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

by Rodrigo Perez
January 9, 2014 3:18 PM
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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.

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.

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  • ruth | February 13, 2014 8:16 PMReply

    I really wanted to know more about that medical room scene! I'm astounded to learn how last minute it was. Seriously I think that's one of the most outstanding moments in a film I've ever seen, perhaps the most. A stunning film, nail biting all the way, complex, intelligent and not one actor was off at any time, I was swept along, all disbelief suspended. (Although in the medical room scene I was so affected I had to consciously remind myself this wasn't a documentary!) I guessed correctly that the medical attendant was the real thing. It's an Oscar-winning performance by Hanks as far as I'm concerned, glad Barkhad Abdi is nominated for supporting actor, excellent.

    I've seen Gravity, Wolf of Wall Street and 12 Years a Slave, all great, but Captain Phillips was the best for me, and I love Greengrass's direction

  • Frank K. | January 10, 2014 8:08 PMReply

    This sounds like a great movie. I remember Tom Hanks' most memorable movie (Forrest Gump) and how it inspired me to write an essay.

  • Carcotas | January 10, 2014 7:44 PMReply

    It's fair to say that the movies which have been walking away with Box Office numbers this year have been either big superhero movies or big sci-fi movies. If you're wondering whether or not you should go and see this film because it looks like something a little different DO IT! This is a film, regardless if you already know the story, which delivers excellent acting, excellent moments of tension and excellent use of emotion which ,when you leave the theatre, won't be difficult to feel at all.

    Now if you're still considering whether or not you should go and see this film, let's address the rumours you might have already heard:

    1.There's been a lot of talk about Tom Hanks potentially claiming another Oscar - yes he simply HAS to be up for contention after this. True in the first half of the film he doesn't necessarily have to be all out emotional, but he does enough so that when we reach the second half and ultimately the final act, we are in as much shock and awe as the character of Richard Phillips through watching his performance.

    2. A few people have said "too much Tom Hanks." There's two sides to this: Obviously he's going to be in the story a lot because he is the star BUT he doesn't give the only good performance here; the Somali pirates are truly terrifying, not just because of what they are but because their characters have a lot of uncertainty making them very unpredictable.

    3. Some people are saying it's overrated and we've seen it all before. I'm not claiming its the greatest movie ever made, but what I am saying is its definitely worth a look.

    So if you're worried about wasting some cash don't be, it's definitely a film you won't regret paying for.

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