Tom Hanks has faced plenty of acting challenges over the course of his career, but the tiny, enclosed lifeboat used in "Captain Phillips" definitely stands out for him. "I’m not a particularly claustrophobic person, but it was a very small space," he says. "Environmentally, it does a lot of the work for you. It’s a very uncomfortable space. It smells horrible. The air is bad. It’s hot. And you are right on top of each other. There’s a lot of places to bonk our head and crack your knee. We all did that. Everybody had all sorts of various scars."
Hanks stars in the film as the titular Capt. Phillips, whose cargo ship was famously hijacked by Somali pirates in 2009, and he insists those less-than-ideal working conditions were actually a huge help. "[Director] Paul [Greengrass] sets up an environment that is very realistic, and I can’t imagine doing it any other way," Hanks says. "There’s ways that may have been more pleasant but for everything we needed to go through as actors, that tiny, hot, cramped place with only two little windows on it was a great advantage for us."
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The film's crew did try their best to make the cramped environment at least a little more tolerable, but to no avail. "At one point, they built rubber seats for some of the fight scenes," Hanks remembers, but "literally the rubber seats flapped around. So, we said, 'Guys, we don’t think rubber seats are going to work.' So they took those out. We had a little bit of matting on the steel deck of the floor. But, by and large, it’s a tiny space and it got pretty physical in there sometimes. We all got nicks and bruises."
But really — and Hanks can't stress this enough — nothing compared to the smell in the replica lifeboat. "It stank horribly. It was stuffy and small," he says. "But the actual lifeboat smells even worse because it reeks of diesel fumes, and we had some vomit in there at some point. That’s always fun. It was really filthy by the time we got out of there."
While Hanks has racked up plenty of heroic roles — many based on true stories — he regrets to report that very little of that heroism has rubbed off. "I’m just a guy who’s got a pretty good gig pretending to be other people," he says. "'Hero' is almost like a branded term now. It’s bandied about all the time. People get labeled it left and right. In the end, heroes are ones who voluntarily walk into the unknown and try to do the right thing. It’s all relative. Everybody has variations of it. Sometimes it’s death-defying and sometimes it’s just living up to one’s responsibility."
But then, how can Hanks get away with thinking of himself as a hero when even the guy he's playing this time out won't accept the label. "Richard Phillips doesn’t view himself a hero. He was a guy who sat there and waited for the heroes to show up, which is different," Hanks says. "We all have times in our lives where we can either be a hero, a villain or a coward, and I just hope that I’m a coward as little as possible, and hopefully never a villain. On the occasions when I have to be, I would hope to be able to do the heroic thing, but I’ve never been tested in any way, shape or form — other than facing down members of the fourth estate."