It’s a moment rife with dread, surprise, panic, suspense. In “Captain Phillips,” Paul Greengrass’ white-knuckle re-enactment of the 2009 hijacking of a U.S.-flagged freighter in the Arabian Sea, four Somali pirates take the bridge of the Maersk Alabama.
It is the first time that Muse, the lean, stone-eyed leader of the marauders, and Richard Phillips, the mariner in charge of the giant container vessel, meet.
And for Greengrass, it was a doubly crucial moment. He had cast Barkhad Abdi, a Somali-American living in Minneapolis, a first-time actor, opposite one of the biggest movie stars in the world, Tom Hanks. And he had kept the two from meeting during the early days of production, even putting them up at separate hotels.
What if they came together, and it didn’t work?
“I deliberately kept them apart until they met in the story, which is when the Somalis storm the bridge,” says Greengrass, on the phone from a shutdown Washington on Thursday. “I think at first the young Somali actors were disappointed, because they wanted to meet the great Tom Hanks. But I wanted them to meet literally at the point of a gun.
“So, we rehearsed them separately for that scene, in separate parts of the ship, and then we shot it, and that is what you see. And I remember thinking, Well, this is the moment of truth. ... And I just remember them coming through that door, barreling through it with absolute ferocity, and then Barkhad comes in and he says, ‘Look at me! I’m the captain now!’ which wasn’t actually scripted. He just kind of found that moment, and it was electrifying. I could feel the hairs going up the back of my neck, and thinking this is going to work. It’s going to work.”