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.' "
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 Capt. 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 M.V. Maersk Alabama, was hijacked by pirates off the coast of Somalia.
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," Hanks says, who revealed on "The Late Show" on Oct. 7 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.
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."
Jake Coyle is a film writer for Associated Press.
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