Barkhad Abdi, 'Captain Phillips' Star, On Growing Up In Somalia To Starring With Tom Hanks

"I Can't Believe I'm Doing A Scene With The Forrest Gump Guy!"
Barkhad Abdi poses for photographers as he walks the red carpet at a screening for the movie "Captain Phillips" at the Newseum, Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2013 in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
Barkhad Abdi poses for photographers as he walks the red carpet at a screening for the movie "Captain Phillips" at the Newseum, Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2013 in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

It's that old success story you've heard a million times: Born in Somalia, moved to Minneapolis, now stars in a major motion picture opposite Tom Hanks. Could it get more cliche? (OK, yes, it could. A lot.)

In "Captain Phillips," Barkhad Abdi stars as Abduwali Abdukhadir Muse, the lead hijacker of the Maersk Alabama that eventually resulted with four Somali pirates on a lifeboat -- with Phillips as a hostage -- in an impossible showdown against the U.S. Navy.

Abdi has led an interesting life, to say the least. His parents fled a war-torn Somali when he was just seven, eventually landing in a Somali neighborhood in Minneapolis. Certainly, Abdi never thought he'd be (as he says) "doing a scene with the Forrest Gump guy."

Considering that this is the first time Abdi has ever been involved in something like this, one might expect him to be nervous in an interview and possibly give short or abrupt answers, which would have been totally understandable. Instead, Abdi is remarkably relaxed, funny and quite the conversationalist. And, yes, he has quite the story to tell.

I read that you got this part from a casting call in Minneapolis?
Yeah. It came on TV, you know? I was just at my friend's house. I knew the story, but I didn't even know exactly the story. So it just comes on TV -- Tom Hanks, local TV, local Somalis -- cold casting was going on. So I go there and there's about 700 people or more there. Yeah, and it's a long line. I had over 100 people ahead of me. And I write my name and when it came to me they gave me a paper saying, "OK, you study this part. You study the lines and you come back tomorrow." The next day, I come back and they said we either can call my own group or they'll put us in different groups.

So we decided to call my own group and we practiced. That first day we didn't do that good so we went home and we practiced. And truly, I felt that we got the part. Then we come back and we do it and then we get called back again. And we had one or about two weeks of silence, and we didn't know whether we got the job or not. And after that one or two weeks, we got called and we met Paul Greengrass, who told us we had the part.

Have you ever acted before?

I'd be terrified to audition for a movie with no experience.
Yeah. You know, it was a hardy task because in our community it's even harder because the word of mouth is set. You know, there was already rumors flying around. "They're going to embarrass Somali people. Don't do it." "Anybody who does it is a traitor," all that stuff. But I didn't care. I looked at it as an opportunity and I said, "At least know you can trust yourself, and see how it goes." That's my strategy.

Have you gotten any backlash from people who haven't seen it yet -- the people who were using the word 'traitor'?
Nobody comes to me. You know, I don't think any Somali people have seen it beside us. Just people right now have seen the trailer and in the reviews -- they love it. And I would have all kind of comments on Facebook and people all over the world would tell me "you did good" and they're proud of me and all that good stuff.

Traitor is a really strong word, but I could see the worry about how this might be portrayed. The way you portrayed him, he doesn't come off as a monster.
That was important to me. Because as a person, I was born in Somalia, you know? I left Somalia when I was seven years old, but I witnessed a whole year in a war. I witnessed the war's beginning, which was really extraordinarily crazy. Just the same neighborhood that you were born and you grow and the same good people. That's all you've seen in the world -- and just torn to a disaster overnight: killing and rape and all this unbelievable stuff going on.

I was lucky enough to have parents that took me out from country to country and go to school and learn how to be a better person. But, I used a lot of imagination. Like, what if that was me? What if I didn't have the same parents I have? What if my parents would have passed away? I mean, this would have been about me. I know exactly the situation he's in, because Somalia didn't have a country for the last 24 years. There's no jobs; there's no hope. And besides the fact that all these guys become millionaires right in front of you -- people that you know. That's enough motivation to take your chance fully. You're either going to live good or you're going to die trying.

Before you auditioned, were you worried about the way the Somalians would be depicted?
You know, I was worried in part, but I trusted Paul Greengrass. You know, I totally trusted him and I loved his movies. I've seen "United 93" and he did an amazing job. It was [a] really, really critical job -- how he portrayed that and how he showed that film. It was really great. So it couldn't be in better hands. So yeah, I trusted Paul and I just went with it.

In the wrong hands, this could have come off poorly.
Yeah. One of his quotes, he said [my character] was just a simple man that was in a situation that was bigger than him. Because this piracy thing is basically international organized crime. The people that actually benefit out of it are not even in Somalia; they're somewhere in Europe or America or some other country. And it's a big corporation. And the people that actually take the risk don't even take much.

And I wasn't expecting "Captain Phillips" to be a movie where I was thinking about why the pirates are doing what they are doing.
Yeah, because it's just different humans that lived very different lives. It's clear that none of them want to be around each other. There's just reasons they were forced to be with each other. So it's a very nice story and Tom Hanks is just a great actor. He motivated me in a lot of ways and he just would calm me down. And seeing him become the character is so great, it just helps me do my best.

I had read they kept you apart until one of the first scenes. Is that accurate?
Yeah. I hadn't seen Tom. It was crazy. Because we all wanted to see Tom! And after we'd done the training for about a month and a half and now we were like, "OK, we're going to see Tom now," Paul took us on the side and said, "No, you guys are not going to see Tom until the first scene of the movie." So we were disappointed. And he made sure we didn't see him. There were people working on that specific situation -- who made sure that we don't see each other. "Come, come, go back to your trailer." But it was the same thing that we did when auditioning. We worked a lot on that scene and I thought about it in a lot of ways. It was really a great idea, because it's not an easy task coming on as just a crazy guy that's taking over and being so mean to someone that you know and you admire, you know? So it was good that I hadn't met him.

Even with them keeping you apart, is it still weird that first day where you're like, 'Oh, wow, there's Tom Hanks and I'm acting in a scene with him'?
[Laughs] Yeah. That's what I did. After we finished the scene, I was like, "I can't believe I'm doing a scene with the Forrest Gump guy!"

Mike Ryan is senior writer for Huffington Post Entertainment. You can contact him directly on Twitter.

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