While Tom Hanks is generally regarded as one of the nicest, hardest working guys in the game, relatively little is known about his Captain Phillips co-star Barkhad Abdi. Born in war-torn Somalia, Abdi grew up amongst the violence and conflict that has come to characterize the city of Mogadishu. When conditions grew to be too much, his parents, with the aid of a family friend, escaped to Yemen by way of Ethiopia. Seven years later, Abdi and his family won a lottery that allowed them to come to the United States, settling down in Minnesota along with a sizable population of other Somali refugees. Now 28 years old, Abdi is starring in Captain Phillips as Muse, the Somali pirate captain who takes the titular captain hostage.
Offering up a nuanced, deeply affecting portrayal of a man driven to piracy by overwhelming circumstance and forced to play to the end of a zero-sum game, Abdi is an electrifying presence on the silver screen. From the chaos and violence of Mogadishu to an open casting call in snowy Minnesota to being the toast of Tinseltown, Abdi’s voyage has been anything but typical. At a recent press day in Los Angeles, I sat down with the insightful, relaxed young actor to talk to him about Captain Phillips, making his acting debut, and why this was an important story to tell.
NERDIST: How’s your day gone so far, man?
BARKHAD ABDI: I’m doing great.
N: Getting tired of answering the same questions all day?
BA: It’s all right. You get used to it.
N: I’ve got to say — I was blown away by your performance. You were so good.
BA: Thank you.
N: I was shocked to learn that this was your first movie. That’s really impressive — going toe to toe with someone like Tom Hanks.
N: Tell me a little bit about your background. Tell me how you got involved with this project, and what it was like making your acting debut on such a grand scale.
BA: You know, it was just something that happened. It was another day, hanging out at my friend’s house, and just watching — I don’t usually watch TV — and it came on TV. Tom Hanks — local Somali casting. So, I was like, I like Tom Hanks — let’s check it out. I went there and it was a whole crowd of people — more than 700 people there.
N: 700? Wow!
BA: The first day, they asked me, “What’s your name? Where were you born? How old are you?” I gave them three answers, and I come out of the room, and they gave me a paper and said, “That’s movie lines. Go and study that and come back tomorrow. Just memorize those lines. Come back tomorrow because you have to do it.” I go, “OK.” I go, and I look at it. It was not hard, it’s just the same scene on the bridge. So it’s just some questions. I tried to put some accent into it.
I go, and the next time I come back, less people. But this time, you have to be in groups. To audition, you have to be in groups of four people. You can look around and see the rest, the other people, and make your own group. But luckily, there standing with me were those friends of mine who each had different characters, so we made our own group. We were called group number one. And we auditioned — we acted it out. It wasn’t that good the first day. But we went home, and we practiced the part. We came back the next day, and it was better. We had mistakes, but we hadn’t noticed all the mistakes, but we worked on the ones that we could feel were mistakes. We turned to each other, and we go back and we practice again, until we were like, “We got it!”
We had silence for two weeks. No one telling us nothing. So I know I’m not going to get it. It was like, “Tsk. I’m not going to get this thing anyway, so who cares?” I’ll just go live my life. [laughter]
N: So that must have been a good phone call to get a couple of weeks later!
BA: A couple of weeks later, I get a phone call from [casting director] Francine [Maisler]. She’s, like, “Hey, the director wants to meet you guys.” And I was like, “Really? OK.” We flew out to L.A., and he told us—he took us to this restaurant, that’s where we meet Paul Greengrass. I was a big fan of his work. I love the Bournes and United 93, it’s just one of my top movies, you know? I loved them. So I knew him, I knew his profile, so he took us, and he told us that we had the part. I was so excited, man! We jumped right in the ocean!
N: That’s awesome!
BA: Even though we didn’t know how to swim, we just got ourselves wet.
N: That was something else that I couldn’t believe when I was reading the notes, was that you guys had to learn how to swim, and then learn how to pilot these boats like you had been doing it your whole life. Tell me a little bit about that, man! That would terrify me — you have to pull right up next to the giant commercial liner when all of the water is pouring down the ladder.
BA: Yeah. But you know, we went through a lot of training. We had training for about a month and a half. So we had a lot of training. We went through swimming training — we’d wake up in the morning and go to swimming training, come out and do what is called fighting, and climbing, and weapon training. And then after that we would go and do skips — I had to learn how to stay still. The good thing about it is, I was excited about it.
N: That is good.
BA: I wanted it, and these were my friends. There were some other guys, the other ship would be with us, from UK — also Somalians that lived in London, some in Manchester, and we became friends automatically. So it was all fun, and we would have laughs, and we all wanted to do it, and it was fun. It was like, “Oh, yeah, yeah!” And we would just all day laugh and enjoy ourselves. It was really good, because I got comfortable. It got comfortable to the point that I just had to play the character. I didn’t have to worry or be scared the way I was the first few days.
N: Yeah, I can imagine it being a little more daunting if you immediately just have to stand up and give your lines right off the bat.
BA: That would have been hard.
N: So it’s interesting that you mention that the guys in the other boat were guys from the UK. I knew that there is a pretty sizable Somali-American population in Minnesota. Somali piracy is definitely a hot button issue today. Coming from a Somalian background, why do you feel this is an important story to tell, and how do you want to approach that?
BA: You know, I think this is a true story, a really good story, because Somalia in the media has been a problem, and sad story after sad story after another one. I grew up watching these sad stories. I was at the war. It went from a peaceful place to a disaster, and it still is a disaster. But at the same time, it gives a different look at the Somali people. They all are not criminals. There’s a lot of good stories. Somali people are survivors! They go through a lot just to get out, but they all don’t. Even the ones that are outside, they help the ones that are in the country. They send money, and they start business in Somalia, and they do all this sort of stuff to get opportunities for the others, relatives or friends or family.
I think that’s really great, but the media never shows that side. The media always focuses on the bad side. When you do that to people, I think you destroy them from the inside. They get to the point where they hate themselves. I’m really proud of my people, because with all that, they still love each other, and they still, wherever they are, they help each other, and they want to become better people, and they never give up on their country.
So I truly respect them, because we have bad people. There are sad stories that come back to back, this Al-Shabaab and this bullshit going on, it’s really a disaster. They need to be eliminated, because these people that you see, teenagers that grow up around my age, they had no opportunity. We know why, which is really important. There are gangsters all over the world.
BA: Someday — you know why they’re gangsters, and someday, you don’t know why. They could have had other options. So that’s why this film at least tells you why.
N: I think you had a really good point about when you keep seeing negative portrayals of someone from your background — whatever your background is, if you see a negative portrayal of that time and time again in the media, it just wears you down. One of the things I really enjoyed about your performance, in particular, is that you really brought some nuance to the character, so you realize — it could have so easily been that you guys were the villains, but no — you guys were people, fully three dimensional people, who had motivations for doing what they did.
N: Maybe not the best course of action.
BA: Not the best course, no.
N: Well, on a lighter note, going back to training, and being that this is your first movie production, what was your favorite on-set, your favorite “Holy shit, I can’t believe this is happening!” kind of moment? Like, “This is so cool!”
BA: Oh… you know, right after I met Tom, I remember telling him, “I can’t believe I’m doing a scene with the Forrest Gump guy!”
BA: It was — the whole experience, you know, just looking at the Navy ships — it was amazing! And meeting the Navy, and people around my age that are working there, just good people. They welcomed us there, and come and talk to me. They wouldn’t treat me like an outsider — just a pirate. They would come to me, they would talk to me, and ask me if I need anything. So it was just a whole, great experience.
BA: Yeah, it was awesome.
N: I’m not sure if you guys have had any advance screenings or anything like that — I know the film is not technically coming out until next week [at the time of this interview], but has there been any response so far from the Somali or the Somali-American community?
BA: There’s always — you know, the negative response is always there. Haters will always be haters. But you know there’s people all over the world, from Seattle, from Ohio, London, Sweden, on my Facebook, complimenting me, saying “We’re proud of you. You’re great. Keep doing it. You’ve put our people on the map.” All these good things, you know. I’m glad. I’m glad. And just like you said, it could have been the other way, but it was all good people that came together and managed to show the reality of the situation.
N: Yeah, I think you guys really knocked it out of the park. I also read that you were currently directing a film of your own. What can you tell me about that?
BA: Yeah, I left it alone now.
N: Are you going to go back to it?
BA: No, it’s just one of those things that I want to put on the side, because it was just something that wouldn’t work. It was like, every time I crossed one bridge, another would come.
N: I know the feeling. Sometimes projects happen that way — stuff comes up.
BA: Yeah, and it took a lot of my time, and I just want to put it on the side now. I just want to focus on acting for now and see how good it goes, and maybe later I’ll start directing.
N: Cool! Thanks a lot man, I really appreciate it! It was a pleasure talking to you and you did a fantastic job.
BA: Thank you.
Captain Phillips is in theaters now. You can keep up with Barkhad on Twitter. Let us know what you thought of him in the film in the comments below!