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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

That post-traumatic syndrome scene is creating a lot of stir for good reason. It’s quite exceptional. Can you walk me through it?
Greengrass: The last day we were shooting we were meant to shoot the scene that took place in the story several hours later when Rich Phillips had got cleaned up and showered and been given a uniform and he was sent up to the Captains’ cabin and given a beer and a phone to call home. We actually shot that scene through most of the day, and it was fine; it just wasn't it. I think we both knew it.

Hanks: It might have worked out all right.

"Actors are like water diviners, they go out to the desert with a crooked stick looking for the truth in the moment."

Greengrass: That's the true nature of filmmaking. The clock's ticking down, you've got a scene that's okay, but it's not really quite it. You've tried it every which way. And it's just the luck that the real Navy captain happened to be in there and he happened to say that Rich Phillips had actually gone to the medical room when he first got on the ship so Tom and I said let's give that a go.

You enter that place, which is a great place to make films: it's a place where everybody gets into a blind panic and no one knows what they’re doing. Guess what? We're going to shoot this scene and we don't quite know what it will be and we don’t' know how it will go but we've got to do it in the next few minutes and everybody panics. I'm slightly exaggerating but only somewhat because the truth is, when you enter that place everybody starts being instinctive, everybody stops over-thinking stuff. There was a young medical officer there, Danielle, and literally we turned Tom over to her over and I'll let him tell the next bit of the story.

Hanks: The work that we set out to do from the very beginning – when Paul said it, I sort of lit up – was figuring out what the procedure was going to be throughout the movie and then capturing the accurate behavior. There's procedure to being on board a merchant marine ship. There's procedure on being on a life boat at sea, and in this case there was a procedure that was going to be about cleaning up Richard Phillips when he came into the infirmary. Now they knew the procedures, they were literally on duty as the medical crew on board the ship that day. So Paul saying, “would you guys mind us filming a training exercise,” except it's going to be me and you would just do what you would do under normal circumstances.

Captain Phillips

Greengrass: [Danielle, the chief medical officer] looked pretty shocked, there was Tom Hanks in front of her

Hanks: But they all knew what to do so there wasn't a moment wasted of trying to figure out what that action, and I don't want to overuse the word procedure, but that’s what they were following through. All of their training and all of what they went through. As far as behavior goes, I did not know specifically what was going to happen but I felt as though I had a good line on what would come out of my side of that was Richard Phillips having witnessed and experienced some terrible things.

It was a very freeform and rather luxurious fifty minutes that we got to shoot in a room that hadn't been scouted, hadn't been lit, hadn't been written, hadn't been planned and really wasn't rehearsed other than quick camera and physical placement. “Danielle will be here” and it all came about because of the willingness of Paul and the rest of the filmmakers to do it and also the comfort that the Navy crew had of showing us how they do what they do. The end result was not supposed to be the last scene in the movie but Paul made that decision later on.

Greengrass: I would say Tom was the crucial bit. I'll embarrass him now but it's true. One of the things actors do, they're like water diviners, they go out to the desert with a crooked stick looking for water on the ground. Looking for the truth in the moment. The actors have to be able to divine it, you know?

That's really what we've been doing all day, trying to find where the truth was. Not all actors can find it. It's the art of it and it wasn't upstairs in the Captain’s cabin. We looked everywhere, in every seat and every part of that room. I remember the first take down in the medical room which went all wrong, [the chief medical officer] got very self conscious and dry and [cinematographer Barry Ackroyd and I got all cramped up in one corner and it all sort of fell apart.

Captain Phillips

Hanks: The serendipity that we had that it was a woman that was asking the questions and it was a woman that was touching Richard Phillips and cleaning up, that was just a god of filmmaking that brought that. If it had been a rough guy with tattoos and a beard it might have been something different, but because it was this excellent medical officer. She was in charge of the place, the officer on duty and that ended up being...look I sort of understood what the scene was about but I didn't know what was going to happen.

She kind of unlocks the scene with her presence in a way. It’s so real
Greengrass: The point is the actor's got to find it first of all. And then you've got to have the courage to walk through that door and nail it with complete conviction and also complete control. That's the scene, it's a beautiful study in shock and confusion and it's heartbreaking and cathartic because at that moment I think what happens in that film is the audience is with Richard Phillips. When she's saying, “it's going to be okay,” when you watch the film you're with him and you're processing it as he is processing it. That's why I think the audience s going to respond so strongly to the film.

Tom, I think I cut you off there, did you have anything more to add?
Hanks: No. What I was going to say, is we could talk about it for a long time, but it kind of happened with eyes rolling in the back of the head so it's almost better that it ends up being there it speaks for itself.

This is a great collaboration, will we see you guys work together again?
Hanks: I'll do it.

Tom, you said earlier that you and Paul almost worked together, but it didn’t happen. Did you almost play Jason Bourne? [laughs]
Hanks: That's hilarious. I almost played Jason Bourne's fat, out of shape brother in law. No. I was not going to be there. [laughs]

“Captain Phillps” is in theaters now and hits DVD/Blu-Ray on January 21.

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


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