Barkhad Abdi: A Pirate's Life

Captain Phillips' Barkhad Abdi
Photo by SPE, Inc./Eric Charbonneau

When Barkhad Abdi walks the red carpet at the Academy Awards this month, it will be the culmination of a tale that seems far-fetched even for, yep, Hollywood. Here, the 28-year-old actor talks about growing up in Minneapolis, auditioning for his role in Captain Phillips, and how he went from driving a limo to stealing scenes from Tom Hanks.

0314-pirateslief_s01.jpgAbdi with co-stars Mahat M. Ali, Tom Hanks, and Faysal Ahmed.
Photo by SPE, Inc./Dave Allocca

In the fall of 2011, Barkhad Abdi, along with his three friends, Faysal Ahmed, Barkhad Abdirahman, and Mahat M. Ali, answered an open casting call at the Brian Coyle Community Center on the West Bank. The production, a big Hollywood movie, was looking for Somali American actors. “We didn’t come there thinking we gonna win,” the 28-year-old actor remembers. “We came there thinking we gonna fight.” As we know now, the four buddies ended up winning their fight. They were cast as the Somali pirates in the Oscar-nominated Captain Phillips. Directed by Paul Greengrass, the film features Abdi in the role of lead pirate Abduwali Muse, the antagonist to Tom Hanks’s titular Captain Phillips.

From the beginning, Abdi demonstrated a natural gift for the pull quote: During his first day of filming with Hanks, he ad-libbed, “I’m the captain now,” a line delivered in a thick Somali accent, in a much more menacing tone than the genial former limo driver has ever been known for. The line didn’t just make the cut; it made it into all the trailers.

From there, Abdi surfed the crazy momentum kicked off by his performance: He was nominated for a Golden Globe, and at the ceremony he was teased as ruthlessly as George Clooney was by hosts Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. Then, in January, he became the first Minnesotan to be nominated for an Academy Award in a major category since Diablo Cody.

Dude really is the captain now.

Did you study acting at Moorhead State? No, just my generals there. I did a video production class at Roosevelt High School.

Were you always interested in the arts? The video production class that I took at Roosevelt started my career. That class. I even remember the name of the teacher: Miss Howard. That was her name.

There’s a performance instinct that you have. Were you outgoing in high school? Yeah. I had friends, always joking around, always running around. I shot some music videos. I did some editing. I helped people who were trying to do their film. I tried to do my own film. I did a lot of video production stuff.

What kind of music? Somali music and hip-hop as well.

Which Somali musicians? Somebody that I was working with was Yung Yubi. He’s a rapper. He’s a friend of mine. I was working with him when I got cast. It was his mixtape that we just released recently. He opened for French Montana at Karma or somewhere like that.

0314-PiratesLife_S02.jpg 0314-PiratesLife_S03.jpg 0314-PiratesLife_S04.jpg Clockwise from top: Abdi plays Somali pirate Abduwali Muse in Captain Phillips; Abdi making the rounds of press appearances; filming the lifeboat scenes for the movie.
Clockwise from top: Photos by Hopper Stone; SMPSP; SPE, Inc./Kris Connor; Jasin Boland

So you heard about the movie through your connections? No, it was on TV. I was working on my own film, and I quit and I said, ‘I’m not going to do it no more.’ You know, because of a car accident that I had. I busted my head and I broke my camera and stuff. So I left that alone and I became a limo driver.

Is that the bump on your forehead? Yeah.

So you thought you needed to make a change? Yeah, the accident—and I broke my camera. That was the sign: This is not for you. I left it alone. My brother had a limo company at the time; he had a few cars and he trained me. So I started working there. I had my own car. And that’s when I got the casting call.

How many siblings do you have? It’s a small family: two brothers and a sister.

Youngest, oldest? I’m the second oldest.

So you went to the community center for the auditions? Yeah, it’s right on 6th Street by Washington. It’s right across the street from Mixed Blood [Theatre].

You’d hung out there before? Oh yeah. I lived in those buildings. We all did. Like me and the other three pirates in the film. We all lived in those buildings.

What was the scene like in those buildings? It’s a community. There’s a lot of old people. There is a lot of violence going around. We were all living there, so we knew what was going on. But we wouldn’t party there. We would go to other places.

How old were you when you lived there? I lived there from high school until I turned 20.

When you did the audition, what did you do to stand out? Honestly, I have no idea. You know, we formed our own group. And after we formed our own group, all four of us, we would go home and practice the same scene that we were auditioning. We would go to someone’s house and practice. And we would come back and if there was a mistake, somebody would tell me or I would tell him.

The four of you must have looked like a team. And a lot of people say I look like the guy, the real guy. I guess I kinda do.

The real guy, Abduwali Muse, is really short. He is short, yeah.

Did you ever get to meet him? He’s incarcerated in federal prison at Terre Haute, Indiana. No, I never talked to him. My director [Paul Greengrass] tried to have me talk to him before we started shooting the film, but they didn’t let him because of some legal issues.

0314-PiratesLife_S06.jpg 0314-PiratesLife_S05.jpg 0314-PiratesLife_S07.jpgClockwise from top: Filming on the high seas; taking notes from director Paul Greengrass.
Clockwise from top: Photos by Courtesy of Columbia Pictures; Jasin Boland; Jasin Boland

So how long between auditioning and finding out you got the part? About a month. But it was like three weeks of auditioning and then after that we had to train for like weeks.

So did you have a chance to celebrate with your family and friends? It was exciting, but you know a lot of people didn’t understand exactly what my part was. And I didn’t brag about it, honestly, because I was scared. I wasn’t sure if I could do it. I just started training myself and practicing and watching movies and pirate videos.

What were some of the movies that you watched to prepare? There’s no single movie that I can tell you. But I watched a lot of movies. I’m a movie person. (Laughs.) At the time, I watched Pirates of the Caribbean. Because that’s the only movie that I had that could help me.

Pirates have always been scary, as far back as Captain Hook and Blackbeard. Your character was rare in that we have empathy for you as a pirate. The character that you played seemed desperate, and the audience feels that and even worries about you. What did you learn through this role about being a pirate in Somalia? I would put myself in their shoes. I was born in Somalia myself. You know, trying to be in that situation, and be in his shoes, and seeing what I would have done and how would I get this across. And obviously, I didn’t want to hurt him, I just wanted to get that money. So it’s like, how can I show that? And it was just believing in that, believing that I was the character. And if you understand somebody’s motivation and what moves him, then it’s easier to tell the story.

This particular brand of East African desperation seems very anxious. They seem nervous. They are!

So how would you get amped before your performance? I would always have tea, a lot of sugar. Red Bull and energy drinks. And I would have that on me when I was doing the scene to keep my energy up.

A lot of people in America, even here in Minneapolis, have stereotypical images of Somalia and Somalis. Even though I only live a mile from the West Bank, there’s not a lot of interaction between the communities here. But the city just elected Abdi Warsame to city council. Did you know Abdi? Oh yeah. I know Abdi. He’s a good friend of mine.

Did you get a chance to vote for him? I wasn’t here at the time, but I called him to congratulate him. We lived right next to each other for a long time. And we worked together. But here’s the thing about the Somalia community: It’s not fully settled yet. The old ones want to go to other states and the new ones come and they don’t know nothing. But I think this is going to help the communities understand each other better.

0314-PiratesLife_S08.jpgAbdi rubbing elbows with co-star Tom Hanks on the press circuit.
Photo by Eric Charbonneau

When you decided to take the part, did you ever think about the potential for this movie to perpetuate stereotypes or damage the way Somalis are perceived in Minneapolis? It was a risk shooting this film. But as a Somali person, we’ve already been through everything. We’ve been called names and we’ve been through everything. And it’s true that there are pirates that do this stuff and it happens a lot, and it’s still going on. It may be less, but it’s still happening. And it was something that I was shocked by. So like me doing this film, what bad can it represent? The true story already happened not very long ago. That’s how we see it, me and my friends, and we decided we like this.

Even though your character was making obviously poor moral choices, he also provokes a lot of thought among the audience. That was how we tried to present it. And that was the hardest part for me, the end of the movie, except for the first scene where I meet Tom. But the end was really hard for me. And that’s me and [director] Paul [Greengrass], he was there and he did not give up and he kept pushing me until I got it out.

The next part of your adventure is moving to Los Angeles. Oh yeah.

Would you play a pirate again? Not anytime soon.

So what kinds of parts are out there for you? I have no idea. I think of myself as an actor and I like to challenge myself. And that’s not the only part out there for me, I try to believe. I want to see what other parts I can do. The stories are what matter more.

Are you reading scripts or are you too busy with awards season? There are some scripts but nothing that I’m reading right now.

Do you have a personal story that you want to tell as a film? In the future. I’ve already started writing this.