Tom Hanks Fended Off Pirates to Talk to Us

‘I’ve learned how to manage the distractions. Being older helps. You become less vain.’

“I’m obviously very biased because I made the film,” Paul Greengrass is saying, “but I think it’s one of his very greatest performances.” He’s talking about Tom Hanks, who stars in the new Greengrass movie Captain Phillips, as the eponymous Merchant Marine whose container ship was hijacked by Somali pirates in 2009. “I’m no judge,” Hanks says, of his own performance, but it is a good one. “He is that man,” Greengrass continues. “He’s just an ordinary man in this impossible situation.”

Relatedly, no doubt, Hanks handles himself well in a San Francisco Four Seasons press junket with Greengrass, co-star Barkhad Abdi, whose first part in a movie ever is as the leader of the pirates, and the requisite handful of local journalists. Abdi mentions doing a month’s worth of training to be in the film, during which he often and eagerly asked, “When are we going to meet Tom?” Everyone here in the room now seems to know how he must have felt.

It helps that the Bay Area is Hanks’ home territory. After high school in Oakland, he got serious about acting in a “Drama in Performance” class at Hayward’s Chabot College, for which he had to read plays, then see them performed, then write papers about them. “That was the first time I’d gone to the theater by myself, to see these plays,” he says, “because it was a homework assignment. And after that it was like, well, this is just the greatest way to spend a night. From that I just said, ‘Is there a way to do that?’ I thought that was the most inspiring thing that I had ever witnessed in my life.”

Now he’s 57 and with 70-odd movies under his belt seems reasonably successful at being an actor. At least enough so that Captain Phillips had him before it had a director. “I was probably the only actor who ever got an overture from the studio,” Hanks says. He got the script and read the real Phillips’ book, A Captain’s Duty. “They said, ‘How ’bout it?’ I said, ‘Yeah, sure, who’s gonna make it?’ ‘We’re gonna figure that out now.’ Which could have changed everything. Because what I’ve learned is that no matter what the screenplay is, as soon as the filmmaker is signed on, everything changes. Unless the filmmaker has worked in tandem with the screenwriter, which I know was not the case here. So Billy Ray’s screenplay was gonna become some kind of a movie, and what kind of a movie it’s gonna be, well, that really is decided by Paul Greengrass.”

As the director explains, “Somali piracy is international organized crime. I wanted to capture the violence of it, the menace of it, the reality of it, but also the fact that these are desperate young men. That’s what makes them dangerous. And when it’s over, to have gone through it, it doesn’t make you go, ‘rah rah.’ It makes you feel a sense of grace. Like: Does my family know I’m all right? That feeling, that’s the truth of how these things are.”

Adds Hanks: “Paul comes from that documentary background, which is, ‘I’m not gonna make the story here, I’m gonna capture the story.’ That suited Hanks, who calls Greengrass’ United 93 one of the best films of all time, and who is himself no stranger to portraying real, well-known people. “You don’t want to alter the true motivations of the participants,” he says. “We’re not there to make an editorial comment on the events. I’ve seen plenty of movies like that and I think it’s a sin! Call it something else. Or make a documentary…. That being said, we condense stuff and we omit things. But you’re always looking for some sort of empirical element to it that’s unshakeable. It’s the essence of what happened.”

Hanks recalls asking the real Phillips if he’d ever stood on his ship overlooking the open sea and said, “Ah, my true mistress!” “And he said, ‘I haven’t done that in 35 years.'” Even without pirate attacks, Phillips explained, the job pressures are relentless. “He told me, ‘I gotta deal with three unions as a captain. Three unions that don’t give a shit about the other unions’ grievances.'” Plus a plague of nagging email from the shipping company: “‘Why are you burning so much fuel? Why aren’t you there yet?’ And when you get to, say, the port of Mombasa, there’s a line of people who have to be bribed with everything from ballpoint pens to $1,500 in cash, just to get the paperwork signed.'” Not to mention the occasional on-board fire, or hurricane, or — admittedly rare — pirate attack.

It’s possible that his Captain Phillips experience has encouraged some reflection from Hanks about the relative challenges of his own career. “I’ve learned how to manage the distractions,” he says. “Being older helps. You become less vain.” Other best-ever films in his estimation include Pixar’s Toy Story series, of which he’s a fundamental part, even if he deflects credit there to the filmmakers. “It’s actually grueling work,” he says. “You have only one of your disciplines, which is your voice…and then they put together these magnificent things.”

But Captain Phillips is of course nothing like a Pixar project. “It’s just such a sad story,” says Abdi. “We Somalis are used to hearing bad stuff about our country. Year after year. That incident was different, though, because of how it ended up.”

Greengrass arranged it so Hanks and Abdi’s first in-person meeting also was the first meeting between the movie versions of Phillips and the pirates. “The first time I even saw Barkhad was through binoculars,” Hanks says. Greengrass also encouraged the Somali actors to improvise, mixing English with their own language at will. Until seeing the finished and subtitled film, Hanks says, “I never knew what these guys were saying.” As for what they told each other in spirited Somali conversations between takes, he might never know. “I’m saying, ‘Guys, clue me in. Did I screw up?'” Probably not; probably it was something about finally having answered the question of when they’d be meeting Tom.