By Mike Hixenbaugh
But when the ship’s executive officer learned that actors would be practicing dangerous stunts on the flight deck, he ordered Petty Officer 2nd Class Albert and the rest of the medical staff to come in on their days off – just in case.
The 24-year-old sailor and single mom didn’t know that she would spend that afternoon acting alongside Tom Hanks in what would become the emotional climax of one of the year’s biggest films.
Albert’s only previous stage experience came in fifth grade, when she played the caterpillar in Easton Elementary School’s rendition of “Alice in Wonderland” back home in Washington state. Her main job, she recalled, was to blow bubbles.
So when director Paul Greengrass walked into the ship’s sick bay and asked her to ad-lib a scene with a two-time Academy Award-winning actor, Albert grew light-headed.
“What do you mean?” she said, wishing she had bothered to do some reading on the film before reporting to work that day. She was totally unaware of the dramatic 2009 rescue of cargo ship captain Richard Phillips from Somali pirates that became the basis for the film.
Before Albert could fully grasp the director’s request, hair and makeup artists were tending to her appearance. The film crew set up cameras, lights and sound equipment in the tiny medical room. Then a familiar face appeared in the doorway.
“Oh, my God, it’s Tom Hanks!” Albert blurted out, then giggled.
Hanks laughed and shook her hand.
Greengrass had decided that morning to rework a key scene at the end of the film after a Navy commander told him it wasn’t realistic. The crew of the guided missile destroyer Bainbridge wouldn’t have taken the rescued Phillips to the captain’s stateroom to get cleaned up; they would have first taken him to the medical bay.
Albert was nervous as the film crew moved into position. “I could feel my face turning really red,” she said. “I was breaking out in hives and giggling uncontrollably.”
Greengrass explained the scene. The lights flicked on. Someone said, “Action.” And Albert froze.
She didn’t know what to do with her hands, wasn’t sure what to say.
“Hi, Captain Phillips,” she said awkwardly as Hanks hobbled into the room, then led him to sit on the operating table. Albert fidgeted with a bandage and started wrapping it around his hand; Hanks acted like a man in shock.
Albert also appeared to be in shock. She said nothing as Hanks tried to engage her and again wondered where to place her hands. As film rolled, seconds felt like hours. She started to tear up.
“I can’t do this, guys,” Albert said, looking to the director. “This isn’t working.”
She turned away and wiped her eyes.
“Hey, Doc,” Hanks said, breaking character to end the take. “Do you need medical attention? Do you need to sit down?”
Albert nodded and sat with the actor.
“Look, it’s OK,” she recalls Hanks saying. “We all go through moments like this at one time or another in our acting careers. You’re fine. I just want you to react to how I’m acting. You do this every day. Just react.”
Albert nodded, took a few moments to regroup, then asked to start over.
This time, when Hanks stepped into her sick bay, the hospital corpsman snapped into the role. Again Hanks quivered and repeated himself incoherently, delivering a performance that convinced Albert she was dealing with an actual trauma patient.
“I need you to breathe,” she said, repeating words she had said numerous times before as an emergency room worker. She placed her hand on his trembling face and looked into the actor’s eyes.
“It will be OK.”
Greengrass walked into the room at the end of the take with tears in his eyes. After two more takes, they were done with the scene, and the director walked away with an idea.
“I’ve just changed how we’re going to film this movie,” he told Cmdr. Andrew Biehn, then the Truxtun’s executive officer. “I want to integrate our actors into your crew and make it as realistic as possible.”
As a result, several Truxtun sailors wound up with speaking roles in the film, including Biehn, who felt at ease playing the Bainbridge’s executive officer.
“I couldn’t be more proud of my sailors,” said Biehn, now the ship’s commanding officer. “We ask our sailors every day to deal with the unpredictable. Being in a movie with Tom Hanks is pretty darn unpredictable.”
As “Captain Phillips” opens to a national audience today, critics are praising the film, highlighting the poignant scene in the medical bay and predicting that the performance will earn Hanks another Oscar nomination for best actor.
But when Sony executives called Greengrass after laying eyes on the raw footage from the scene, they weren’t asking about Hanks.
They wanted to know: “Who’s the girl?”