When Barkhad Abdi and three other amateur Somali actors from
Minnesota learned they had won major roles in a new Tom Hanks movie,
they tore off their clothes and jumped into the Pacific Ocean.
Friday, October 11, 2013
“It was exciting,” Abdi recalls of that day on the beach in Santa Monica, Calif. “We had to make sure that wasn’t a dream.”
Abdi and his fellow actors from Minneapolis are now living that dream
of red carpet premieres and Hollywood endings. The four portray Somali
pirates who hijacked an American cargo ship off the Horn of Africa in
2009 and took its captain, played by Hanks, hostage in “Captain
Phillips,” opening Friday. The ordeal ended when U.S. Navy sharpshooters
picked off three of the pirates holding Capt. Richard Phillips captive
in a lifeboat.
Abdi, 28, makes his acting debut in “Captain
Phillips” as Muse, the pirates’ skinny ringleader, and is generating
supporting actor Oscar buzz for his performance. Before that, he had
shot and edited videos but “nothing major,” he said. Now he wants to
make acting his career.
“It feels great, and a little bit scary,”
Abdi said of his new fame. “I was just kind of a private person (before
the movie). This took part of my life.”
Abdi and the other three
Somali actors — Faysal Ahmed (the “muscle” of the pirates), Barkhad
Abdirahman (the youngest pirate, nicknamed “Little B” by his castmates)
and Mahat M. Ali (the lifeboat’s navigator) — all answered an open
casting call at the Brian Coyle Community Center, a hub of Minneapolis’
large Somali population — in November 2011. Generic flyers sought actors
for what was described only as a new Tom Hanks movie. Over 700 aspiring
actors showed up, filling the center.
“There were so many people
I just had to put every single person on tape,” casting search director
Debbie DeLisi said. Afterward she went to a friend’s house where they
watched every clip and voted yes, no or maybe. The video also was
uploaded for the film’s main casting director in Los Angeles.
said she chose Minneapolis because the city has the largest population
of Somalis in the U.S. (The U.S. Census says roughly 25,000 Somalis live
in Minnesota, while local advocates peg the number as high as 100,000).
Another casting call was held in Columbus, Ohio, also home to a
growing Somali population, and submissions were accepted from England
In the end, the field was narrowed to the four Minneapolis actors, who all knew each other.
“I would say they were anointed,” DeLisi said. After they were cast,
DeLisi’s assistant took the actors shopping for swim trunks at the Mall
of America and made sure they had passports for Malta, where most of
“Captain Phillips” was shot.
DeLisi said she was looking for “heart and grit” in the actors playing the pirates.
“It’s not about jumping and being the bad guy,” she said.
capture the shock of the ragtag band of armed pirates storming the ship
Maersk Alabama, British director Paul Greengrass (”The Bourne
Ultimatum,” ‘’United 93”) kept the Somali actors apart from Hanks until
their first confrontation on the bridge.
“It’s never an easy
thing to scare someone you know and admire,” Abdi said of facing off
against Hanks. “For me, it was really a nerve-racking scene and I
understood the weight of it.”
Abdi and Ahmed recall Hanks as
humble and always joking, and say the two-time Academy Award winner, for
“Philadelphia” and “Forrest Gump,” was their mentor.
first fight scene aboard the narrow lifeboat, the 6-foot-3 Ahmed says he
accidentally grazed Hanks with his fist. Hanks shrugged it off, the two
talked and a second fight scene filmed a couple days later went
perfectly, Ahmed said.
“He was a really tough guy,” Ahmed said.
29, was born and raised in Yemen and came to the U.S. in 1999 at 14. He
said the main motive for the pirates from war-torn Somalia was to get
money. He tried to imagine himself that desperate.
“If you were
put into that situation and only wanted to change your life, what would
you do? For me, that’s something I constantly thought about,” Ahmed
Abdi was born in Mogadishu, Somalia, and raised in Yemen. He
came to the U.S. in 1999 when he was 14 with his parents and siblings,
and said he also understands the pirates’ motivations.
they’re doing is bad. I totally agree with that,” Abdi said. “I was
fortunate to have parents who got me out. ... So they were stuck in this
situation. And I feel compassion.”