy.
Over an hour’s time he does a dead-on William Shatner impersonation, mimics the real Captain Phillips’ Vermont accent, talks movie economics, veers off onto the JFK assassination and praises “Sandy” Bullock in “Gravity.” But back to adventure on the high seas.
“That was a wild day, loaded with the type of verisimilitude you wouldn‘t get on a set or a soundstage, you wouldn‘t get if you‘d shared cocktails at a party to celebrate the beginning of principal photography,” he says.
The tension didn’t let up, though, as the movie progressed, fueled to a large extent by the fact that Hanks rarely understood what his attackers were saying to one another.
“There’s a continuing chaos, because they’re shouting at each other in Somali and all we’re really hearing in English is shut up, shut up and get down, I’m going to kill you, I’m going to kill you,” Hanks says. Then he pauses and shrugs. “OK. You just go with that.”
“Captain Phillips” is based on the real hijacking of a boat off the Somali coast in 2009 that eventually saw the captain taken prisoner for ransom on a tiny life boat. The hijackers are terrifying, especially leader Muse (Barkhad Abdi), but the film makes it clear they have few options in life.
“They come from a place that’s hopeless and there’s chaos and corruption and poverty. There’s famine, there’s a lot of guns and warlords,” says Hanks.
“These guys are not the most benevolent in the world, but I don’t think they really like the idea of hey, let’s go out on these ships and threaten to kill people. But man, they’re hungry,” he says.
As drastic as the film’s opening action is, its closing moments are its most powerful. And they came courtesy of a last-minute decision, again involving a non-actor. The shaken Phillips is taken to an infirmary where he’s checked out by an actual female Navy medic who just happened to be available.
“And the next day she was on guard duty. Swear to God! She was out with a sidearm checking the pier and everybody’s ID,” Hanks says with a laugh. “I said, no movie for you today.”
There will, of course, be more movies for Hanks, whose films by most estimates have made more money — over $4 billion domestically — at the box office than any other movie star in history.
Next up, he plays Walt Disney in “Saving Mr. Banks,” which opens Dec. 20. That role and his part in “Captain Phillips” are generating serious Oscar buzz for the already two-time Oscar winner (for “Philadelphia” and “Forrest Gump”).
As Hanks sees it, though, he doesn’t have all that many options open to him.
“I can either work, or I can stay home,” he says. “Those are the only options open to me.”
And he wants to work. But he also wants to be selective.
“I’m going to be 58 in July. I want to be fascinated by the subject matter we’re making a movie about,” he says.
“Mine’s not a volume business; I’m a boutique industry. I get to pick and choose.”
After a few recent flops, Hanks has learned that his name alone isn’t enough to sell a film.
“I think the aspect of movie starrish is dead. Otherwise ‘Cloud Atlas’ would have been huge and ‘Larry Crowne’ would have made a lot of money,” he says. “The truth is you have to be in a really good story that lands in the attention span of the movie-going audience that cannot be faked.”
And he’s going to keep trying to find those films.
“As long as they keep asking, and my knees hold up, I’ll show up,” he says.
Rated PG-13 for sustained intense sequences of menace, some violence with bloody images, and for substance use
Running time: 134 minutes
Thomas Jeffrey Hanks
Born July 9, 1956, in Concord, Calif.
Family: His father was a cook, mother was a hospital worker. Met his second wife, actress Rita Wilson, in 1980 on the set of “Bosom Buddies.” They married in 1988. Hanks and Wilson have two children, and Hanks has two from a previous marriage, including the actor Colin Hanks. Tom Hanks became a grandfather in 2011 when Colin Hanks’ wife gave birth to a daughter.
Education: Interned at the Great Lakes Theater Festival in Cleveland
Early acting career: First surfaced with the sitcom “Bosom Buddies” in 1980; broke through with “Splash” in 1984
Accolades: First Oscar nomination for “Big” (1989), first Oscar for best actor in “Philadelphia” (1993), second Oscar for best actor in “Forrest Gump” (1994), fourth Oscar nomination for “Saving Private Ryan” (1998), fifth Oscar nomination for “Cast Away” (2001)
Tom Hanks on ...
In a long interview Tom Hanks threw out all sorts of ideas. Among them:
On the virtue of long-form television: “You tell me if they could have made one single movie about a guy with cancer that started selling meth that would have been better than ‘Breaking Bad.’ Or a true look at the self-loathing that goes along with advertising in the 1960s: Is there a movie that would have done a better job than ‘Mad Men’? No.”
On the limitation of women in the film business: “It seems like for a lot of actresses in movies now they have to be able to fit into a skin-tight leather suit and throw lightning bolts out of their eyeballs or something.”
On the secret to his success: “I was not intimidated by packing up and going. When I was a kid, we moved around a lot, so the idea of a comfort zone, the security of a home was nonexistent. So I’ve never been intimidated by putting myself in what could be an uncomfortable new situation and seeing what’s going to happen.”
On the future of movies: “Anybody with about 800 bucks can have a perfect television with a perfect sound system and access to, let’s say, 80 percent of the movies that have ever been made. The way you and I grew up going to the movies, it’s probably gone the way of the short story in the 1950s.”
On the year-end surplus of good films versus summer blockbusters: “Now there’s like some sort of magical science that says when good movies are supposed to come out. I’ve got no explanation for it. There’s now more comment from people that the audience is exhausted with special-effects extravaganzas by the second week of June, and the only thing that’s coming up until Labor Day is more special-effects extravaganzas. Somewhere there’s going to be an outlier that will land and change things around.”
On the possibility of doing a TV series: “Part of you thinks, that’s a good gig, man — you get to do it, you know your thing, you’re on the same set. Then part of you thinks — that’s a really hard gig. Going back and summoning that up every day and carrying it around with you all year long and what’s the script this week and trying to stay ahead of it. That’s something else.”