The most surprising thing about “Captain Phillips,” Tom Hanks explained, is how the film’s key scenes grew out of improvisation. The fact-based adventure movie stars Hanks as the skipper of a container ship taken in 2009 by East African pirates. Four neophyte actors from Minneapolis’ Somali community play the raiders.
Director Paul Greengrass is a stickler for realism. He cast actual 9/11 New York air traffic controllers to play themselves in his hijacking drama “United 93,” and insisted on Somali newcomers for his new project. Hanks recalled being kept apart from the fledgling actors so their first clash on-screen would be fresh.
When that scene arrived, the tension was palpable. “Everybody in the scene had to be on their toes and in the moment,” Hanks said. Then Barkhad Abdi, who plays the chief of the pirate crew, ad-libbed the wrenching line, “Look at me, I’m the captain now,” on the spot.
“It was a great moment. What’s hard to get past in movie acting is self-consciousness, and these guys had none,” Hanks said. “It didn’t have the kind of cadence other movies have. There was a lot of chaos. There was a lot of silence. There was a lot of beats with people saying the same thing over and over again. And out of that comes some magnificent reality that can’t be gotten any other way.”
Hanks’ own pinnacle scene, a stunning emotional breakdown at the end of his ordeal, came about when Greengrass impulsively decided to shoot an unscripted scene in a Navy destroyer’s sick bay. Over the course of a few takes, working with real Navy nurses, Hanks summoned a flood of relief, bottled terror and shock.
Both as an actor and producer, Hanks excels at turning history into suspense-driven drama with a core of authenticity. “I’m fascinated by stuff that really happened,” he said. “If I had a good history instructor in class, I didn’t take a note. I’d just listen and it all went in like a sponge.” He reads nonfiction almost exclusively for entertainment, and prefers novels with historical settings. “Truman Capote’s ‘In Cold Blood’ was the scariest thing in the world. It was the truth of it.”
He seeks the same sense of veracity in the films he views and the ones he makes. His favorites, “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Taxi Driver,” are wildly imaginative yet attentive to realistic details and ultimately emotionally true.
His goal for the two World War II series and the space exploration series he produced for HBO was to be so factually accurate you could place them on a library shelf next to books about the era.
Filmmakers have a responsibility to get it right, he said.
“If you’re going to study Vietnam, you’re going to look at Oliver Stone’s ‘Platoon.’ If you’re going to re-create something that happened 50 or 60 years ago, well, let’s make up as little as possible.”
“Parkland,” a Hanks-produced re-creation of the JFK assassination now in theaters, shuns conspiracy theories and stays scrupulously close to reported fact.
“Even a movie like ‘Saving Private Ryan’ was based on history, even though we weren’t playing real guys. It had a verisimilitude to it that just raises the stakes as far as I’m concerned. When I met Rich [the real Captain Phillips] I said, ‘We’re going to make things up. I’ll say things you never said and we’ll do things that weren’t that way. But beyond that, the truth will come out.’ ”