By Sue Botos
When Rocky River native Michael Chernus had a brief encounter, as a teenager, with Tom Hanks, he probably never dreamed that one day he would share the silver screen with one of his idols.
In 1993, Hanks did a one-man show as a benefit for the Great Lakes Theater Festival, and Chernus had been hired to perform random jobs. “I have a very clear memory of my best friend Colin and I. … one of our duties was to stand in the parking space in front of the restaurant where the post-performance reception was, waiting for Tom Hank’s car to arrive,” he recalled.
When the actor’s car pulled into the spot, and Hanks jumped out, he didn’t ignore the two boys. “He said, ‘Hey! What’s up, cats?’” Chernus recalled, adding that although they only spoke for about 30 seconds, the encounter “seared itself on my brain.”
Years later, Chernus’ story got a laugh from Hanks during a break on the set of “Captain Phillips,” the true story of a 2009 attack on the container ship Maersk Alabama by Somali pirates, and the kidnapping of Capt. Richard Phillips, played by Hanks. Chernus, a 1995 graduate of Rocky River High School, portrays the ship’s second in command, Shane Murphy.
Starting with his debut as Gandalf in a Rocky River Middle School production of “The Hobbit,” Chernus became hooked on acting. “I just remember loving the experience of being on stage,” Chernus said during a recent phone interview from his New York City home. He soon enrolled in drama classes at Lakewood’s Beck Center, where he had the title role in “The Night Thoreau Went to Jail,” and played John Proctor in “The Crucible.” “(That) is a role no 15-year-old should probably attempt to play,” he said of the intense part.
Chernus credits his instructors during his early career with paving the way to his current success. He noted former Rocky River High drama teacher Gabriel Santo as a “great teacher and great influence of mine.” He added that Beck Center instructor Lynette Guttman was “a real mentor and major influence. I owe a lot of my success to the teachers at Rocky River High and the Beck Center.”
Aside from “Captain Phillips,” Chernus has appeared in several films, including “Men in Black 3” and “The Bourne Legacy.” He has also worked on the small screen, with a recurring role on the short-lived hospital drama “Mercy,” and currently is Cal on the Netflix series “Orange Is the New Black.” But his first love is the theater.
“The theater has always been a part of me,” Chernus said. “It’s in my bones. I feel like it’s in my DNA. I’d almost be remiss to say I’ve loved anything more.”
While good acting is the common thread, Chernus explained the differences between dramatic forms. “In film, you focus on one moment over and over during the course of a day, and then you never touch it again. A play is like a marathon. It’s ‘How do I tell a story eight times a week and still keep it new?’ It’s a very different muscle you are exercising.”
Although he has enjoyed working with a number of well-known actors, such as Will Smith and Edward Norton, Chernus called his seven-month shoot with Hanks “a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
“Working with Tom was incredible. He’s obviously such a gifted actor, but he’s one of the nicest men I’ve met. He’s so interested in other people,” Chernus said, recalling that during breaks on the set, the Maersk Alabama’s sister ship Alexander, Hanks did not retreat to his private cabin, but talked with cast members. The actor was especially impressed with Chernus’ Juilliard School degree, as only 25 of about 2,000 applicants are accepted to the prestigious drama program annually.
“He said, ‘Man, you really beat the odds!’ and I said, ‘I beat the odds? Tom, you won two Oscars!’” Chernus recalled.
Chernus said “intense” is the best word to describe his “Captain Phillips” experience. “Director Paul Greengrass is a genius. He asks you to bring a lot to the table and asks you to do your homework.” Part of this homework, according to Chernus, was researching the duties of a merchant marine chief mate. “I not only had to learn what Shane did during the attack, but I had to learn what a chief would be doing day to day. You have to feel comfortable and know your way around.”
Chernus feels that family fishing trips on Lake Erie helped him win his role. “I have my sea legs, and that was a big plus when Paul interviewed me to play the part of Shane Murphy. One of the questions he asked was, ‘Do you get seasick?’” he recalled.
Despite the hard work and years spent in “off-off-Broadway” productions, Chernus would not have it any other way. When speaking to aspiring young actors, he first asks them if they could do anything else. “I ask, could you be happy doing anything else, or would it always haunt you that you weren’t an actor? I couldn’t do anything else. I wouldn’t feel OK on this planet if I weren’t an actor.”