NEW YORK -- Tom Hanks has played a lot of real people lately. In the spring he took to Broadway as columnist Mike McAlary in Nora Ephron’s “Lucky Guy.” Later this fall he’ll be seen on the big screen as Walt Disney in the fact-based "Mary Poppins" tale “Saving Mr. Banks.” And as you’ve no doubt gathered from every third TV commercial, he’s about to incarnate Rich Phillips, the captain of a real-life vessel hijacked by Somali pirates, in “Captain Phillips.”
All of which leads him to one conclusion:
“I gotta get out of this racket.”
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Hanks was making the comments to reporters at the New York Film Festival, where on Friday he unveiled the new work, directed by Paul Greengrass and set for an Oct. 11 commercial release. The movie centers on Phillips, a low-key Vermont man who was the victim of a hijacking by young, desperate Somali pirates four years ago. The ordeal endangered him and his crew and required resourcefulness, luck and a little outside help to resolve -- and even then its outcome was far from certain.
Greengrass tells the story with his signature tense, verite style that characterized work such as “United 93” and “Green Zone,” as well as his commercial blockbuster “The Bourne Ultimatum.” The new movie world-premieres Friday night as the gala New York Film Festival opening-night screening, where its reception will go a long way toward determining its commercial and awards fate.
Hanks said the responsibility of playing the real-life seaman was tremendous. “You have to load up on an awful lot of facts. You have to read a lot. And there’s always a moment when a tumbler kicks into place,” he said.
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He said he met with Phillips, who, despite the harrowing ordeal, returned to the open seas three years ago, and tried to mine him for information. The process wasn’t easy.
“You don’t want to be the idiot. ‘What was it like? ‘What did you feel?’ he said, exaggerating the last word in each question for effect. Then, realizing the company to whom he was speaking, he said, “You don’t want to ask questions like most journalists do.” (He then undercut it with a jocular: “Cheap shot, I know folks, but be on my end one of these days,” which earned a laugh.)
For Hanks, that so-called tumbler was when he asked Phillips’ wife, Andrea, why she didn’t visit her husband on boats much anymore. She replied that it’s because when he’s there he’s doing “serious work — he’s a captain.” And that, Hanks said, “was the tumbler... I knew what to do every time Paul [called action].”
(There is also, it should be said, an effective and authentic-feeling climactic scene that was both improvised and shot with some of the real-life people involved in the incident. Hanks described it as “a moment like I’ve never had making films.” More on that in a separate post.)
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Greengrass said he was similarly interested in following the facts as much as possible.
"You can dramatize loosely or dramatize closely," said the director, who began his career as an investigative journalist before evolving into documentary-style films such as the fact-based Irish tale “Bloody Sunday.” "And given my background I'm much more [comfortable] dramatizing closely.”
That didn’t mean there weren’t liberties taken in Billy Ray’s script. Hanks cautioned Phillips he would say things that never came out of the man’s mouth and go places he hadn’t gone. But the actor said he was conscious of playing the part closely too.
“If, for the sake of storytelling, you start manufacturing, that’s when you get into trouble.... It’s tricky, and it could get away from you,” he added. ”But we were always searching for a combination of procedure and behavior that was not just reminiscent but reflective of what really happened.”
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