10/10/2013 06:09 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Tom Hanks, Paul Greengrass on "Captain Phillips"

Two-time Oscar winning actor Tom Hanks has made a career out of playing ordinary men thrown in to extraordinary circumstances whether it's a FedEx employee stranded on an island in Cast Away, an attorney diagnosed with AIDS in Philadelphia, an astronaut struggling to make it back to earth in Apollo 13 or a soldier assigned to bring retrieve a soldier missing in action in Saving Private Ryan.

This Friday 57-year old Hanks continues to hold that mantle starring in the title role of Captain Phillips, based on the real-life story of merchant mariner Captain Richard Phillips, who was taken hostage in 2009 by Somali pirates when they hijacked his container ship on the Indian Ocean.

The film is based on the Phillip's own account of the ordeal from his memoir, A Captain's Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea. Directed by Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Ultimatum, The Bourne Supremacy), the film centers on the relationship between the two captains - Phillips and the Somali pirate captain.

Creating the on-camera tension between the American and Somali actors was carefully planned by Greengrass. After he cast four young actors to play the pirates from an open casting call in Minneapolis, Minnestora - which has the largest Somali-American community in the U.S. - he deliberately kept the quartet away from the American actors during production so both sides would not be able to fraternize or become friendly off-set. They all met for the fist time, on camera, when the pirates hijacked the ship and came on board.

"We were all looking forward to that moment," Greengrass, 58, told reporters at a recent press conference. "(Tom) didn't know them and they didn't know him so there was no intimacy. They were antagonists at that moment and you can really tell on screen."

"There was true terror in the eyes of all the white guys on board the ship when they came on to the bridge," said Hanks, praising his young co-stars, including Barkhad Abdi, who played Somali pirate leader Muse.

Though 75 per cent film was shot on the open water over the course of 60 days off the coast of Malta, certain ship interiors were replicated and placed on a gimble. The lifeboat, in the third act of the film, said Hanks, reeked of fumes and "we had some vomit in there at one point." However, the lifeboat replica was not necessarily any better when it came to shooting the interiors.

"It's a very uncomfortable space, it smells horrible, the air is bad, it's hot and you're right on top of each other," Hanks said. "There's a lot of places to bonk your head and crack your knee. We all did that."

Yet he credits Greengrass - who's brought such harrowing true life stories to the big screen like Bloody Sunday and United 93 - for setting up a realistic environment that, looking back, he couldn't have imagined doing any other way.

"For everything we needed to go through as actors, that tiny little hot cramped space with no windows on it was a great advantage for us," said Hanks.


Greengrass wanted Captain Phillips to focus on the human story between the Americans and Somalis, rather than political or religious aspects. Still, as a former documentary filmmaker, Greengrass did plenty of research to understand all aspects of the clan structure of piracy and the Navy's involvement in the rescue of Captain Phillips. This lead to plenty of conversations with those professionals who took part in real-life international anti-piracy operations in the Indian Ocean.

"They were very clear about the difficulties and the scale of the problem in a world starkly divided by the haves and have nots," said the director. "How do we deal with that? It becomes an unimaginable policing."

In fact, said Greengrass, one Navy Admiral told him, "We've got more chance of dealing with Afghanistan a hundred times over than we've got dealing with piracy in the Indian Ocean."

Meanwhile, Hanks spent lots of time with the real Richard Phillips, and found him to be a "pleasant, happy-go-lucky guy" but when it came to work, he found Phillips to be "truly no-nonsense."

And though everyone has a different definition of what constitutes a hero, whether it's engaging in a death-defying act or simply living up to one's responsibilities, Hanks said the real Richard Phillips would not put himself in any of those categories.

"Richard Phillips doesn't view himself as a hero," said Hanks. "He was a guy that sat there and waited for the heroes to show up."

Critics have been praising Hanks performance in the film, with many predicting he will earn his sixth Oscar nomination. If so, it would be his first in over a decade, when he was last nominated for 2000's Cast Away. Click on the link below to watch myself, along with two other reviewers, discuss the film on the PBS weekly movie review show, Just Seen It.

Film: Captain Phillips
Director: Paul Greengrass
Cast: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi
Rating: PG-13 for Sustained Intense Sequences of Menace, Some Violence with Bloody Images, and for Substance Use.
Release Date: October 11, 2013
Running Time: 134 minutes

This article also appears on
Just Seen It airs Saturday nights coast-to-coast on 232 PBS stations in 38 States and 103 markets.