COLCHESTER, Vt. — Merchant marine Captain Richard Phillips arrives for an interview fresh from a game of pick-up basketball and a trip to the town dump. At 58, stockily built with a salt-and-pepper goatee, he looks much the way he did four years ago, when his rescue from the hands of Somali pirates made international headlines — and turned Phillips into a folk hero, albeit a reluctant one.
Phillips has been back to sea half a dozen times since. The sea captain’s life is his “normal,” as he puts it, where he is most comfortable. Aboard ship, “I’m treated the same, which I like,” he says. “Back here at home, in my other life, probably not.”
In fact, little about the last few weeks has been normal for Phillips, the captain who let himself be taken hostage so his crew could remain safely aboard ship. He received a standing ovation when “Captain Phillips,” the Hollywood version of his capture and rescue, was screened at the New York Film Festival this month.
He’ll be on the “Today” show this week, among other high-profile appearances timed to the film’s official release Friday. Tom Hanks, who plays Phillips onscreen, and director Paul Greengrass are making the talk show rounds as well.
It’s no surprise, then, that the questions are coming at Phillips hard and fast as audiences get ready to experience his story in a visceral, up close and personal way.
How does it feel to see his ordeal — Phillips spent five days in a cramped lifeboat with heavily armed and often desperate pirates — given blockbuster movie treatment? How faithfully does the film portray what really happened? If Phillips doesn't consider his actions heroic, why not? Any lingering signs of post-traumatic stress disorder? What about lawsuits by former crew members alleging that Phillips knowingly put them in harm’s way?
In an interview at the offices of Vermont Public Radio, Phillips, who lives in nearby Underhill, takes each question head on, seemingly bemused by his own celebrity — Tom Hanks playing Rich Phillips? Really? — while recognizing the film is bound to unsettle, and provoke awe in, many who see it.
“I think the movie got the intenseness and stress of it pretty well,” says Phillips, whose 2010 book “A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea” became the blueprint for Billy Ray’s screenplay. Beyond that, “I was just doing what I thought I had to do to survive. I didn’t always see a good ending coming – I tended to think just the opposite – so in the end, it almost didn’t matter what they did to me.”
The pirates "were pissing me off, too, as much as I was pissing them off,” he adds, smiling at a question about being “Winchester strong,” a reference to his roots. “If you do that, I’m not going to help you. And no, I wasn’t going to go out quietly.”
Few who see the movie, which includes scenes of mock executions and brutal beatings, would believe anything less of Phillips. Yet watching the film, he says, has not been personally traumatic or caused him to relive the worst moments of his captivity.
“For me, it wasn’t that bad,” he says of the film. “The second time I watched it, I did see a little more detail. And it is intense. For Andrea —” Phillips’s wife, who works as an emergency room nurse — “she jumped twice and cried at the end. It was a little tougher for her than it was for me.”
One question he often fields, Phillips continues, is to what degree he came to empathize with his captors, whom the movie portrays in a somewhat sympathetic light.
“We did communicate, we talked back and forth,” says Phillips. “But it was always an adversarial relationship. They had no qualms about killing me.” They also blindfolded him, he says, so he could not move if they decided to shoot him; the shot never came. “But it was important to me that [if] that guy shot me, we’d be looking eye to eye.”
According to Phillips, the movie takes liberties with some events while inventing others, although not to an uncomfortable degree. In one scene, Phillips’s crew questions him about steering their ship farther offshore after an unsuccessful pirate attack. The onscreen Phillips demurs, suggesting he may have underestimated the threat of another assault.
The real Phillips says that scene never happened. Neither did one in which a pirate cuts his feet on broken glass. Then again, “It’s not a docudrama. Which I wouldn’t want to watch, either.”
With a book, “You have more control to write what actually happened,” he continues. “With the movie, you pretty much have no control. So I went to it with my eyes open, that its main purpose as a movie was to entertain.”
What he didn’t particularly like was seeing his name become the film’s title. “It takes away from the fact that it wasn’t just Captain Phillips on that ship, it was the crew, too. They were instrumental in [creating] a positive outcome for them and myself. And if it was a bad movie, I’d have my name on it.”
Nightmares? None, he says. Scars? A few on his wrist and arms from rope burns. Whatever post-traumatic stress disorder he suffered was short-lived, Phillips maintains, thanks to the advice of a Navy SEAL psychologist. He advised Phillips to “just let it flow” when he woke up in the morning crying uncontrollably. After one 40-minute weepfest, which Phillips made no effort to stop, he never cried again.
“Many people are worried about my mental health,” he says with a hearty laugh. “But as I’ve said many times, we’re stronger than we think we are.”
When he and Hanks first met, at Phillips’s house in 2010, the actor was more interested in the captain’s transition from life at sea to home again than in details of the 2009 incident.
“When I explained how we can be a little different out at sea than we are onshore,” recalls Phillips, “he said, ‘Yeah, in my gig — acting — I can disappear at any time. If it wasn’t for acting, I’d be the second-shift night manager at the A&P.’ ”
Within weeks of the hostage incident, in April 2009, crewmen from the Maersk Alabama, Phillips’s ship, filed suit against the ship’s owner and operator, alleging Phillips risked their lives by steering too close to the Somali coast, where pirates were known to be operating. Eleven of the ship’s crew of 19 initially sought $50 million in damages. Two have since settled. Maersk has called the charges “meritless.” A trial on the remaining suits has been set for December in Mobile, Ala.
According to Houston attorney Brian Beckcom, the plaintiffs’ lead lawyer, the suits boil down to two complaints against the ship’s owner and crewing company. One, that those in charge of plotting the Maersk Alabama’s route “were told not to go where they went, repeatedly — and Captain Phillips was making the decisions on behalf of the company,” says Beckcom. Phillips himself is not named as a defendant, he notes.
Secondly, says Beckcom, “If you do go there, you need to have adequate security to protect the crew, cargo, and ship. They did not.”
Phillips has already testified in depositions and will do so again, he believes. Quoting the title of the Dire Straits song “Money For Nothing,” he says the suits reflect “a litigious society” where anyone’s judgment can be second-guessed, his own included.
“People do that to me all the time,” he says. “If I worry about that, I’m not going to be able to do my job. I have no problem with what happened [at sea]. No one was injured. I look at it positively in that respect. Unfortunately, [some crew members] are out to get some money and will try to smear me, to second-guess me. That’s the way it works.”
Anyone who signs up for the merchant marines knows that piracy is a constant threat, he maintains earnestly, no matter where in the world these ships sail. Carrying armed security, which many cargo ships now do, has helped reduce the risk — but not eliminate it.
“If you go to sea,” says Phillips, who doesn’t plan to retire for at least two more years, “it’s a fact of life. We’re more prepared now, but the threat’s still there.”Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at email@example.com.