Now he and Tom Hanks, who plays him in a new film, discuss bravery, fear, and that moment when an ordinary person finds himself doing extraordinary things.
When did you two first meet and what did you talk about?
Tom Hanks (TH): I went up to his house in Vermont; it must have been March 2012. I asked him about his first go-round of being a celebrity, the world tour he had to make upon his rescue. And, you know, “How do you be a captain of a ship?” The standard answer takes in the romance of the sea; every now and again you stare at the horizon and breathe in deeply. But if you did that on the Maersk Alabama, you’d essentially get diesel fumes. So this role was more about portraying the pressure-filled, workaday aspect of getting goods to port.
Richard Phillips (RP): A team of guys working together with the same purpose that’s basically what it is.
And then your routine was disrupted by the pirate attack. A lot of people will be wondering how they might handle themselves in that situation.
RP: One thing I learned is that you’re stronger than you realise. I was afraid, but you’ve got to put that fear on the seat next to you and do what you have to do. I was pretty much in problem-solving mode the whole time.
Tom, when something like this happens in the news, do you think, “That’d make a great movie”?
TH: Here’s what I always think: “Will this have to be blown out of proportion to make it a movie? Or can we adhere to the behavior as it really went down?” An example would be Apollo 13. The movie added a bit of baloney, but not much. No bad guys were added, no spies were put in.
RP: No chase scenes.
TH: No. By and large, the making of motion pictures is all about “Let’s ratchet it up.” And I always think, “We don’t need to ratchet this up.” If you do, don’t call it Captain Phillips or The Maersk Alabama. Call it something else, and then you have carte blanche to do anything, down to sea serpents and aliens.
Did you have any sense of what was going on outside the lifeboat?
RP: No, not at all. I didn’t know about the maelstrom of media going on at home. And even with the navy boat there [the USS
Bainbridge arrived on the scene a day after the hijacking], what could they do? The normal routine was to escort the pirates to shore and wait for the ransom to be paid. As a hostage, I can say I’m glad they didn’t stick to the normal routine.
TH: Paul would say, “We have to shoot some Navy SEAL porn today.” Guys jumping out of planes with all their gear, stuff like that.
RP: Since the incident, I’ve seen footage of the actual people going into the water. And it’s unbelievable. It’s more Hollywood than Hollywood. They are true titans, superheroes of our age.
You seem reluctant to be labelled a hero yourself; in your book you call it “the H-word.” Do you feel, looking back, that you did have heroic moments?
RP: Oh, for me, it was my job. You take the paycheck, you do the job. As captain, you get all the blame, pretty much, and in this situation all the recognition, when it was 19 of my crew who were involved in it also. I’ve been more scared on ships. I’ve had a fire in the engine room where I thought I had dead engineers. I’ve been through hurricanes. I mean, I feel glad that I didn’t lose any of my crew this time.
Tom, you must have thought about the role’s heroic aspects.
TH: I have gone through so many examinations of what a hero is, between the World War II stuff and the astronaut stuff. I once asked [astronaut] Jim Lovell, “Did you ponder your fate up there?” And he said, “No, because we were so familiar with the spacecraft and the procedures and physics of what it was going to take.” He felt he always had a card to play in the game of solitaire that was making it back. As long as there was a card to play, there was no fear.
Do you think we all have the ability to rise to the occasion?
TH: Not everybody, no. Some people are cowards. I think by and large a third of people are villains, a third are cowards, and a third are heroes. Now, a villain and a coward can choose to be a hero, but they’ve got to make that choice.