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Tuesday, October 8, 2013

A Conversation With The Real Captain Phillips

Tom Hanks, left, and Capt. Richard Phillips attend the world premiere of "Captain Phillips," Sept. 27, 2013, in New York. (Dave Allocca/StarPix via AP)

Tom Hanks, left, and Capt. Richard Phillips attend the world premiere of “Captain Phillips,” Sept. 27, 2013, in New York. (Dave Allocca/StarPix via AP)

This week, “Captain Phillips” opens in theaters. The film tells the story of Captain Richard Phillips, whose cargo ship, the Maersk Alabama, was hijacked by pirates off the Somali coast in 2009.

Captain Phillips was held hostage by the pirates until he was rescued by Navy SEALs. In the new film, Tom Hanks plays Phillips.

Captain Phillips tells Here & Nows Robin Young that Tom Hanks did visit him to prepare for the role.

“I told him if he was going to play me, he’d have to put on a little weight and get a little better looking and he did neither, so he didn’t do anything I told him to,” he joked.

Interview Highlights: Richard Phillips

On what it was like to be taken by pirates

“It was a very scary time as they got closer and closer and as we turned on our fire hoses and started shooting flares and mustard and getting ready to get in the safe room. And then when they started shooting that escalated it up and of course we were all fearful. And then when they were, indeed, successful in getting that ladder and getting the first pirate aboard, it was the very start of a 12-hour slippery slope on the ship of stress cat-and-mouse and really hide-and-seek.”

On his relationship with the pirates

“We were always on an adversarial relationship. We would communicate; there was actually a couple of times there was a chuckle or two, but at no time — they made it patently clear and I made it clear that we were on different teams, we were adversaries. When you have a guy across the seat from you within four or five foot of you with a gun and he likes to pull the trigger and smile at you, that was the young pirate with what I call the ‘wild, Charlie Manson eyes,’ there’s not too many ways you can think this guy is your friend and you can align with them.”

On his choice to go back to sea

“I went back, I believe about 14 months later. I think it was June 2010. I’ve been sailing in the MM&P, the International Order of Masters, Mates & Pilots for 34 years now, so that is my normal. Again, there was no fear. Piracy is part of it — I also have to deal with fires, emergency medical situations, storms, catastrophes, oil spills, collisions. It’s just part of the challenging job of going to sea.”

Guest

  • Richard Phillips, former captain of the Maersk Alabama, held hostage by Somali pirates in 2009.

Transcript

ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:

It's HERE AND NOW.

We already know the story of the cargo ship Maersk Alabama, captured by a handful of Somali pirates who kidnapped the captain. He wrote a memoir about his brutal five days in a tiny enclosed lifeboat and the Navy SEALs who eventually freed him. We know that ending.

So why is the new film directed by Paul Greengrass and starring Tom Hanks as Captain Phillips so suspenseful?

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "CAPTAIN PHILLIPS")

TOM HANKS: (as Captain Richard Phillips) Four pirates onboard. Four pirates coming towards us down the main deck. Lock down the bridge.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yeah.

HANKS: (as Captain Richard Phillips) Listen up. We have been boarded by four armed pirates. You know the drill. We stay hidden no matter what. I don't want any hostages.

YOUNG: It is stomach turning for the audience. It's hard to imagine what it's like for the real Captain Phillips. So let's ask him. Captain Richard Phillips joins us from his home state, Vermont Public Radio. Captain Phillips, welcome.

RICHARD PHILLIPS: Good to be here. Thank you for inviting me.

YOUNG: As I hear you speak, I have to say the one thing - on a much lighter note - that people are pointing out is that Tom Hanks sounds more like John F. Kennedy portraying you. What did you - we'll start with the accent. What did you think of the accent?

PHILLIPS: Well, seeing as I don't have an accent, so I don't know how he could emulate it, so I don't understand that. I thought he did a fair job.

YOUNG: Well, OK.

(LAUGHTER)

YOUNG: But you met with Tom Hanks twice. What did you want to tell him? What did he want to know from you?

PHILLIPS: I told him if he was going to play me, he'd have to put on a little weight and get a little better looking, and he did neither. So he didn't do anything I told him to, so - but he was more interested, not in the story, and he came out and said I'm not really interested in the story. I've read the book. You know, he has a screenplay. But he was interested about the transition, about family life and then work life, routines of both, on the ship and also at home. Certain things he would ask me, would this ever happen? Would you ever say this? I think he was just trying to get a gist of me.

YOUNG: It's interesting, because that is what you pick up immediately, that this was a guy from Vermont, you know, coming to this very different world. And then, of course, that world is completely upended. Let's play a little more of the scene we just heard a little bit of.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "CAPTAIN PHILLIPS")

HANKS: (as Captain Richard Phillips) If the pirates find you, remember, you know the ship. They don't. They could feel like they're in charge, but keep them away from the important things like the generator and the engine controls.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

HANKS: (as Captain Richard Phillips) Stick together and we'll be all right. Good luck.

YOUNG: Richard, we see a man there who is firm and in charge but also pretty scared. Describe how that felt.

PHILLIPS: It was a very scary time as they got closer and closer and as we turned on our fire hoses and started shooting flares and mustard(ph) and getting ready to get to a safe room. And then when they started shooting, that escalated it up. And of course we were all fearful. And then when they were indeed successful for getting that ladder and getting the first pirate aboard, it was very - the start of a 12-hour slippery slope on the ship of stress, cat and mouse and really hide and seek.

Some of the things I see is - in Tom Hanks's eyes, you can see definitely fear. And there was fear there, but it was also a sense of he had lost almost all control. And the only control he did have was the operation of the ship and the procedures that we had. That's the only control that we had.

YOUNG: Well, for people who didn't follow the story very closely, it came across in the headlines in 2009 as ship attacked by pirates who put captain in lifeboat. He's there for five days, and then SEALs come. It's over. What we really see here is how long - 12 hours, you just said - of this cat-and-mouse game, running around the ship, trying to hide, trying to come up with tricks. Twelve hours, that's a long time.

PHILLIPS: Yeah. It was very intense, and I think the movie captures that. Very stressful. I don't know at any corner that I would run into a crew or something would happen.

YOUNG: Because they were hiding.

PHILLIPS: Because they were hiding, and I hoped that they stayed in hiding because that was the only power we had. The crew did a great job. They were instrumental in the positive outcome for myself and them. And they actually took the leader hostage later during this time, and that was big part of getting them off.

YOUNG: You mentioned the crew. I just have to - let's take a second and address this. You just spoke highly of how the crew handled this and that. It feels that way in the film.

PHILLIPS: Yeah.

YOUNG: But there's also a little bit of stress. You're the boss. You're the one who has to - who has to kick them off the coffee breaks.

(LAUGHTER)

YOUNG: And as you well know, there is a lawsuit that nine members of the crew have filed against the shipping company. You're not named in it, but they say that you put the crew in jeopardy by sailing into dangerous waters, that there was a warning to stay 600 miles out and that you were too close.

PHILLIPS: You know, in the merchant marine, we fight piracy everywhere. It's not just in Somalia. We fight piracy today in Vietnam, Philippines, Malacca Straits, Indonesia, Java, west-east coast of Africa, west-east coast of South America. It's a known quantity. If you don't want to fight piracy or deal with piracy, then you really don't want to go to sea. And the other thing was, in that area of the world, we were never outside the area. Ships had already have been taken out over 1,250 miles even before my incident.

YOUNG: So you're clear that you don't feel you put them in jeopardy by that course.

PHILLIPS: No. We were in jeopardy indeed. Any ship that sails today in any parts of the world is in jeopardy of piracy and better be ready. That was the farthest I'd ever sailed off Somalia.

YOUNG: How would you characterize your relationship with the pirates? Because in the film it feels as if there are some moments where you empathize with these - they're just life's losers. But on the other hand, you've said you never for a moment were empathetic with them because you felt that would be dangerous for you.

PHILLIPS: I felt that that would be. We were always on an adversarial relationship. I mean, we would communicate. It was actually a couple of times. It was a chuckle or two. But at no time they made it patently clear and I made it clear that we were on different teams. We were adversaries. When you have a guy across the seat from you, within four, five foot of you, with a gun and he likes to just pull a trigger and smile at you - that was the young pirate - what I call a wild Charlie Manson eyes, there's not too many ways that you can think this guy is your friend and you can align with them.

YOUNG: How did you survive those five days? The claustrophobia from the screen is enough - was enough to make a lot of people in the audience just - they couldn't handle it. You were in there.

PHILLIPS: It was very tight in there, living and doing all the things that we do during our lives inside that boat for 4 1/2 days with four pirates with three weapons. It was very close. I don't think you can really portray how close and hot it truly was. And they were tough and committed. They were not going to give up, and their concern for me, again, was nothing.

YOUNG: Does it bother you that at least one or two of the pirates is fleshed out as a character? Barkhad Abdi, amazing actor, plays the lead pirate. And in the film, they do become a little bit humanized. Does that bother you?

PHILLIPS: No. It's a movie. I mean, they were human, right or wrong decision aside. At any time, they could've given up. I had told them in the life boat, you know, that they could give me up, and they'd let you have the life boat and they'll let you go, you know? But I told them that they were never going to get any money. And, you know, if they keep like this, we're all going to die in this boat.

YOUNG: Yeah. So, Captain Phillips, how are you doing? Because at the end of the film, Tom Hanks, in what seems like just a remarkable performance with what seems like a real naval medical officer, completely breaks down.

PHILLIPS: It was a real medic, actually, in the movie.

YOUNG: Yeah. It looked like it.

PHILLIPS: And I did cry. It was later. It was actually the second day. I was back on the Bainbridge. And I wake up and - out of a sound sleep I'd wake up and be bawling like a little baby. And actually, one of the SEALs saw something in me, and I actually talked to one of their psychiatrists. He says, well, don't tamp it down. Don't try and stop it. Let it flow. And he explained it in a very empirical way. You know, it's just hormones. It's chemicals that's coursing through your body that your body organs put out. It's pretty much fight-or-flight, life-or-death situation. And you got to release these things, and crying is one of them.

So the next morning, I woke up, of course, out of a sound sleep, bawling and crying like a little baby, and I just let it go. I cried for about 40 minutes, and then it just stopped on its own. And it never came back again.

YOUNG: Yeah. Well, and after that experience that you had at sea, you're back at sea.

PHILLIPS: Yeah. I went back, I believe, about 14 months later. I think it was June 2010. I've been sailing in the MMP, the International Order of Master, Mates and Pilots, for 34 years now, so that is my normal. Piracy is part of it. I also have to deal with fires and emergency medical situations, storms, catastrophes, oil spills, collisions. It's just part of the challenging job of going to sea.

YOUNG: That's Captain Phillips. The real life captain who's captured by Somali pirates is the story told in the film "Captain Phillips." Richard Phillips, thank you so much for speaking with us.

PHILLIPS: Great to speak with you.

YOUNG: And Captain Phillips' memoir is "A Captain's Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea." The film is out Friday. It's terrific. From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Robin Young.

JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

I'm Jeremy Hobson. It's HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
  • J__o__h__n

    If piracy is a known quantity, why doesn’t the shipping company have armed security?

  • Ambari

    If Captain Phillips was killed in this incident, would Hollywood been interested in doing a movie on it?

    I doubt it. Americans when they go to a movie theater expect a happy ending. They need to go home feeling good that the US is shown as a “hero” who beat the bad guys. The usual good vs evil scenario.

    However did anyone consider that piracy in Somalia is a recent occurrence.

    Most of those who turned to piracy were prior to that subsistence farmers and fishermen.

    Somalia was taken advantage of by other countries and companies to over fish in their territory waters and also the dumping of toxic wastes.

    From Wikopedia for what its worth:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Piracy_in_Somalia

    After the collapse of the central government in the ensuing civil war, the Somali Navy disbanded. With Somali territorial waters undefended, foreign fishing trawlers began illegally fishing on the Somali seaboard and ships from big companies started dumping waste off the coast of Somalia. This led to the erosion of the fish stock. Local fishermen subsequently started to band together to protect their resources. After seeing the profitability of ransom payments, some financiers and former militiamen later began to fund pirate activities, splitting the profits evenly with the pirates. In most of the hijackings, the pirates have not harmed their prisoners

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radioactive_waste_dumping_by_the_%27Ndrangheta

    The ‘Ndrangheta, a criminal organization from Calabria (Italy) has been involved in radioactive waste dumping since the 1980s. Ships with toxic and radioactive waste were sunk off the Italian coast. In addition, vessels were allegedly sent to Somalia and other developing countries with toxic waste, including radioactive waste cargoes, which were either sunk with the ship or buried on land. The introduction of more rigorous environmental legislation in the 1980s made illegal waste dumping a lucrative business for organized crime groups in Italy.[1]

    Let’s see if Hollywood would be interested in doing a movie on the Ndrangheta out of Italy. Probably too boring for the audiences in America.

    Its got to be action packed so the movie makes millions for the makers. There has to be a “hero”. Money will always trump the truth.

    • guest

      “…In most of the hijackings, the pirates have not harmed their prisoners” Most hijackings? Wow! that’s a relief.

      • habinero

        How far would anybody go to feed their family….

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