At the end of "Captain Phillips," Tom Hanks ventures into an extraordinarily raw and anguished place as a performer, pouring out a load of emotion once his character — U.S. Merchant Marine cargo ship commander Richard Phillips, who matched wits with Somali pirates in a notorious real-life 2009 hostage drama — finds his way back to safety.
Described in a piece such as the one you're reading, such emotional fireworks sounds shameless and cheap, like most Oscar night clips in the making. They're not. The scene is just right. And it feels something like the truth.
In dramatic terms Hanks has been there before. Now 56, the two-time Academy Award-winning actor has contributed his efforts to 50 or so feature films, depending on how many of the voiceover jobs you count. Much of his work in recent years has been in dramas, a long way from his training ground in sitcoms (namely "Bosom Buddies," 1980-1982). The year that series launched Hanks, he did what he could with a supporting role in his feature film debut, "He Knows You're Alone." At one point the genial young man in a stunningly lofty '80s haircut explains why the public enjoys a roller coaster or a horror movie.
"You can face death without any real fear of dying," his character says. "It's safe."
Leave it to a forgettable Reagan-era slasher film to express, succinctly, Hanks' own attraction to the art, craft and luck of acting. Thirty-three years after that film came and went, Hanks is sitting at a table in a swank downtown hotel suite, promoting "Captain Phillips," which opens Friday. Down the hall somewhere are the film's director, Paul Greengrass, and Hanks' Somali-born co-star, Barkhad Abdi.
"It's fun to go off and pretend," Hanks says, in between bites of lunch. "Even if you're pretending really horrible things."
He's always known it, he says: "All of acting is a battle against self-consciousness. And the moment you become too self-conscious it's the death of performance. You're no longer interacting with anybody. You're not allowing the behavior to come out. I always come to a place where I'm fighting some degree of self-consciousness. But on 'Cloud Atlas' and a lot of the work I've done since, I don't know, I've been luckier. The work has been devoid of that."
At the start of each new film project, he says, Hanks has a tendency to "deliver" too much too soon. "You're not really making the movie until the third day of shooting," he says. "At the beginning you're pushing too hard, you're nervous, you're trying to make everything work at once." The actor recalls the read-through of the script of "Splash" at director Ron Howard's house back in 1984.
This was the actor's big movie break. "I'd only done TV. And at the read-through, I was operating on the laws of the read-through, which I'd learned from TV. Meaning: Kill. Kill the material. Score. And it didn't go well for me. Even I knew I was lousy. Ron took me aside immediately after that, and said: Look. I know what you're doing. I know what you're trying to do. I know you're trying to 'score.' But that's not your job. Your job is not to kill in this movie. Your job is to the love the girl." Hanks ended up doing both.
In the '80s, he says, "I was always the guy who couldn't figure things out, the guy who was asking himself: How come I'm not in love? How come my house is falling apart? I wanted to start playing men. Men with some history." In a comic vein, he considers "A League of Their Own" a few years later (1992) a step in the right direction.
Poking through memories of a celebrated, immensely lucrative career, Hanks allows himself only so much introspection (at least with an audio recorder on the table). Then comes a joke, or a free-associative riff. Take, for example, the interviewer's unfashionable company-issued BlackBerry. "Amazing!" he cracks in wonderment. "I think the Amish don't even use those anymore! But you're sticking with it, I see."
He starts the interview by praising Sandra Bullock in "Gravity" which, in relative terms, especially for a movie starring a pair of 50-somethings, triumphed in its first week. Oddly, the fictional "Gravity" and the fact-based "Captain Phillips" have a few things in common, despite enormous stylistic differences. Both films dispense with a lot of the usual exposition and set-up. They're almost pure situation, in action. And they're both focused on the plight of an ordinary middle-aged American in an extraordinary pressure cooker.
Hanks is dryly cynical, in an easygoing way, about scripts determined to underline the lessons a character is supposed to learn along a neat, clean three-act procedure. They're written for studio heads, he says. "I think the audience is now 10 steps ahead of all that stuff. They're not particularly interested in lessons learned. They're ahead of the plot points. So you find ways to carry around the back story without having to show it." In "Captain Phillips," there's a brief domestic prologue featuring Catherine Keener as Phillips' wife. Shooting the Keener scenes, Hanks says, Greengrass and company never felt certain they'd be included in the final cut. One of the sections made it; the others didn't. And the movie's fine without them.
Hanks may be the anchor of "Captain Phillips," but he's not the only interesting presence on screen. As the head of the pirate band, Minneapolis resident Abdi was cast when the production visited Minnesota's considerable Somali population and sought out non-professional actors, Somali or otherwise, to play several of the roles.
Abdi didn't meet Hanks until they were filming the harrowing siege sequence. The newcomer found the veteran to be an invaluable mentor. "Very helpful, hard-working guy," Abdi says. "Calm. Focused. Makes you laugh. My friends and I were laughing with him all the time. He is not what I expected."
Says Greengrass: "Tom's a fully rounded industry professional. And a very trusting man. That's a wonderful quality. He brought the fortitude and the courage and all the rest of it to make sense of the story we were telling, but he built the character out of pieces of doubt and uncertainty and fear. And when we got to the scene where the trauma sort of...leeches out of him, it's a sublime and powerful piece of acting. Tom has an instinct for the truth."
Hanks puts it another way, near the end of the interview. "At some point in my career," he says, "I realized something very simple. The job of an actor is to forget that he's in a movie."
"Captain Phillips" opens Friday.