Think ‘most lovable actors’, and it is safe to say Tom Hanks would be high up the list. Traversing between warm hilarity and dramatic emotion, with that Woody-inflected voice and the mischievous green eyes peering from a now lightly rumpled real-guy face (not forgetting the Oscar-winning acting chops), he’s been something of a hero for more than 30 years. We’ve grown up on a diet of his films – from fun and fantasy such as Big, Splash and Turner & Hooch in the Eighties, through Nineties heavy-hitters including Philadelphia and The Green Mile, into Noughties blockbusters Road To Perdition and Catch Me If You Can.
Now with Captain Phillips, Hanks is switching to cinematic grit. Sailing the high seas with Bourne director Paul Greengrass was never going to be a Bubba Gump meander round the bayou. Instead, we have a real life hijack in the vein of Greengrass’s 9/11 drama United 93, but drenched in saltwater and a whole lot of sweat. In 2009, freighter ship the Maersk Alabama was boarded by desperate, khat-chomping, shotgun-toting Somali pirates, and the ship’s measured chief Rich Phillips faced the life or death challenge of taking them on to spare his crew. The result is an explosive thriller with Hanks leading the charge against their grave advances, while getting close to his unpredictable captors as events come to a head and a team of Navy Seals wade in.
Grappling with a BlackBerry for a late-night call from LA, “I’m willing to make the sacrifice,” he reassures wryly, Hanx (as he likes to be known on Twitter) takes it well when I admit I’m speaking to a man of his calibre in my pyjamas. “I guess it’s never too late for a celebrity interview,” he chuckles. PJ chat out of the way, I set to work grilling Hollywood’s favourite everyman on the important stuff; swiping on-set props and fans yelling “Wilson!” in the street.
So how did you come to the story of Captain Phillips? Were you watching it live on the news back in 2009?
I was aware of it through the regular media, and I heard that he got rescued about the same time as everybody else did. Then my staff of representatives told me they were keeping track of this movie Maersk Alabama.
It’s an incredible story. How much time did you did you get to spend with the real Captain?
I went to Vermont to meet him at home for a long afternoon. We watched some basketball and then got around to asking the questions. I watched every interview he gave after the rescue. When we were in Boston to shoot the domestic scenes, Catherine Keener [who plays Mrs Phillips] and I drove up together and had another long afternoon with him and his wife. I was able to have enough time with him in the flesh and get a sense of his bearing and his sensibilities, which was extremely valuable.
He’s such a strong character, but the end is extremely emotional. How do you summon emotions like that?
I don’t know. And if I did know, I wouldn’t tell you, it’s an absolute secret! Rich [Phillips] mentioned in his book that when he was back home and safe and showered – and able to drink a cold beer – that he had these emotional breakdowns. He didn’t understand where they came from, or why he didn’t come close to crying or breaking down when he was in the clutches of the pirates – they didn’t come until it was all over. That’s human physiology, but it’s still somehow inexplicable.
Did they put you through any gruelling situations in order to put you into Richard Phillips’ mindset? Was there any Cast Away-style dunking?
No, because that’s my job – to be prepared for whatever comes. There’s a physical aspect to it, certainly, although making movies is not a realistic way to spend your day.
Which of your old films do you re-watch most?
Oh, I don’t watch any of my old movies. The one that I might watch with great affection is a little movie I directed, That Thing You Do, which I’m not in that much. I loved doing it so much that when I watch it now it still brings a smile to my face. I don’t watch my own performances – who does that? That would be madness. I’ve seen all the movies once, but I don’t need to see them again, because they don’t change.
Are there any experiences you’ve had on set that have a special place in your heart?
Oh, they all have something that is well connected. If you’re flicking through TV and they’re on, I could probably tell you exactly how many kids I had the day we shot it, where we were living at the time. But you either recognise far too much of yourself, and that’s painful, or you think, “I didn’t know I did it that way.”
Have there been any really tough shoots? Saving Private Ryan or Cast Away, maybe?
I remember shooting films that were absolutely beautiful in their setting, and the people that were involved. Movies in Rome and in London, and in this case [for Captain Phillips], Mike Chernus [who plays Shane] and I were onboard the ship, shooting at night on the open seas. We were making transit from one port to another and it was one of the most beautiful things I have ever experienced. That’s the stuff I remember. The confounded aspect of doing the movie, that’s just hard work.
You’re known as this all-American, nice guy. Would you like to go dark and play someone edgier?
I think it’s because I’m polite to the media. I’m not interested in [going dark] for the sake of doing that. There has to be some sort of connection to the subject that’s being examined. I’m interested in people who have to do dark things for good reasons. In The Green Mile I’m a professional executioner, but because it was me – guess what? – he was a nice, cuddly, all-American executioner. Talking about it, I was pretty lethal when I threw a man off a roof in Cloud Atlas, but I understood why that happened.
When was the last time you did something not nice?
Do you think I’m actually going to tell you? [Laughs]
You’re pretty into Twitter. You post pictures of random trash – an abandoned glove or a stray spatula. Is there an environmental message behind those?
It’s just a ‘here’s what I saw when I was walking around’, there’s no environmental message. I think it’s kind of lonely when you think about a mismatched glove. It’s like parted lovers. I don’t know how that spatula got on the ground, but there’s a story behind that, so I invent a story in my head that someone is now yearning for the spatula. One thing I notice around a lot is baby pacifiers. And if you lose your baby’s pacifier, that’s definitely going to be bad news. There it is on the ground, where people have stepped on it and it’s all dirty. It’s a sad little pacifier.
And you’re back in the business of pacifiers now you’re a grandad…
Yeah! One is two and a half and the other was only just born in June.
So what will you pass on to your son Colin as a fatherhood tip?
Laugh as much as you can. The nights are long, but the years go by fast.
How does it feel when your classic films are referenced in pop culture in big films now?
That’s always very special. It always makes me feel good. We’re in a popular media and you want to enter into the cultural zeitgeist. It’s like when people yell out “Wilson!” to me in the street. It means that people have identified with the film and are carrying it with them.
Have you kept any mementos? Did you keep a Wilson?
I usually like to keep something from every movie. It’s not usually always a prop. I do have one of the aged Wilsons with the branch stuck out of it, somewhere. I mostly keep coffee cups from restaurant scenes. So I have coffee cups from the Waffle Hut we shot The Ladykillers in, and I have one from the Maersk Alexander [from Captain Phillips]. I use them every day. I think, “I got this coffee cup when they made You’ve Got Mail.”
You’re known for being pretty game with fans. You just recently had shots with a really drunk guy. Do you go out looking for a laugh?
I can’t say I look for them [laughs]. Actually, those guys approached me and said “Mr Hanks, can we take a picture? We always have one of our guys passed out pretending to be drunk and we take pictures with him.” I said, “Sounds good to me!” Whenever I have pictures, I say, “Facebook approved!”
Street artist Hanksy is a big fan and bases his work around your films, do you know him? Is it you?
I’ve met Hanksy the street fartist. No, it’s not me! It’s a very specific guy. I was doing a play on Broadway and my daughter said, “Hanksy is going to come and see the show, can he come back and say hi?” It was a pleasure to meet him. My daughter is a journalist, and she had interviewed him. He’s a really cool guy and I love what he does.
Is that why you’re nice to the media, because your daughter is a journalist?
[Laughs] No! I wake up in a pretty pleasant mood all the time. I’m not an unpleasant fellow.
Your son Chet is a rapper. Does he incorporate you into his raps?
Oh, I don’t think so. He is sailing the hip-hop waters as we speak. There’s going to be more good work coming soon.
You and your wife Rita have a very long and happy marriage. What’s the secret, and why is it so rare?
All of our friends have been married for as long as we have, or even longer. I think it’s the way you approach it when you go into the thing. We were not kids when we met each other. We are best friends, and at the same time there are things that we do that are all of our own. She never ceases to amaze me, every single day.
You recently did jury duty, but someone came to talk to you and it threw the case off. Did you feel weird about it?
I didn’t know what happened. It was lunchtime and somebody came to talk to me and said, “Hey, thanks for coming down.” It was a 10-second interchange, but I guess there are rules about such things. Somehow justice was done. You know, at some point they call you up, so I went down and did my civic duty and it ended up how it ended up.
With such a good public profile, have you ever considered politics? You came out in support of Obama in his last campaign.
No, not at all. I don’t have the chops for policy making. When [election] time comes, I don’t particularly try to keep my plans a secret, but I don’t proselytise either. I’m happy to say who I’m voting for, and I don’t get offended by people doing the same thing.
And you’re pretty into the environment, too. Is it something you get het up about?
No, not particularly. I’ve driven an electric car since 2003 because, living in LA, I think it makes all the sense in the world, and I don’t have to spend any time at the gas station. So in relation to individual and personal politics, you can move forward any cause by practising what you think. That’s what I do.
You’ve talked about wanting to be an astronaut, but would you fancy going up with Virgin Galactic?
No. I don’t fancy that, because it’s not a long enough flight for me. I’d do it if they were going to go up for 10 orbits or something, but to go up and then come down, that would be far too tantalising with not enough pay-off.
Lastly, in the gym, do people shout “Run, Forrest, run!” at you?
On occasion, yes they do. I just give ’em a wave.
Captain Phillips is out 18 October; Saving Mr Banks is out 29 November
(Image: Austin Hardgrave)