Barkhad Abdi could easily have been a statistic. He might not have made it out of a harrowing childhood alive. He was born in Somalia and lived in the chaos of Mogadishu where he was surrounded by murder, rape, robbery and a lack of structure and government. He was lucky enough to have parents who got him out of there, to Yemen for Middle School and, eventually, a lottery to the United States.
He moved to Minneapolis, but he hated the snow. Every year he would ask himself, ‘Why am I here?’ He drove a limousine. He was just a mild-mannered immigrant living his life when he was at a friend’s house one day and a commercial flashed on the screen: “Casting call. Tom Hanks. Local Somali actors.” Well, why not, Abdi figured.
“I went there and there were 700 people or more auditioning,” Abdi recalls. “The first day, with a little camera, they say, ‘What’s your name? Where are you from? How old are you?’ Then they gave me a little piece of paper saying to study the part of Muse and come back.”
The roles the production of “Captain Phillips” was looking for were four Somali pirates in the real-life account of an American commercial tanker ship captain taken hostage in 2009. Abdi showed up with three friends, making the experience a bit easier. The first day, they were all called on to split up into groups of four and act through the scenes. But initially, Abdi recalls, he and his friends didn’t quite have it.
“We didn’t do so good,” Abdi says. “So we went home and we practiced and came back to perform. And then we had two weeks of silence. But I put it out of my head; I was just living my life at the same time, working my job.”
A week later, he got into a car accident. Was it some weird harbinger telling him that his life was about to drastically change direction? Perhaps. Because a few days later he and his friends were called to come out to Los Angeles and meet director Paul Greengrass.
Abdi remembers the story of Richard Phillips and his Somali captors. He paid attention to it as it unfolded. But these were criminals. He wasn’t sure if he would be able to connect and really find the proper empathy to play this role, but eventually, he got there, recalling how his parents got him out of a terrible situation and how many aren’t so fortunate.
“What if I didn’t have such parents,” Abdi asks. “What if I was just another guy? I would be just like the pirates. The situation would give me no other choice. I’m at the stage in my life where I want to be somebody now, be married, but what if I was just stuck there? There’s no government for years, no jobs, no hope. So I think with people like that who were there and they grew up seeing all of this, it’s just normal to them. This is the way of life and you will only get out of it if you make money — enough money, not any money. Enough money to be somebody.”
Some are fortunate enough to have family who live elsewhere and send money, but what of those without relatives? Who is there for them? Piracy is a big deal to a lot of Somalis, Abdi says. It’s an internationally organized crime that represents an opportunity for many to break free of their situation. “For them, it’s just a way out,” Abdi says. “And I’m sure it takes them a long time to get a chance to be pirates.”
That was key for the film, for Billy Ray’s screenplay and for Greengrass’ depiction of these events. “Captain Phillips” isn’t interested in judgment of villainy, or of labeling villainy, even. It’s empathetic to its antagonists’ plight. And on set, Greengrass equated that experience for Abdi.
“I would get stuck in some scenes,” Abdi recalls. “Like in the lifeboat, I would get stuck, and he would take me aside and say, ‘You know the similarities between you and the real Muse?’ And I was shocked, thinking, ‘That guy’s a criminal.’ And he said, ‘That guy took a big risk on this piracy thing and he failed. And now you are taking a big risk in this big industry, and if you don’t do it right, you’ll fail.’ That motivated me.”
What also motivated Abdi was observing his co-star Tom Hanks on set. He wasn’t intimidated by this big movie star standing opposite him. He studied the man, driven by the choices Hanks was making.
“Tom would laugh with us and we’d joke around, and the second it’s, ‘action,’ he is the character,” Abdi says. “He doesn’t have to try. I would be thinking hard, trying to be the character, trying to get in my zone, but he doesn’t have to do that. Just, instantly, he’s the character. So when I see that, that would motivate me and just give me a reason to become the character even more.”
Abdi never saw himself as an actor. He probably never would have expected he’d get away from the chaos of Mogadishu or that he’d see that commercial on a television. He wouldn’t have imagined he’d be auditioning for a part in a Tom Hanks film, let alone landing it and learning from the legend on set. Yet here he is, an unlikely player in an Oscar race, an unlikely star in a Hollywood movie.
“I want to give it a chance,” Abdi says of this new bend in his life’s road. “People seem to love it, so I don’t see a reason to stop. I’m going to give it a chance.”
“Captain Phillips” arrives in theaters on Oct. 11.