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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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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.

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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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