Cast & Characters
The audience will not find conventional heroes in Captain Phillips -- only human beings in
all their societal, cultural, and personal complexities. Greengrass saw Richard Phillips not
as the engine of the story but rather as a man who, while quietly devoted to his work, gets
suddenly swept up into a violent, global event. "Phillips reminds me of men I knew when I was
young, growing up with a father in the merchant marine: the working men who haul the goods
we use around the world, who are the lifeblood of the world economy. They are the truckers
of the sea. It's a very physical, blue-collar kind of world. To me, Richard Phillips is that kind of
man -- a kind of Everyman who finds himself in this unwanted confrontation," says the director.
"He's really an ordinary person, but the way he responds to what happens to him and what this
ordeal he goes through has to say about the world we live in is extraordinary."
From the very beginning, the filmmakers envisioned Tom Hanks as the veteran merchant mariner
Richard Phillips. Hanks has excelled in diverse roles depicting seemingly ordinary men facing
extreme crises: from Andrew Beckett, the lawyer suffering from AIDS and fighting a wrongful
termination suit in Philadelphia; to astronaut Jim Lovell, struggling to return to Earth after a
moon mission goes awry in Apollo 13; to John Miller, the World War II captain searching for a
missing soldier in Saving Private Ryan; and to Chuck Noland, the FedEx executive trapped alone
on a desert island in Cast Away. Hanks builds characters from the inside out, endowing ordinary
people with a quiet but extraordinary bravery. His portrayal of Richard Phillips is no exception.
Greengrass says of his first time working with the two-time Oscar-winner: "Tom and I went on
a journey together. In the beginning, he kept saying, 'For me, it's really just about a guy in peril on
the sea' -- and Tom honed his performance down to something that stark and true. He spent hour
after hour in that lifeboat -- everyone was moved by how much he put into this. It was not just
a matter of his talent, but of his willingness to explore every inch of this man's humanity -- the
accuracy of what Tom did and the detail of it was magnificent. I was also incredibly impressed by
his physical stamina. We were out on the ocean for hour after hour, and Tom never complained.
He was always the first one to turn around and say, 'I'm ready. Let's do it again.'"
Hanks prepared for the role by getting to know Richard Phillips, visiting with the captain at his
home in Vermont, where he lives with his wife, Andrea, a nurse. Hanks found Phillips to be an
affable, self-effacing man who never saw himself as anything more than a seaman simply doing
his job. Incredibly, Phillips returned to his work at Maersk not long after his near fatal ordeal with
Somali pirates. "That in particular I found amazing," said Hanks. "That a man who suffered such
a wrenching, terrifying ordeal, could bring himself to go right back to sea. I knew understanding
Phillips' strength -- that particular kind of personal fortitude and connection to the sea, despite
what happened -- would be essential to understanding the sort of man Richard is. The reality is
that not everybody has what it takes to be a ship captain -- and not everyone could have withstood
being taken hostage."
Arriving on set for his first collaboration with Greengrass, Hanks was surprised by what he found:
"Paul tried to explain to me what his style was like before we started shooting -- handheld
cameras, no dolly track, no marks to hit -- and asked me if I was comfortable with that. Of
course I said I was, but I honestly expected -- regardless of what Paul said to prepare me --
that when it came to shooting, I would see that dolly track come out and we'd get specific about
hitting our marks and hitting our light. Never happened. We didn't even stage the scenes --
we found them. We'd gather in the morning, discuss the scene for an hour and a half, two
hours, maybe even longer, and then shoot it in its entirety all the way through -- an eight-
minute scene, a twelve-minute scene, whatever it was -- instead of breaking it up into shots.
It's an extraordinary way to make a movie -- a method that is 180 degrees from that of other
filmmakers. It plays to Paul's strengths and I don't think he's interested in making movies any
other way. And the result, I think, speaks for itself."
Greengrass, in turn, says that Hanks was fully on board for the process and the result was a
masterful, truthful performance. "I remember one very difficult scene. We were on the Truxtun and
we were getting ready to film the scene, post-rescue. We asked Richard where that interview really
happened, and he said it took place in the sick bay. Well, we'd been planning to do it in the Captain's
quarters, but as soon as he said it, the sick bay made much more sense. So Tom and I worked
out how we'd do it, and I picked a crewmember from the Truxtun to play the scene with him. As a
result, a woman who was not expecting when she woke up that morning to have a speaking role
in a movie, or to be acting opposite a two-time Academy Award-winner, did this climactic scene
with Tom that brought the entire crew to tears! It's just a stunning moment in the film."
Greengrass's orchestration of the fraught initial encounter between the pirates and the Maersk
crew provides another example of the methods Greengrass used to help the actors reach an
added level of realism: Greengrass made the decision to keep the actors playing the seamen
from having any contact with the Somali-American actors who would play the men taking over
the ship. They never met until the moment they shot the scene of the pirates entering the bridge.
"It was a smart thing Paul did, that we never met each other," explains Hanks. "We didn't have
readings or dinners, so they were these shadowy guys to us, and when they storm the bridge, the
verisimilitude was just incalculable. The hair stood up on the backs of our necks." Says Greengrass
of the scene: "Since they had never met, shooting it that way was a 'once-only' moment -- we
had to get it in that first take. And we did. It was incredible. Tom and Barkhad did that long scene
with such depth and humanity that when it was over, everyone on the set applauded."
In seeking four foils for Hanks, casting director Francine Maisler conducted an intensive search for
actors who could bring both authenticity and emotion to their roles. Maisler began by narrowing
the choices to actors of Somali descent. "From the beginning, it was very, very important to
Paul to cast Somalis in the roles of Muse and his crew," Maisler says. "And that was a massive
casting dilemma. But Paul has a tremendous gift for teaching young, untried actors to perform,
often alongside formidable experienced actors -- it's part of what makes his films so visceral. I
knew the only way to build the organic connection to Somalia that was so important to the film
was to find men who were Somali or Somali-American. And I knew that meant finding young
men who may have had relatively little experience on set, but who were open to taking a leap on
this film, and who were able to hold their own, opposite Tom," says Maisler.
Having researched all the places in the world where Somalis have emigrated in large numbers,
Maisler centered her casting search on the U.S.'s largest Somali-American community, in
Minneapolis, Minnesota. There she distributed flyers announcing an open casting call at the
Brian Coyle Community Center, drawing more than 1,000 candidates for the role of Muse and his
As she worked with Minnesota Casting Director Debbie DeLisi to narrow the candidates from
hundreds to just a handful, Maisler began to group them into foursomes to see how they would
work with one another. One of those initial foursomes consisted of Barkhad Abdi as Muse,
Barkhad Abdirahman as Bilal, Faysal Ahmed as Najee, and Mahat M. Ali as Elmi. Realizing that
these four men all knew one another, it was natural for Maisler to assign them as a group. "Once
we grouped them, they began to rehearse on their own time, with Barkhad Abdi leading the
group's rehearsal sessions," Maisler says. "Later, we swapped other actors in and out of the
foursome as an experiment, but we kept reuniting that original foursome, and ultimately, Paul
cast them in the movie. He was impressed, as we all were, by their talent and chemistry and
commitment to the film."
The final hurdle was a meeting with Greengrass and Maisler in Los Angeles. After the meeting,
they went for a walk on the beach: the four actors, Greengrass, and Maisler. Maisler recalls, "It
wasn't quite clear if they realized that they had been cast, so Paul told them, 'You guys know --
you have the parts.' 'No, nobody told us.' 'Well, you have it.' They were so ecstatic that they ran,
fully clothed, into the ocean, celebrating. It was one of the most pure moments of joy I've ever
seen." Says Ahmed: "We just had to jump into the sea to make sure it was true."
"When I saw them, they were friends and had worked together as a group," Greengrass says.
"There was something about them that already looked and felt like a crew." None of the four
had any formal film experience, but they were determined to give their characters a tangible
humanity. "The degree of intensity they projected and the nuances of character they found were
incredible -- and the ability to do all of that opposite the extraordinary power of Tom Hanks was
something special," says Greengrass.
First-time actor Barkhad Abdi takes on the role of Muse, the pirate captain. Maisler says that
immediately upon meeting Abdi, she knew Greengrass would want him for the demanding and
complex role of Phillips' primary adversary. "The weight on the shoulders of a young, untried
actor in particular to carry a layered role like Muse's -- which demands a capacity for menace
as well as compassion and contemplation -- is tremendous," says Maisler. "It takes a very
special kind of person. The bar was very high. Barkhad demonstrated a great deal of natural
ability and I knew he could bring to life all of the dimensions of the character as written on the
page -- but he'd also make the role his own. He could be commanding but quiet; we could see
that he made a very strong impression on people. The other Somalis we had him working with
in the auditions seemed to automatically treat him as a leader."
Born in Mogadishu and raised in Yemen, Abdi moved with his family to Minneapolis in 1999, when he
was 14 years old. He is acutely aware of the pressures that many Somalis have faced as economic
conditions deteriorate in their war-torn country, even while ships lined with valuable cargo pass their shores. This personal understanding drew him to explore the reasons why a young man like
Muse, no longer able to make a living from his town's traditional trade in Somalia's overfished
waters, would turn to piracy. "I think if things had been different, Muse could have been happy as a
fisherman. But when he's unable to make a living that way, and when he sees men from his village
become pirates, he wants his share of the money that comes to them," Abdi explains. "I still have
family in Somalia, so I know what's going on there," he continues. "I know that my character is in
a place where people have very little in the way of opportunity. But I think today, all over the world,
we all have dreams that we can live big. That's the bottom line for Muse. He has big dreams -- and
since he has so little, he also feels he has nothing to lose by turning to piracy.
"When Muse boards the Alabama, for him it's all about business: the captain calls the shipping
company, the shipping company calls its insurance carrier, a ransom is paid, and no one gets
hurt. But it doesn't work out that way, and he finds himself in a terrible bind that he knows will
be fatal if he can't find a way out. Muse is a foot soldier in a complex pirate-ring funded by
powerful investors, and he knows he can't return empty-handed. As the captain of his crew,
it's his job to find a solution. He realizes the only resolution is to sail the lifeboat to Somalia and
offer Captain Phillips for ransom. He's in a tiny lifeboat surrounded by American warships -- it's
this desperate situation. Still, he's able to maintain a sense of command and power. That's what
makes his character so compelling to me."
Producer Dana Brunetti notes, "For coastal villagers like Muse, access to a lawful economy
is often blocked. In piracy, they see an opportunity to fit into an alternate economy: in this
case, one that can bring wealth many orders of magnitude beyond what is possible through
any other means in Somalia. You've got the wealth of the world sailing past your shore, there
for the taking. Somalia has been controlled for more than two decades by warring factions who
keep the population under tight control. Of course, Muse is a dangerous young man, but what
becomes clear as the film unfolds is that he feels as trapped in the siege as does his hostage. It
was the full person, the full human being, that we were searching for in Muse's character and in
Barkhad's performance -- something that transcended the criminal act he's involved in without
blunting it, because that's the reality."
Abdi hopes the film's depiction of Muse will help audiences gain some insight into the tragedy of
Somalia and the more complex motivations of the pirates. "Piracy is a crime, and the film never
seeks to condone it, but I think people will come away with compassion for Muse. He ends up
confronting the full power of America -- a malnourished young man wearing rags up against three
massive American warships. You feel his predicament. He's a criminal of course, but he is also
a person in a bind. I remember coming to America for the first time as an immigrant and having
to learn to navigate this overwhelming, extremely wealthy and powerful country. I don't want to
draw a comparison between the two predicaments, but I could understand what it must have
been like for him to stare up at that awesome military ship and think, you know, 'Now what?'"
Tom Hanks was especially impressed with how far Abdi took his character into palpable reality.
"This story depends on Barkhad portraying all of the sides of the character -- he never lets
Muse become a paper-thin villain," says Hanks. "For a young, first-time actor to inhabit such
a complex role with such command was striking. He conveys an incredible range of emotion and nuance of expression -- that's not something that can be taught. His character begins as
something we think we know -- a fearsome pirate leading an armed crew in a terrifying criminal
hijacking of an unarmed ship -- and without ever apologizing for that, he pulls the audience into
a much deeper emotional engagement with the human being behind that act: a young Somali
who harbors aspirations all of us can understand, but who is utterly blocked from pursuing them
because of incredibly arduous life circumstances in Somalia."
Najee -- the pirate Phillips dubbed the "tall guy" in his memoir -- is played by Faysal Ahmed,
who is of Somali descent and was born and raised in Yemen, where he met Barkhad Abdi. Ahmed
describes Najee as "the muscle of the group, someone who grew up with violence -- and that's
the only answer he knows." Like Abdi, Ahmed won the visa lottery to come to the United States,
but still has family living in Somalia, giving him an intimate perspective on current events there.
"I think a lot of Somali emigrants would love to go back to Somalia if it had a stable government,"
he observes. "To me, it is my home, even though I have never been there."
For Ahmed, the highlight of making the film was his fight scenes with Tom Hanks. He recalls:
"Making those seem realistic was very difficult, especially because the set was so narrow. I
accidentally connected with a real punch at one point, but Tom was great about it. He did his
own stunts in that scene and he pushed me toward steadily improving my work. I'm thankful to
him for that. It was no small challenge to put myself in the head of this man. I asked myself: what
would a normal person -- a 'normal pirate' -- do in this situation, having fought desperately to
take this ship, against incredible odds, and then to have my prize -- the only thing left to show
for the risks I've taken -- nearly escape? We entered the pirate mindset and when it came time
to shoot, we were ready. It was hard, but it was also an amazing experience."
Elmi, the taciturn boat driver, is played by Mahat M. Ali, who was born in Somalia and grew up in
Kenya, before coming to Minnesota while still in grade school. "I think there was a question mark
for Paul, and that was, were we going to be up for the challenge of the roles, physically," says
Ali. "He knew very well that the roles weren't just difficult emotionally -- but that it was going to
be really hard work, the kind where you collapse into bed after a long, hard day. Were we up for
that? Yes, of course we were. Paul was right -- it was very hard -- but it was worth it."
Seventeen-year-old Barkhad Abdirahman, who was born in Kenya of Somali descent, plays Bilal,
the youngest of the pirates. Abdirahman says of his character, "He's the guy who does what
he's told; I think he behaves the way any normal kid would behave in a war." For Abdirahman,
Greengrass's realistic directorial style and on-set environment gave him a greater understanding
of the intense situation his character faces -- especially as a very young man. "Paul created so
much energy and excitement that he really brought us into what was happening on the boat," he
adds. "It's a pretty insane place to be for Bilal. He's overwhelmed. He's under a lot of pressure --
he's really just a teenager, and he's not at all equipped to handle this situation."
All four actors entered intensive training in Malta prior to production, undergoing a rigorous daily
regimen, comparable to boot camp, designed by stunt coordinator Rob Inch. "They had to learn
how to fight, how to handle guns, how to handle boats, how to lift ladders, and how to work in
choppy waves," Inch explains. "We wanted to really immerse them in that high-seas world."
"We were really out there," says Abdi. "And when I thought about how hard the training was,
everything I went through to get to that moment, when I was climbing up the side of a container
ship, I couldn't help but think that these four men would've learned to do the same things we'd
trained to do. We had that in common now. For me, as a Somali, that's powerful -- it put me in
Muse's shoes in a way our preparation wouldn't have if Paul hadn't been as committed to the
training. I'm positive that this had a tremendous effect on the way I played the rest of my scenes."
As intense as it was to film the taking of the Alabama and the scenes on the container ship,
nothing prepared the actors for filming on the lifeboat. "I'd seen pictures of the lifeboat, and
the National Geographic documentary about the incident, but you can't imagine what it's like
to be on the lifeboat until you actually step inside," says Abdi. "It's small, it's tight, but it's the
smell that really got us all at first: the seawater and the humidity, the heat and sweat. There's no
ventilation in a boat like this. Inevitably, all of us got very dizzy and seasick, especially the first
few days, and that made it difficult to concentrate. I can't imagine being shut up in that lifeboat
twenty-four hours a day for five days -- the length of time Phillips and the pirates were confined
there during the real incident."
While the media closely covered Captain Phillips' rescue from the lifeboat by Navy SEALs,
less well known is what transpired aboard the Maersk Alabama early in the crisis, as Phillips
attempted to outwit the pirates and regain control of the ship -- a period during which Phillips'
twenty crewmembers played a key role.
Michael Chernus (The Bourne Legacy) portrays Shane Murphy, Captain Phillips' Chief Mate and
second in command. Of shooting on the Alabama, Chernus says, "We'd leave port and be out
at sea for twelve or fourteen hours; you get to know your cast-mates quickly -- and well -- in
circumstances like that. We became a kind of crew -- and started to communicate like one. That
helped us respond to each other in a very real way. We bonded in a way I've never experienced
on a film set before. Another unanticipated benefit of working on the ship, which had been
temporarily decommissioned for the shoot, was that the Alexander [the ship standing in for the
Alabama] had, living on it, real Maersk crewmembers with years of experience at sea. Every
actor had a real-life counterpart on the ship, so I was able to hang out with the chief mate of
the Alexander and ask him what he would do in particular situations. That helped us familiarize
ourselves with a whole lifetime's worth of knowledge in a short time."
David Warshofsky (There Will Be Blood) plays Chief Engineer Mike Perry, another veteran
colleague of Captain Phillips. From his post in the ship's Engine Control Room, Perry tries to
track the pirates' movements elsewhere on the Alabama, and sabotage their ability to obtain
operational control of the ship.
Corey Johnson, who has appeared in three Greengrass films (United 93, The Bourne Ultimatum
and The Bourne Legacy), plays the ship's second mate, Ken Quinn, who remains on the bridge
with Phillips. For his performance during the pirates' takeover of the bridge, Johnson recalls that
Greengrass directed him not to think about responding to the attack in the most heroic way, but
rather in the most human way. "It's not un-heroic to show fear," says Johnson. "Captain Phillips
tells the crew, 'Maintain your dignity', to show some grace under pressure and to be resourceful. To me, that's the source of their courage. My character feels a responsibility to the rest of the
crew, as they all did. He's not going to go down screaming and pleading. They all try to stay
focused, keep doing their jobs, and defuse the situation."
Once Phillips was taken captive on the lifeboat, the American government responded: the U.S.S.
Bainbridge, headed by Captain Frank Castellano, was dispatched in the Indian Ocean to track
the pirates and negotiate a swift and peaceful conclusion to the stand-off, or -- if that wasn't
possible -- to buy time until the Navy SEALs could arrive.
"Castellano was not a guy you heard a lot about in the news," says actor Yul Vazquez, who
portrays the Bainbridge captain. "The reporting focused mostly on Captain Phillips and the Navy
SEALs. But Castellano was an important part of the story. He was the first responder to the event
and he felt it was his responsibility to ensure a peaceful ending to the crisis." Castellano knew
that if he was to do anything to escalate the standoff, the pirates might panic and harm Captain
Phillips. At the same time, he was ordered to check the lifeboat's progress toward Somalia,
which he could only do by aggressively blocking the lifeboat with his massive warship. Forced
into a situation where he had to be adaptive and nimble, Castellano forged a rapport with the
pirates, feeding them, helping to anticipate their needs, and trying to keep them relaxed in order
to maintain control of the situation. Says Vazquez, "The most important thing to Paul was that
my character be seen as a man with a tremendous degree of pressure bearing down on him.
He's trying to do the right thing, and he did do the right thing, until the pirates gave him no
other options. Paul wanted to see that pressure on my face and in my eyes -- to see this guy
struggling his utmost to end this ordeal, but to end it well."
In the film, the majority of the men seen working alongside Castellano inside the Bainbridge CIC
(Combat Information Center) are real-life officers and sailors who were stationed aboard the
USS Truxtun, which stood in for the Bainbridge. The group also includes two sailors who served
aboard the Bainbridge during the real event in 2009.
The final piece of the casting puzzle involved the Navy SEALs -- the elite warriors renowned
for being a breed apart. Though the role of the SEAL commander, played by Max Martini, was
extensive and involved enough to require an actor, Greengrass wanted the SEALs under Martini's
command to be the real thing. "As I've said, we wanted to make this film as authentic as we
could in every way we could," says Greengrass. "I'm convinced that audiences know when they
are seeing something that doesn't quite measure up -- they may not know why something
seems inauthentic, but they know. Navy SEALs are one of those things -- like shooting on the
sea -- where there's no substitute for the real thing."
As a result, civilian SEAL adviser Eric Casey secured the services of ten former SEALs to take
the roles of the men who carried out the close-in sniper operation. "It's hard to replicate SEAL
mannerisms and skills without very extensive training," Casey explains. "They have a certain
persona and a very particular way of carrying themselves that's hard-won. It can't easily be taught."
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