Q&A: Tom Hanks Takes Us to Sea

·Content Producer

There are plenty of reasons why so many people love Tom Hanks. For starters: he's personable, he's thoughtful, he's genuine, and he's downright funny.

Of course, those attributes don't alone win you two Academy Awards – having a whole lot of talent and a yeoman's work ethic also helps. But all that personality sure goes a long way in an interview, as we learned in our phone conversation with the actor yesterday.

Hanks was in London, promoting his latest film, "Captain Phillips," which opens this weekend. We had plenty of questions for Hanks surrounding this ripped-from-the headlines high seas thriller about a cargo ship captain who gets taken hostage by Somali pirates. As is his way, Hanks had plenty of entertaining answers.

[Related: The Crazy-but-True Story Behind Tom Hanks's New Film 'Captain Phillips']

I know there are a lot of people throwing around the term "Oscar" with this one…

Tom Hanks: Okay, all right. Whatever you say…Whatever Yahoo says!

Do you look at a script and say "this has Oscar potential"?

TH: Oh dear God, no. I mean, the truth is everybody does. Everybody thinks, "Hey! This could win. Hey! This script is so good…" It's like everybody jumps to that conclusion… by the way, with delusions of grandeur. So I try to not participate.

You know, it is so hard to make a good movie. There's an awful lot of material that comes your way and you think "well, look, this could be fine." But it really ends up just being a completely personal judgment on whether or not it's compelling to you. I read stuff and I think "this is great, I understand what they're doing, but I really don't know what I'd be able to bring to it. There's nothing that clicks in my head."

I sort of have to think that it's absolutely the most fascinating material I've ever come across. And that usually includes there being some sort of big massive surprise either in the story telling or in the nature of the character, or what goes on, that makes it really compelling.

Look the whole thing is a crapshoot anyway. You have no idea if it's going to be any good; you have no idea if it's going to make any money; you have no idea if anybody's going to care at all. And so the only thing you're left with is a very personal instinct and a personal connection to what the movie could be.

What is this your third survival tale?

TH: Hey, aren't they all? [Laughs] They're all survival tales, man.

What is it about you and survival tales?

TH: Telling a story over the two and half hours in the high pressure world of box office and making movies, movies have to reach some brand of a very rarified air in a special place, whether it's "You've Got Mail" with Meg Ryan or "Captain Phillips" with Barkhad Abdi. They have to be able to withstand the incredibly laser-like focus that the audience is going to give it, simply because it's a movie playing front of them.

Even though they are grand physically – meaning they are big and there is a very physical aspect of the movie, in this case survival and getting beat up and all that kind of stuff that goes along – it comes down to recognizable aspects of our own human behavior. Any movie I go to, if it's a good one, I always say, "Jeez, what would I do if I was in that situation?" This movie, and some others are the same thing, it's like, "Jeez, what would I do if I had to do that? How would I react to that?"

How did you pick up Captain Phillips's accent so well?

I met him. Talking to him.

Well, I've done a much more kind of like urban Boston version of that for "Catch Me If You Can." Steven Spielberg, who was the director, he handed me over this DVD of a lawyer who was trying some random very public case. And he said, "I want you to be this guy. I want you to sound like this guy." So I took that, on that movie, and went to a professional dialogue coach that I've worked with many times. And we started breaking it down and working on it. And that was the type of accent, dialect that you really have to get by drilling it for months in advance so that it can come out in a very natural fashion. And you can only do that, really, by an awful lot of drills and very specific phonetic work.

With Rich [Phillips], it was kind of the opposite. I fell into it just from seeing all his interviews. And then meeting him himself, I could hear some specific places where it came in and also where it dropped out. Cause he was born in New Hampshire, grew up in Vermont, and in fact his wife, Andrea, has no accent whatsoever; she doesn't sound like a hard-line New Englander. So on that it was just a bit of osmosis between the hours I spent either talking to Rich or looking at his extremely conversational interviews that he gave. Cause when he was interviewed, he talked exactly the way he talks when you know him in real life. There's no performance, there's no self-consciousness, and he was just telling more of the story. I was lucky in that it just came out relatively naturally.

What else did you pick up from Captain Phillips?

Specifically, what I picked up was how much that guy knows. To be a captain of a ship, of a container ship, and all the pressures that go along with it, he's an accomplished Merchant Mariner. He went to the Academy for four years; he's been at sea for many, many, many years. He was absolutely certain a hurricane was going to kill them all at one point for about six hours in the middle of the Pacific, so that's a type of terror you gotta face.

So, what I got from him was all the work that goes into every single moment that you are at sea when you are the captain of a 583-foot multi-ton cargo ship that is making the very, very luxurious voyage from Salalah, Oman to Mombasa, Kenya. It's a tough, tough, tough, hard job. I felt like he was constantly working a very complicated algorithm in his head, which completely shifts the moment he sees those skiffs on the horizon and realizes those guys have guns, then a whole other kind of thing happens.

You know, I didn't sit down with him with like a journalist's checklist of questions. A guy like him is in the relatively surreal situation of: "Hi, I'm the guy you see on TV, and I'll be playing you in a movie." You know, that's not the most organic way to meet somebody. But Rich got it. So the conversations, as they spun out, wasn't about the secrets, but just what the process is of becoming a captain and running a ship like that.

His wife, Andrea, said something really great. They were both there, and I said, "Do you ever get to travel with Rich sometimes?" And she said, "Yeah, they used to allow that." You could join your husband for a portion of the trip somewhere. But she stopped doing it long ago because she said Rich is no fun when he's at work. At home he's a great guy, she said he's kind of goofy, he's happy-go-lucky, he's funny, and he's a really great hang, you know, a good guy to hang around with. But at work, on the ship, she said, "I hated him. So now I'm glad when he leaves and I'm glad when he comes home." But she did not enjoy the no-nonsense, and almost to the degree of being an unpopular stickler, for all the stuff that a captain has to be an unpopular stickler about.

Yeah, you definitely play an unpopular stickler.

Yeah, he's a pain in the ass. Onboard. Onboard. Not a lot of friends for that guy.

How uncomfortable was that lifeboat?

I probably had the most comfortable position in that lifeboat, because the seats are kind of padded, to tell you the truth. And they do kind of recline, well, they don't recline but they're at a slight slant. And there's this thing that will support your head. So there were plenty of times when rather than get out and pat around for the half hour or so they were going to re-jig something, or re-rig the lights, or get ready for the next shot, I'd just stay in there and lean my head to the side and take a nap. It kind of helped out for the ephemeral aspect of doing it.

But then when you have to get up and move around, there's a lot of places to conk your head, and stub your toe. We all did that.

Well that had to be good for the craft?

Well, it was. Particularly in the lifeboat, which was actually on this big hydraulic, complicated gimbal that was on a set in London at a place called Longcross. Not really a stage, it was like this abandoned warehouse or something. It wasn't like a cutaway where half of it was open. It was always a completely enclosed space. And we would have to climb up twenty feet of stairs in order to get into it. Then the stairs would pull away and it would rise up a little bit so it would have plenty of room to rock and roll and yaw and pitch and all that. And yeah, it still smelled bad, and it was really hot in there, but hey, that just adds to the effect.

And you got people throwing up on you?

Well, not so much on the gimbal, because the gimbal doesn't have that chaotic drop that sea swells do. It would rock crazy, and then because we were using handheld cameras the motion would be a little accentuated. But it didn't have that loss of the stomach when the bottom drops out and you go down twenty or thirty feet.

The few days we were out on the actual open water, there was one where honestly there was a law of diminishing returns… We were out in the open sea. The chop was not terrible, but the swells were really regular. When those swells came up and you get a backwash against the hull of the ship, man, that drop affected everybody except the guys who got to sit in the comfortable seats. Everybody else lost their cookies. It was hilarious, by the way, just watching 'em go one by one. Up, there we go, we lost the focus pole. There he goes. Up, we just lost Barry, there goes the sound guy!

Aren't you ever like, "I've done so much at this point, I don't need to be on the open ocean"?

Oh no, just the opposite. I always say, "Oh man, I get believe they're letting us do this. I can't believe they're paying us. This is fantastic!" What are you going to do, go to Culver City and do it on a set where everything's fake? No man, it's fantastic to do it like that.

See Tom Hanks in the theatrical trailer for "Captain Phillips":

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