NEW YORK -- The birth of Tom Hanks, dramatic actor, happened during a table read on "Splash." As the smitten lead Allen Bauer in Ron Howard's 1984 film, Hanks began by going for laughs, an instinct from the sitcom "Bosom Buddies."
"And it didn't go well," said Hanks in a recent interview. "Ron said to me, literally, 'Look, I know what you're doing, and you can't do that here. You're not the guy to be funny. These are not jokes. You have to love that girl.'"
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Hanks wasn't done with comedy ("The Bachelor Party," for one, was to follow), but his trajectory was altered for good: "I was upbraided right off the bat."
"So off it began," says Hanks, who realizes it could have easily gone another direction. "I wasn't that far away from putting together three minutes at the Improv."
Some will always wonder what might have happened had Hanks, with a rare gift for comic timing, put those three minutes together. But three decades after that course correction from Howard, Hanks, 57, may well have given the finest dramatic performance of his career.
In the new docudrama "Captain Phillips," Hanks bears none of that youthful, comic energy, but rather the skill of a grizzled veteran. Gray-bearded and in glasses, his Captain Richard Phillips is for Hanks -- who has made a career out of playing ordinary guys -- the most regular Joe of them all: a working-class, cargo ship captain from Vermont.
The film is based on the 2009 incident where Phillips' ship, the Maersk Alabama, was hijacked by pirates off the coast of Somalia. He was kidnapped in a lifeboat, which led to a fraught standoff with the U.S. Navy. For Hanks, who has considered himself something of a "lay historian" since junior high and has a filmography dotted with period tales from "Saving Private Ryan" to producing "John Adams," "Captain Phillips" is a more recent chapter in history for the actor.
It's a simple story, told with Paul Greengrass's visceral, documentary-like naturalism and an empathy that stretches around the globe. With the steady accumulation of details about a small band of desperate, young Somalis (played by a quartet of Somalia-born men from Minnesota) and the responses of the ship's crew, "Captain Phillips" re-creates the hijacking into a tensely realistic thriller.
When the stress of the standoff finally breaks, a wave of relief overtakes Phillips in an exceptionally raw scene unlike any before in Hanks' career. Partly improvised toward the end of a lengthy shoot on ships off the coast of Malta, it's an outpouring that elevates "Captain Phillips" to a higher plane.
"We had been through a lot," says Hanks. "In the course of making a movie, everything that you sort of pretend has happened to you is actually a very tangible thing that's happened to you. So by the time we got there -- I don't know how to explain it -- there was a place for going there."
"It all happened in a daze as far as I'm concerned."
The role is sure to land Hanks his sixth Oscar nomination (he won for "Philadelphia" and "Forrest Gump"), yet it's been more than a decade since he was last nominated (for "Cast Away" in 2001). In between, he's had some duds ("The Da Vinci Code," "Angels & Demons," both with Howard), tried farce with the Coen brothers ("The Ladykillers") and attempted some interesting stretches (playing six characters in last year's "Cloud Atlas").
He's directed his second film ("Larry Crown"), made his Broadway debut (Nora Ephron's "Lucky Guy") and expanded his production company, Playtone, into digital media ("Electric City" for Yahoo). But with the exception of the snappy and smart "Charlie Wilson's War" (which, unlike "Captain Phillips," traded on Hanks' charisma) it has been a while since Hanks has been so well suited to a film.
"I'm too old now to have an idea of what I'm going to do," says Hanks, who revealed on "The Late Show" on Monday that he has Type 2 diabetes.
"Movies, they're like leaves on a river," says Hanks, who also stars as Walt Disney in the upcoming "Saving Mr. Banks." "You've got to sit by and collect them as they go by." (He immediately repeats the phrase in the mock voice of a wise shaman.)
Though Hanks was initially drawn to the story by Phillips' memoir (the actor twice went to Vermont to meet with the captain) and the script by Billy Ray, working with Greengrass (the director of "United 93" and "Bloody Sunday") meant a very different experience. The British director rehearses at length and then shoots long, unblocked scenes with hand-held cameras.
Raising to the same kind of exasperated inflection as his famous "There's no crying in baseball" line from "A League of Their Own," Hanks recalls his initial puzzlement at how Greengrass crafts such verisimilitude.
"I said, 'I don't know how he does this! How does he get this?'" says Hanks. "Look, I know how movies are made -- the shots and the thing and the storyboards and all that kind of stuff. I know that. But how does he do this?"
Hanks found that he relished the process, allowing him to focus purely on behavior: "We didn't have to worry about lights or marks, particularly. The scene just took us every place that the scene took us."
Greengrass isn't prone to hyperbole, but he plainly states that Hanks is "a great American, a truly great man."
"In a cinematic era where the landscape is dominated by superheroes ... he's an actor who's built that fantastic career playing ordinary men," says Greengrass. "It means that each of those parts, you're giving yourself much less room. You can only aim at people who've got limitations to their powers, limitations to their emotional range."
"Captain Phillips" humanizes its hijackers as young men in a war-torn country, pressured by tyrannical warlords to achieve the highest ransom possible from the ships sailing past Somalia's shores.
Some may see a connection to the al-Qaida terrorists from Somalia that recently attacked a mall in Nairobi, but as Hanks says: "Other than the word `Somali,' there's no connection to it. ... One is robbing and the other is terrorism."
Greengrass purposefully kept the Somali actors away from Hanks before they shot their first scene together, when the pirates storm the bridge of the ship. For the director, it was the moment of truth for his nonprofessional actors: "I'm on the monitor thinking: I've sort of bet the movie on this."
Barkhad Abdi, who plays the captain of the pirates, says he realized the importance of the scene, but "at the same time, we were all excited to meet Tom." The 28-year-old marveled at how Hanks would be joking with the guys on set right up until a take started.
"But the second the scene starts, he literally becomes the character," says Abdi. "When I saw that, that helped me make my character better. He became that guy -- he became Captain Phillips -- so I had to become, too."