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Hanks goes in at the deep end
6:00am Saturday 26th October 2013 in Celebrity Interviews
When Captain Richard Phillips was ambushed by pirates, he never expected Forrest Gump to turn up at his door. As Tom Hanks brings the captain's incredible story to life, he tells Susan Griffin how he prepared for what could be an Oscar-winning role.
Tom Hanks thumps down a set of steps into the room, head thrust forward, arms swinging by his side in slapstick fashion.
It's quite an entrance and sets the tone for the interview because, despite the serious nature of his latest movie Captain Phillips, which details the true story of a container ship's captain who was held hostage by Somali pirates, Hanks is keen to keep things light.
"I was attached to this screenplay by way of the studio route," the actor says modestly, when asked about being cast. What he actually means is that being a two-time Academy Award winner and, well, Tom Hanks, he can call the shots and dictate who the director will be - not the other way round.
"They [the studio] said they were looking for a director and when they came around to Paul Greengrass, I said, 'Well, that would just be fine and dandy!" he quips, in that comforting, familiar voice.
A former documentarian, Greengrass has always been drawn to stories that dig beneath the surface of contemporary events: from Bloody Sunday, about a British Army massacre in Northern Ireland, to United 93, about the hijacked 9/11 plane that crashed near Pennsylvania after passengers thwarted the terrorists.
This made him the perfect helmsman for Captain Phillips, which proves to be a nerve-jangling, pulse-pounding 134 minutes.
Although it's a multi-layered examination of the hijacking of the US container ship Maersk Alabama in 2009, at the film's centre is the relationship between Captain Richard Phillips and the Somali pirate captain, Muse (Barkhad Abdi), who takes him hostage.
"I think there's a responsibility that goes hand in hand anytime you stand up in public and say, 'Hey, I've got a story to tell!'" says Hanks, on the pressure of capturing a true story on screen.
"You have things you must condense, that you must translate to the screen, and you have to figure out how to take reality and turn it into a dramatic effect, but then you don't have to spend an awful lot of time making up plot devices. You have to adhere to the truth as closely as possible."
It's not a documentary, of course, and Hanks was keen to make that clear when he first met Phillips. "I told him, 'Look, I'm going to say things you never said and I'm going to do things you did not do, but based on that, let's get as close to the DNA of the authenticity as possible'."
Hanks had conversations with Phillips, and his wife Andrea, a couple of times at their home in Vermont, America.
"You know, it's not the most realistic of moments to walk into somebody's house and say, 'Hi, I'm the Forrest [Gump] guy, yeah that's me, and I will now be playing you in a film whether you like it or not'," says 57-year-old Hanks, whose rubbery features retain a sense of boyishness, though there's now a hint of silver around his temples.
"But right after the hijacking happened, Rich was speaking to the media a lot. So he understood the oddity of it all and accepted it completely."
Hanks found Phillips to be an affable, self-effacing man who never saw himself as anything more than a seaman simply doing his job.
"He's very well adjusted. He's funny, kind of goofy. When I first met him he wasn't wearing shoes and was watching basketball, and we sat and watched the game for a while. Then we started talking about how he became a captain of such a ship as the Alabama," recalls Hanks, who has a string of directing and producing credits to his name.
He wasn't interested in ticking off a check-list of how Phillips felt through the ordeal, rather in gaining an understanding of how complicated it is to be a captain in the first place.
"Andrea said Rich - at home - is one of the greatest, easiest-going guys in the world, but Rich - at work - is one of the most unpleasant human beings. He's a stickler, a taskmaster, no fun whatsoever, because he can't allow himself to let any kind of guard down - and that's without any hijackers on the horizon," he says.
Throughout Hanks's 33-year career, which began with minor roles at the beginning of the Eighties before Ron Howard cast him in the 1984 mermaid romcom smash Splash, he's excelled in diverse roles, depicting seemingly ordinary men facing extreme crises.
There was the Aids-stricken lawyer in Philadelphia, the astronaut struggling to return to Earth after a moon mission goes awry in Apollo 13, the World War II captain searching for a missing soldier in Saving Private Ryan, and the FedEx executive trapped alone on a desert island in Cast Away.
In Captain Phillips, which looks set to secure Hanks an Oscar nomination, he once again builds his character from the inside out, endowing Phillips with a quiet but extraordinary bravery.
The performance builds to an incredibly emotional climax that's bound to leave audiences gasping for breath. How does he do it?
"Well, that's a secret, so I'm not going to give that up," he replies, grinning. "If you ask the people that run Coca-Cola for that secret formula, they're not going to hand it over to you. But you know, I like to consider myself some kind of a creative artist and a professional, and my job is to be able to get there when the moment comes on the day."
As well as mastering the emotional complexities of the role, Hanks faced physical challenges, as two thirds of the movie was shot on open water.
"Before we started shooting, I said, 'Can I just get in that lifeboat to see what it's like?'" he says. After about three minutes bobbing along, he realised it was going to be a "particularly authentic hell on earth!"
But Hanks isn't averse to throwing himself in at the deep end for a big screen adventure. Over the years, he's lost and gained weight when required - and he might just be paying the price for such dedication.
The father of four (he has sons, Chester and Truman, with his producer wife of 25 years, Rita Wilson, and another two children, Colin and Elizabeth, from his previous marriage to Samantha Lewes) recently revealed that he has Type 2 diabetes.
"The gaining and the losing of weight may have had something to do with it, because you eat so much bad food and don't get any exercise when you're heavy," he admits.
"It's now about eating right, getting exercise and taking the right kind of medicines."
Ever the optimist, Hanks adds: "It's just part of life and I'm fine."
Extra time - Captain Phillips
:: The film crew were allowed to shoot on the sister ship to the Maersk Alabama. The Maersk Alexander and 22 merchant mariners continued operating the ship during the shoot.
:: One of the most daring feats involved bringing a skiff with four actors alongside a moving cargo ship. No CGI was involved.
:: The US Navy provided the USS Truxtun, a 510ft missile destroyer, on the agreement that the scenes were shot in Norfolk, Virginia, so it could remain active and mission-ready.
:: Some of the lifeboat scenes were shot on a hydraulic gimbal erected on a sound stage, which Hanks described as "a bit like an amusement park ride".
:: Muse, the primary adversary of Captain Phillips, is played by Barkhad Abdi in his first dramatic role.
:: Captain Phillips is released in cinemas on Friday, October 18
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