NPR Story
3:13 pm
Tue February 18, 2014

Barkhad Abdi's Journey From Somalia To Hollywood

Somali-born actor Barkhad Abdi has won critical acclaim as well as an Oscar nomination and a British Academy Film award for best supporting actor in “Captain Phillips.”

Abdi plays the leader of the Somaili pirates who capture Phillips’ cargo ship. It was Abdi’s first film role. He tells Here & Now’s Robin Young that he found the first day of filming “really nerve wracking,” but that director Paul Greengrass “believed in me before I believed in myself.”

Abdi was born in Somalia, though his family left when Abdi was seven and war broke out. They moved to Yemen and eventually to Minneapolis, where Abdi worked in a number of jobs before landing the “Captain Phillips” role.

Interview Highlights: Barkhad Abdi

On Tom Hanks and Paul Greengrass

“Tom Hanks is someone that I admire and someone that I love their work, so that gave me the push. And you know, Paul Greengrass believed in me before I believed in myself. Just calmed me down and just always find a new way to solve the obstacle that we have in that day… At the beginning of the movie, I was really nervous. I was like, ‘am I really going to do this big part?’ And you know he said, ‘just don’t think about it, you’re going to work at it on a daily basis, and each day you do the best at whatever you’re doing and don’t think about anything.’”

On his memories from Somalia

“I left there when I was 7 years old for the civil war to Yemen. My dad was a teacher in Yemen. And I lived in Yemen for another seven years then came to the States… I have good memories and bad memories of Somalia. You know, I remember the peaceful days, the beautiful Mogadishu. I remember when the war happened — overnight it just turned chaos. Dead people everywhere and gun shots don’t stop.”

On the impact on his character’s line ‘Maybe in in America’

“You know that line actually is a really powerful line. It’s saying what did I come from, I don’t want to go back to that empty room that I woke up at… there’s nothing there for him. There’s no schools, there’s no government, there’s no law. So it’s — whatever you’re saying, maybe in America where there is all that stuff.”

What he wants people to know about Somalis

“I want people to know that the Somali people are very hard working people and they adapt to whatever environment they’re in. We have a lot of success stories, the Somali community here in the U.S. and even back in Somalia there’s a lot of good people working hard. And there’s the bad ones that bring the bad name — pirates and Al-Shabaab and all that other stuff.”

[Youtube]

Guest

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Transcript

ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:

It's HERE AND NOW.

Everyone who's watched the Oscar-nominated film "Captain Phillips" remembers this scene. After a lengthy chase, Somali pirates, who've been pursuing the cargo ship Maersk Alabama, finally board the vessel, storm the engine room, and Tom Hanks' Captain Phillips comes face-to-face with Muse, the commander of the pirates played by Barkhad Abdi.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "CAPTAIN PHILLIPS")

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Unintelligible)

BARKHAD ABDI: (As Muse) Captain, relax. Nobody get hurt. No al-Qaida here. Just business. We want money. When we get paid, everything going to be OK.

YOUNG: And Tom Hanks later said this was not acting for him in the scene. It was the first time he'd met Abdi who scared him to death. That electrifying performance has brought Barkhad Abdi critical acclaim. Just this week, he won Britain's version of the Academy Award, and he's got an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor here as well. Heavy stuff for Barkhad Abdi who was working as a limo driver in Minneapolis when director Paul Greengrass picked him for this Hollywood debut.

And Barkhad Abdi joins us from the NPR Studios in Culver City. Welcome. And Congratulations.

ABDI: Oh, thank you so much. And thanks for having me.

YOUNG: Was that really the first time you met Tom Hanks?

ABDI: That was the first time I met Tom Hanks. And he was really nerve-racking.

YOUNG: Nerve-racking for you. But apparently, he says you scared him. What were you thinking in that scene?

ABDI: You know, I was thinking what the character was thinking, what this person got through to, you know, came to where he's at.

YOUNG: Let's hear a little more of that scene - Tom Hanks, Captain Phillips - you have broken into the engine room - he's trying to fool you by saying that the ship was broken down. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "CAPTAIN PHILLIPS")

TOM HANKS: (As Captain Phillips) We got a problem. We pushed the ship too hard. We're off the grid. That means the computer is now offline.

ABDI: (As Muse) Captain...

HANKS: (As Captain Phillips) The ship's broken.

ABDI: (As Muse) Captain, no one get hurt if you don't play no game.

HANKS: (As Captain Phillips) It's - the ship's broken. The - we had to go...

ABDI: (As Muse) Nobody gets hurt. Easy.

YOUNG: Just how did Tom Hanks and director Paul Greengrass help you become the Oscar-nominated actor that you are?

ABDI: You know, Tom Hanks is someone that I admire and someone that I love their work. So that gave me the push. And, you know, Paul Greengrass believed in me before I believed in myself - just calmed me down and just always find a new way to solve the obstacle that we have in that day.

YOUNG: Yeah. Like, calm you down, just because, what, you were scared or...

ABDI: Yeah. At the beginning of the movie, I was really nervous. And I was like, you know, am I really going to do this big part? And, you know, he said: You know, just don't think about it. You know, you're going to work at it as a daily basis. And, you know, each day, you do the best at whatever you're doing and don't think about anything.

YOUNG: Well, it's quite something. I mean, you are in almost 100 percent of the film. And let's remind people, the character that you are playing was an orphan from a village in Somali that was constantly being approached by pirates to do this terrible work, and he saw it as his what, his only way out?

ABDI: His - the only way out. And, you know, he's - he grew up in a war-torn country.

YOUNG: Well, so did you. So did you. Many people have heard your story. Born in Somalia and left when you were seven because of the civil war there?

ABDI: Yep. I left there when I was seven years old - for the civil war - to Yemen. My dad was a teacher in Yemen.

YOUNG: Yeah.

ABDI: And I lived in Yemen for another seven years, then came to the States.

YOUNG: So you weren't there for the recent history of the Somali pirates. What memories do you have of Somalia?

ABDI: You know, I have good memories and bad memories of Somalia. You know, I remember the peaceful days, the beautiful Mogadishu. I remember when the war happened. And just overnight, it just turned chaos, and dead people everywhere and gunshots don't stop. And you hear a woman getting raped. It's both sides.

YOUNG: Yeah. Did that memory fuel some your acting?

ABDI: You know, you can say that. You know, you can relate - you can visualize something that you see.

YOUNG: I'm thinking, too, that had your family not gotten out, there's a good chance you could have been that kid in an encampment, preyed upon by pirates.

ABDI: You just never know.

YOUNG: But instead, you move with your family to Minneapolis where there's a huge Somali population, become a driver, a limo driver, and hear about these auditions, you know? What prompted you to say, I'm going to go?

ABDI: I love directing. I was working on my own stuff for the last few years and...

YOUNG: You were doing some directing, some film directing?

ABDI: Yeah. Music videos, short films. And I see this opportunity. When they came to my neighborhood, I decided to go there and give it a shot.

YOUNG: Well, and it feels like it must have been really hard, not just the physicality of your confrontation with Tom Hanks, but then you and your crew, your - all your friends from Minneapolis also got parts. You take Tom Hanks, Captain Phillips, off the cargo ship onto this tiny suffocatingly small lifeboat that you're all crammed into. How tough was that?

ABDI: You know, it was really working on that lifeboat. You know, it's really small. And when it's in ocean, you know, it's not easy to do a scene. You know, we - luckily, we didn't shoot everything on the lifeboat on the ocean. Just a small partial of it on the ocean, and the rest on the studios. So that made it easier for us. But on the ocean, it was really hard.

YOUNG: Yeah.

ABDI: Mm-hmm.

YOUNG: You know, there's a scene towards the end of the film, you're all on the escape boat, the U.S. Navy has caught up with you. And earlier in the film, Captain Phillips had tried to give your character money, $30,000, but your character rejected that. You wanted more. And here's the conversation that ensued.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "CAPTAIN PHILLIPS")

ABDI: (As Abduwali Muse) I got bosses. They got rules.

HANKS: (As Captain Richard Phillips) We all got bosses. There's got to be something other than being a fisherman and kidnapping people.

ABDI: (As Abduwali Muse) Maybe in America, Irish. Maybe in America.

YOUNG: Maybe in America, Irish, which is what he called - Captain Phillips - maybe in America. Well, how did that line resonate with you?

ABDI: You know, that line actually is a really powerful line. And it's saying what did I come from, you know, I don't want to go back to that empty room that I woke up at.

YOUNG: The character doesn't want to go home to - yeah.

ABDI: Yeah. You know, just go back and, you know, there's nothing there for him. You know, there's no school, there's no government, there's no law, you know? So it's - you know, whatever you're saying, maybe in America where there is all that stuff.

YOUNG: It's funny, that's the part of your character that you are - you uniquely can understand because you're the epitome of it, how right now there's not much for people in Somalia, and yet in America, there can be unbelievable endings. Yours is one. I mean, you get to be in a major film.

ABDI: Oh, yeah. That's so true.

YOUNG: Yeah.

ABDI: This film, you know, truly changed my life for the better. And, you know, it's really grateful for everything that have been.

YOUNG: How has it changed? What's your life like now?

ABDI: Well, you know, it changed how people approach me and how people talk to me even.

YOUNG: Well, but what you want people to know about the Somalis who didn't get to star in a film and get nominated for an Oscar? What do you want people to know about the Somali communities here?

ABDI: I want people to know that the Somali people are, you know, very hardworking people and they adapt to whatever environment they're in. And we have a lot of success stories, the Somali community here in the U.S. And even back in Somalia, there's a lot of good people that's working hard. And there is the bad ones that bring the bad name, pirates and the al-Shabab and all that other stuff.

YOUNG: Yeah, al-Shabab. So what do you want to do now?

ABDI: You know, I love acting, so I want to keep at that, and, you know, I want to find other projects that I can do and good stories I can tell.

YOUNG: That's Barkhad Abdi, Oscar-nominated actor for his role as a Somali pirate in "Captain Phillips." Barkhad Abdi, best of luck to you in the awards.

ABDI: Thank you so much, Robin.

YOUNG: And if you want to hear our conversation with the real Captain Phillips, Richard Phillips from Vermont, go to hereandnow.org.

From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Robin Young.

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI, HOST:

I'm Meghna Chakrabarti. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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