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Barkhad Abdi: from Somali refugee to Oscar nominee

Saturday March 26, 2016
By: Linda Barnard

Eye in the Sky star hopes the dramatic thriller sheds light on the innocent victims of drone strikes.
Actor Barkhad Abdi as Jama Farah in Eye in the Sky.
Actor Barkhad Abdi as Jama Farah in Eye in the Sky.

Oscar-nominated Somali-American actor Barkhad Abdi has first-hand knowledge of life in a war zone.

And he hopes his new film, Eye in the Sky, “sheds light on all the innocent people caught in the fire” of drone warfare.

Abdi, known for his icy portrayal of a Somali pirate in Captain Phillips, plays CIA counterterrorism agent Jama Farah in director Gavin Hood’s drone thriller, alongside Helen Mirren, Alan Rickman and Aaron Paul. It opens March 25.

In the drama, Farah risks his life in a crowded Nairobi market to provide surveillance for Mirren’s Col. Catherine Powell in London, via a remote-controlled camera cleverly embedded into a robotic winged beetle. He must evade detection while protecting kids unwittingly drawn into the mission.

Abdi, 30, came to America as a teenager in 1999. Two years ago, he moved from Minneapolis — where he was working as a limo driver — to Los Angeles to concentrate on his film career.

Among his upcoming movies is Bryan Buckley’s Where the White Man Runs Away, based on Toronto journalist Jay Bahadur’s bestseller The Pirates of Somalia.

Abdi spoke to the Star in September during TIFF, where Eye in the Sky had its world premiere.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

What did Captain Phillips mean to you?

“That was a very special movie and it was my breakthrough. It opened a lot of doors for me. That’s the beginning of my road and I wish to do better. I like the character that I was playing (in Eye in the Sky). It was very different than what I played in Captain Phillips, so I liked that a lot. I didn’t want to be labelled as a one-sided actor, so it was very good that this script came along.”

You got into acting by accident with a casting call for Captain Phillips?

“You are absolutely right. It wasn’t a choice, being an actor to me, but filmmaking was my passion. It was something that I really enjoyed doing and it was something I put all my money in, all my efforts, as a director and cameraman. So it’s good to see the work that you put in pay off in other ways.”

What next?

Abdi’s goal is to be a filmmaker and has a movie in the planning stage. “That’s the dream I want to accomplish one day. I have an idea I am working on, a small idea. It’s a love story. It’s about immigrants. I am not sure, but I believe I will also act in it. I want (to do) something different.”

Somalia, Syria and the refugee experience

“As Somalis, we’ve been through this in the early 1990s and until today, the migration hasn’t stopped and people still want to make it somewhere in the West. So it’s very hard and very sad to see what’s happening to the (Syrian) people and the situation that they’re in. And I hope people understand that they didn’t do anything wrong and it’s not something that they wanted. But circumstances and what happens, you know, politics . . . ”

How is life in California?

“Life in L.A.? It’s good, getting to know the city, making friends. It’s a huge city and getting used to a lot of stuff, the traffic, the weather. I love driving, even in LA. I avoid the rush hour (he laughs).”

Bryan Cranston

Since Abdi co-stars with Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul, I mention Bryan Cranston is across the hall doing interviews for Trumbo. He seems delighted.

“He is? Wow! Really? I know him. I first met him (on) an airplane and sitting right next to me. I looked up and I (saw) him . . . I grew up watching Malcolm in the Middle.”

Would he ask President Barack Obama to stop drones?

“Of course. I mean, I don’t have that kind of voice, but I would love to at least make him understand. Put yourself in the shoes of those innocent people.”



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