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Somali-born actor upstages Tom Hanks in Captain Phillips

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Barkhad Abdi (left, with Tom Hanks) won the role of a Somali pirate after an open audition in Minneapolis.


Barkhad Abdi (left, with Tom Hanks) won the role of a Somali pirate after an open audition in Minneapolis.

MINNEAPOLIS -- In one of the most remarkable stories of the Somali diaspora, first-time Minneapolis actor Barkhad Abdi is on the verge of Hollywood fame.

The tall, slender 28-year-old stars opposite Tom Hanks in the $50-million Sony Pictures drama Captain Phillips.

The film recreates the real-life 2009 hijacking of the Maersk Alabama, an American-crewed Danish freighter, by Somali pirates. Hanks plays Richard Phillips, the ship's commanding officer. Abdi plays Muse, leader of the hijackers who held him hostage for several days. The performer's compelling work moved Variety to declare Abdi a leading Oscar contender. The Huffington Post called him "The Unknown Actor Who Might Steal Tom Hanks' New Film." The Associated Press included his turn among "10 Performances to Watch This Fall."

Interviewed in Chicago, Hanks said he asked Abdi and the three Minneapolis residents who play his pirate crew, "Are you guys ready to be the most famous Somalis in America for a while?"

"This is something huge," said Mohamud Noor, director of the Confederation of Somali Community in Minnesota, who was present at an open casting call in November 2011.

More than 700 hopefuls crowded a community centre in a heavily Somali neighbourhood of Minneapolis.

"There were so many people who wanted to be part of the movie," Noor said. "It's a great accomplishment of those young men who were selected to be part of that movie. We know that there's the piracy issue in Somalia. This brings the reality to light. It's a true story. If it had been a fictional movie, it might be a little bit different."

Director Paul Greengrass (United 93), an ex-journalist who strives for documentary realism, felt his film demanded performers of Somali heritage. "Somalis have a very specific look, and bring a sense of authenticity and connection to this story," Greengrass said.

After unsuccessful efforts to cast the film from London's East African population, the filmmakers set their sights on Minneapolis, home to North America's largest Somali community.

Abdi heard about the casting call on television, and auditioned with his friends Faysal Ahmed, Barkhad Abdirahman and Mahat M. Ali.

Though they had no film experience, they demonstrated impressive group chemistry and individual ability. When he met the casting agent, Abdi confidently declared, "I am this part."

Following a Los Angeles meeting, Greengrass and four hopeful actors took a walk on the beach. Ahmed, a former youth program co-ordinator for a small theatre in Minneapolis, vividly remembers the moment the director told them the roles were theirs. "As soon as we heard that, we were so excited we all jumped in the ocean," Ahmed said.

Before the 1991 Somali civil war, Abdi's middle-class family lived in the capital, Mogadishu, with a garden of lemons, guavas and mangos. When the war arrived, "They would kill you because of your tribe," Abdi said.

He recalls the nighttime chaos he heard as a six-year-old lying in bed. Gunfire was so constant he and his siblings could name the weapons by their sound. Worse yet were the women's screams, "very, very loud."

It took a year for his father, a teacher working in neighbouring Yemen, to move them to relative safety there.

Relocating in Taiz at age seven, Abdi had to learn Arabic. Facing discrimination as "a black kid" among Arabs, he went from being a comparatively "spoiled kid" with playmates to an uprooted minority outsider. After two unsuccessful attempts, Abdi's family won the annual U.S. lottery for a green card in 1999.

At 14, he moved again, to south Minneapolis. It was a major transition, "seeing so much green everywhere, and girls driving cars."

There were tussles with local youths when Abdi and his friends wanted to use basketball courts for soccer, and learning English as his third language was a challenge.

After graduating from a Minneapolis high school and studying at Minnesota State University, Moorhead, he worked at his brother's phone store in a Somali mall in Minneapolis. Interested in music and film, he directed several music videos and a short about the lives of Somali immigrants.

Filming Captain Phillips last year was a drama all its own. Cast and crew members spent nine weeks aboard an actual container ship off the coast of Malta amid broiling sun, unpredictable seas, motion sickness and physical mishaps. The actors steered their tiny pirate skiff through cresting waves, clambered up makeshift ladders to board the maritime ship, and shoved and shouted their way through scenes of confrontation.

During a staged fight with Hanks, Ahmed threw a punch that accidentally connected. The star, ever the professional, remained in character.

While shooting in a cramped, enclosed lifeboat bobbing in turbulent waters, the two-man camera crew vomited on Hanks and his Minnesota co-stars, who kept acting without a pause.

"They had no self-consciousness," Hanks said, "and out of that came some magnificent reality that couldn't be gotten any other way."

For Abdi, the most stressful moment came following the film's Sept. 27 premiere at the New York Film Festival. His first encounter with typhoon-scale press hubbub was "scary," he said, "but luckily Tom was there to show me what to do. He's such a funny guy, he made it all seem easy and natural."

That may come in handy for Abdi, who plans to move to Los Angeles and pursue an acting career.

-- Minneapolis Star Tribune

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 11, 2013 D6

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