Thirteen years ago, Tom Hanks nearly won what would have been his third Best Actor Oscar by playing a man alone against nature in Cast Away. This weekend, he may just pull it off by playing a man alone against Somali pirates in Captain Phillips, which is based on the 2009 hijacking of the Maersk Alabama and has already received a boatload of positive press. We caught up with the living legend to ask about the modern man, the high seas and… facial hair.

The reality is that not everybody has what it takes to be a ship captain—and not everyone could have withstood being taken hostage.

What can Captain Phillips teach us about being a man in 2013?
A hero is almost like a branded term now. It’s bandied about all the time and people get labeled it left and right but at the end of the day, I think heroes are the people that voluntarily walk into the unknown and try to do the right thing. It’s all relative. Everybody has variations of it, sometimes its death defying and sometimes it’s just living up to one’s responsibilities. Richard Phillips doesn’t view himself as a hero, he was a guy who sat there and waited for the heroes to show up, which is different. We all have times in our lives where we can either be a hero or a villain or a coward. I found that he is absolutely a very pleasant guy, very happy-go-lucky, he’s funny. When he’s not at work I don’t think you could ask for a better guy to hang out with because he’s just a dude but when he’s at work he is truly no-nonsense, because it’s a very serious, unglamorous business.

And he actually returned to his work not long after his near fatal ordeal with the Somali pirates…
That in particular I found amazing. That a man who suffered such a wrenching, terrifying ordeal could bring himself to go right back to sea. I knew that 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.

How has the definition of manhood changed since you were beginning your career?
You mean faking being heroes?! Look, I don’t know. I’m just a guy who has a pretty good gig pretending to be other people. The work that I have done has not been more impactful in my concept of trying to do the right thing than the examples that are evident every day throughout the news and the common things that people do that I end up admiring. I always hope that I’m a coward as little as possible, and I’m hopefully never a villain and on the occasions where I have to be, I would hope to be able to do the heroic thing. But I’ve never been tested in any way, shape or form—other than facing down members of the Fourth Estate!


Bringing new meaning to the phrase “a tough day at the office.”

What did you walk away thinking about the military?
I was dazzled by their professionalism and their expertise and training. A ship like that is loaded with people who are experts at what they do, and what they do is hard. I mean even right down to the cooks, who have to have four meals a day, they cook all day and it’s astounding, the precision that it all operates at. There was a sense of the Navy as being this kind of like cruise ship mentality, you sail around, every now and again you’ve got to swab the deck but no, this is a very impressive group of young people that live at sea in this place. It is an incredibly uncomfortable way to live. They exude a pride that is well deserved.

Did you get knocked around in that little boat?
Oh good Lord, yeah. A lot of places to bump your head—we all had something that came along. At one point they built rubber seats for some of the fight scenes that literally flap around. So I said ‘Guys I don’t think the rubber seats are going to work.’ So they took those out and then we had a little bit of matting on the steel deck of the floor. It’s a tiny space and it got pretty physical in there sometimes so we all got little nicks and bruises. It stank horribly. It was stuffy and small, but the actual lifeboat smells even worse because it reeks of diesel fumes and we had some vomit in there at some point. You know, that’s always fun.

You’re clean shaven now, but you’ve had everything from a mustache to a beard for roles. You miss the facial hair?
Not at all. I like a nice clean-shaven face. Although you do get up and out to work a lot faster!

Editor’s note: As scary as Capt. Phillips’ ordeal was, Hanks just had his own scary moment—he announced on Letterman last night that he has type 2 diabetes. As always, we wish him well.