Saturday, October 12, 2013
Given that Hollywood often seems like a haven for pretentious
behavior, Richard Phillips was impressed that Tom Hanks came across as
"a regular guy." The actor visited Phillips, a cargo ship captain, at his 19th-century farmhouse here three times in the past two years.
Hanks stars in the title role of Captain Phillips,
an Oct. 11 release about the Vermonter's 2009 capture by Somali pirates
and subsequent rescue by the Navy's fabled SEAL Team Six.
came here to study me," Phillips explained. "We just talked about this
and that. I got us a couple of sandwiches from the Underhill Country
They both ordered an item devised as a salute the town's
local hero soon after the piracy ordeal ended: "The Captain Phillips,"
which is toasted and consists of roast beef, Swiss cheese, lettuce,
tomato and onion on a sub roll.
The screenwriter, Billy Ray (The Hunger Games) met several times with Phillips. He also had extensive talks with the director, Paul Greengrass (United 93),
and they apparently clicked: "He's another down-to-earth person. Maybe a
little quirkier. But he could relate to my story because his father is a
retired merchant mariner."
On the big screen, his story is "a
good action film," Phillips said. "I saw an almost-finished version on
the West Coast in June. I wondered how it would affect me but what
actually happened was a lot worse than that."
Anyone who has seen
the harrowing movie might wonder what was worse than being repeatedly
punched, kicked and choked? "The mock executions," Phillips explained.
ship at the time, the Maersk Alabama, carried 17,000 metric tons of
cargo, about one-third of it food relief supplies for Africa. The
unarmed freighter was navigating the vast Indian Ocean en route to
Nine days into the voyage, the journey went awry 240
nautical miles off the coast of Somalia, where piracy is a virtual
cottage industry. Four scrawny boys, none older than 19, approached the
U.S.-flagged vessel in a small skiff. They were high from chewing an
amphetamine-like leaf known as khat and carrying AK-47 assault rifles.
a tense skirmish on the Maersk, during which the crew of 20 men took
refuge in a locked engine room, Philips was forced to board a 28-foot
fiberglass lifeboat with the pirates. Another five days passed, as the
destroyer USS Bainbridge waited nearby for an opportunity to free him
using psychological and technoloiical warfare tactics.
the first thing the pirates would do is take me out if they thought an
attack was imminent," he recalled. "I really didn't see a good outcome."
Philips prayed and "said a few things to my wife, apologizing for the 3
a.m. phone call I imagined she would get to inform her that I was
Andrea Phillips is an emergency room nurse at Fletcher
Allen Health Care in Burlington. She spent much of those five days
fending off a media frenzy. "When I got home, there still were seven TV
satellite trucks parked outside our house," her husband said.
his captivity, Richard Phillips carried on limited conversations with
his captors, who spoke very little English. "They asked me, 'What is
your clan?' and I told them, 'American,'" he said. "They replied, 'No,
what is your tribe?'"
He then acknowledged he was Irish, which became his moniker. "'They said, 'Irish, you problem.' I agreed: 'You got that right.'"
Green Mountain lifestyle
of eight children born to parents who were teachers in Massachusetts,
Phillips gave up pursuit of an international law degree to study at a
maritime academy. Before graduating in 1979, he also worked as a cab
driver in Boston.
"I tell my kids, 'Don't do well in school and
you, too, can end up at sea," he said. Instead, his son Daniel, 24, is a
microbiologist and daughter Mariah, 23, a graphics designer.
Vermont for more than two decades, the family lives in a white farmhouse
that dates back to the 1840s on 17 scenic acres, with a classic red
barn across the road.
Employed by the same Virginia-based shipping
company for 24 years, he has been captain of 13 different freighters.
His trips, typically about 40 days each, take him all over the world.
Every three-month work rotation is followed a three-month break.
dramatic incidents have included hurricanes and a 2004 fire in the
engine room, when Phillips feared his crew might perish. But nothing
else he endured ever attracted public attention.
after his return to the United States, Philips got a call from
President Barack Obama, who had green-lighted the Navy's plan of action.
Along with his wife, the captain accepted an invitation for a May 2009
tour of the White House.
Phillips has steadfastly insisted he was
only doing his job, pointing to the Navy SEALs as the real heroes in the
highjacking scenario. After his rescue, the Maersk continued on to
Kenya but, shaken by the pirate encounter, he was taken aboard the
"I'd wake up at 5.am every day crying like a little
baby," he said, referring to an aftermath not included in the film. "I'd
slap myself and try to remember how lucky I was to be alive."
of the SEALs suspected he was undergoing some degree of post-traumatic
stress and persuaded him to speak on the ship's phone with a Navy
psychiatrist who told him there are chemicals in tears that can be a
mechanism for healing.
"He suggested, 'Next time, don't stop
yourself from crying.' So, the next morning, I just cried and cried for
45 minutes," Phillips recalled. "And that never happened again. I needed
a catharsis to get it all out."
A bit of fame
job of filmmaker apparently puzzles the parents of British director Paul
Greengrass. "His father, a retired merchant mariner, thinks of him as a
ne'er-do-well," Phillips said. "Paul said he has tried to explain that a
movie is like a ship moving through the water. You have to get from
point A to point B."
The cinematic ship titled Captain Phillips,
a kinetic thriller, has been moving through the American cultural
landscape, accompanied by enthusiastic reviews from critics and a lot of
Oscar buzz. Adapted from his co-authored 2011 memoir, A Captain's Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs and Dangerous Days at Sea, the script was presumably compelling enough to interest of one of America's top movie stars.
The two men are close in age — Hanks is 57, Philips 58 — but there's not much of a physical resemblance.
"I told him he needed to gain a little weight and get better-looking," Phillips quipped.
was on hand for the film's Oct. 1 Vermont sneak preview at the Majestic
10 in Williston, Vt. During a reception that preceded the screening,
Phillips graciously posed in front of a gigantic Captain Phillips movie poster alongside any of the more than 600 ticket-holders keen on getting a souvenir snapshot.
At its world premiere on the Sept. 27 opening night of the New York Film Festival, Captain Phillips received a prolonged standing ovation from the audience.
the red carpet, Hanks told reporters that during one his 2012 visits to
Vermont, he'd watched a basketball game with Phillips. It was March
Asked for his assessment of the captain, Hanks offered an
observation that paralleled Phlllips's view of him: "He's a