“Look at me. Look at me. I am the captain now.”
With that (incredibly, ad-libbed) line, Somali actor Barkhad Abdi, 28, launched his Captain Phillips character, the pirate Muse, into the pantheon of terrifyingly nuanced movie villains.
But more incredible than Abdi’s riveting performance (his first onscreen) is the actor’s story.
Abdi was born in Mogadishu, and was all of 6 years old when Somalia’s civil war broke out in 1991.
“I remember I had my uniform and everything, was like ‘Finally I get to start school tomorrow,'” he tells CBS News. “And that afternoon I started hearing gun shots. And I remember I wasn’t allowed to play outside anymore. And the next morning it was just war.”
Abdi’s family moved to Minneapolis when he was 14. (The city actually has the U.S.’s largest Somali-American community.) Casting director Francine Maisler put out an open casting call for Somali actors in the city, which drew over 1,000 candidates for the roles that eventually went to Abdi and three of his friends.
Before his audition, Abdi had been working as a limo driver in Minneapolis.
“For a young, first-time actor to inhabit such a complex role with such command was striking,” costar Tom Hanks said of Abdi, according to the film’s production notes. “He conveys an incredible range of emotion and nuance of expression – that’s not something that can be taught.”
“Honestly, I’m in a state of shock,” Abdi tells the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. “I’ve been blessed, it’s a really great feeling, but wow.”
Abdi tells the Voice of America that he initially received some criticism from within the Somali community for taking a role that could cast Somalis in a poor light, but says those feelings have largely fallen by the wayside.
“I received all kinds of messages on Facebook and Twitter, complimenting and telling me how proud they are of me.”
Oscar nominated Actor.
Barkhad Abdi (@RealBarkhad) January 16, 2014
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