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Interview: Tom Hanks & Paul Greengrass Talk ‘Captain Phillips’ & The Raw Acting Ability of Barkhad Abdi

The Playlist By Rodrigo Perez | The Playlist January 9, 2014 at 3:18PM

In the fury of awards season, great films that arrived with strong buzz and critical plaudits can get lost if they arrived earlier in the year. One film that was released in October, but still holds on with strong sea legs is “Captain Phillips” (it’s scored recent DGA, PGA and Golden Globe nominations). Directed by Paul Greengrass and starring Tom Hanks, this in-the-moment thriller is a harrowing drama based on the true story of Captain Richard Phillips and the 2009 hijacking by Somali pirates of the US-flagged Maersk Alabama.
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Captain Phillips

Presumably that pragmatism, the less sexier parts of the character, are harder to pull off and convey as an actor than one might think.
Hanks: The great thing, under Paul’s guidance, is all the characters and crew know how the ship works. He'd say, “Remember, we know the ship, they don't.” I think you have throughout the movie this understanding that in some ways Richard Phillips has an upper hand. He does not have a weapon but he does have this vast ship that only he knows the secrets of. So he ends up doing an awful lot of stuff to play close to his vest and that never really stops until they've been on the go for so long and exhaustion has set in and then it becomes even more complicated then it was.

"You can prepare a young actor all you like, but in the end it's very like sport: once they cross that white line it's about their desire, their ability to tell a story."

Tell me about casting the Somali pirate Barkhad Abdi. He’s all raw nerve, intuitive acting; a bolt of lightning.
Greengrass: Well it's funny, when you make a film you always look back and there are always crucial decisions that get made, you look back and at the time they don't seem like it, but you look back and you see they were absolutely fundamental. One of those was to cast Barkhad.

We needed to find Somali actors to play those Somali parts. That was quite a challenge. At the time we were all very worried. Would we find the right Somali actor to play the part? Particularly because it's such a large part, they would play opposite Tom and everything that means. So it was a big risk.

I know it sounds trite but it's the absolute truth: as soon as you saw Barkhad he just stood out. He had a real presence, he was the leader of that group both in real life and on screen. At first he seemed very menacing, but also he had real humanity. I had no doubt he had the ability to do it, and that was married to a really impressive work ethic and desire to get it right. Those guys were trained and worked hard for a couple of months to be ready and then it was a marvel when he came face to face with Tom. You can prepare a young actor all you like but in the end it's very like sport, once they cross that white line it's about their desire, their ability to tell a story.

Hanks: They reminded me of guys I knew when I was studying theater back in college. They had passion, they had the ability to do it. They have an innate understanding of the rise and fall of storytelling. Now learning how to make a movie is something you can figure out in about an afternoon. The physics of it, the marks, the lights, etc. What's hard to do is to suspend your own feelings of self consciousness. The natural actors can do that; they can become part of a characterization and learn how to maintain it. All four of our Somali actors did that. Barkhad always had a major objective in his brain for every single scene, every single shot and his timing was on, his concentration was without a doubt was extraordinary and that ended up feeding all of us in order to be in the moment at the same time. It sounds like actor gibberish kind of talk, but a lot of times you're doing a movie and not everybody in the scene is in the moment at the same time, they're all working on other agendas.

Captain Phillips,

And so you, Barkhad and all the Somali actors didn’t actually meet until the cameras were rolling, right?
Hanks: We did not meet. Nobody who played the crew of the Alabama met the Somalis until the day we shot them storming the bridge. We heard they were there, we had been able to see them on the horizon and they were working and training, but we did not meet them face to face or know what they looked like until we shot the scene of them storming the bridge. And it was extremely tactile, it had a very real scary feeling to it. They were the skinniest, scariest human beings I had ever come across. We had to do that scene immediately three or four times right in a row and every time we got right back to that same place and then we had to continue on and after that we sort of know each other so we had a moment where we could size each other up as people all making the same movie. It's a good thing we were all making the same movie.

Damn, that’s ballsy. And then you get onto your test of wills.
Greengrass: In a way it’s really a revolution, isn't it? When he seizes control of the bridge. Everything that follows starts in that scene, that's the fatal moment when the two stories intersect for the first time. If you get that right—the bridge is seized, not given. Acting is lots of things, one of the things is will. I'm going to seize control of this and I don't want you to give up too easily. If everybody were comfortable and knew everybody you wouldn't get that, it's much easier to get Barkhad into that place himself where he was able to just focus on [his Somali co-pirate] Bilal [Barkhad Abdirahman] seizing the bridge. Then Tom had a sort of absolute strong moment to go on and tell the story.

Hanks: We met at a position of complete equality. You now there's a moment where he says I'm the Captain. that came out of just the way Paul shoots in which everything can work and everything is a possibility and you're locked into finding the behavior as opposed to recreating very specific, mapped out moments. He was very much empowered in his role as the head of the pirates in the same way that I was empowered as the head of the ship, the guy that had to be the main negotiator. That never left. Even in the long weeks that we were shooting in the life boat itself, the good guys were there, without a doubt, but there was always an unofficial arm wrestling that was going on, specifically between myself and Barkhad and that was as actors pursuing their individual arcs and doing it from the position of respect and power that was granted to us by the filmmaker.

This article is related to: Captain Phillips, Paul Greengrass, Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Interviews, Interviews, Interview, Features, Feature


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