Entertainment

02.23.14

Barkhad Abdi: From Limo Driver to Oscar Contender

He'd never acted before, and now suddenly after his first ever role as the chief pirate in Captain Phillips, Barkhad Abdi is up for an Oscar—and 27 other awards.

When I ask Barkhad Abdi how confident he is about winning the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor on March 2, he laughs down the phone from his family’s home in Minneapolis. “I’m not confident at all,” the 28-year-old actor says. “I can’t think about it. I don’t have the guts to think about winning it. Just to be there and be part of it is amazing. To be nominated in my first year of acting for my first movie, I’m in shock. It’s still something I’m trying to get used to mentally. It’s surreal, but I’m enjoying it.”

Abdi, nominated for his role in Paul Greengrass's piracy/hostage drama Captain Phillips, is preparing an Oscars speech, which is sensible as he just won the Bafta. Of his thought-to-be-chief rival, Jared Leto for Dallas Buyers Club, Abdi says, "He’s a cool guy, a real star." Come on, I say you must want to win a little bit. Abdi laughs. "It’s my first year. It would be being greedy to say I wanted to win. I don’t want to win. If I said that, it would be asking too much."

In Captain Phillips, Abdi plays Abduwali Muse, the lead member of a group of four Somali pirates who hijacked the cargo ship the MV Maersk Alabama in April 2009. Captain Richard Phillips, who the pirates held for ransom, is played by Tom Hanks. The film is tense, unbearably so in places, but building throughout—and the reason for Abdi’s busy awards-season—is a tentative, charged empathy between Muse and Phillips, despite their language and cultural barriers, and the uncomfortable fact that Abdi's character is threatening the life of St. Hanks of Hollywood. The real-life Muse is serving a 33-year jail sentence, at the Federal Correctional Complex in Terre Haute, Indiana. His three fellow pirates were killed by U.S. Navy SEALs.

Abdi, who was born in Somalia, has been nominated for 28 awards for his role, already winning the Bafta and London Film Critics’ Circle awards for Best Supporting Actor. In his Bafta acceptance speech, Abdi thanked Greengrass "for believing in me before I believed in myself," Hanks (who whistled and whooped as Abdi took to the stage) for "everything," his family, and the actors who played the other pirates. "We came from nothing and we got this," Abdi said looking at the Bafta.

Both awards were shocks, Abdi tells me, but he was happy to accept them "for the hard work we all did." With no acting experience, and in his first movie, being around people of the caliber of Hanks and Greengrass made him feel “I had to do the best I could. Tom Hanks is a big star and has been for a long time: acting with him made me feel I could be the best I can. I learnt a lot from him—most of all no matter how big you get, you should always work hard.”

Physically the film was very demanding. "To me it was an absolute adventure and fun. I enjoyed filming it, the rush you get, particularly having to get over or past certain obstacles. I had to learn how to swim and stand still in a skiff. Everyone else was sitting down. I could feel the movement of the waves in my legs. I used to play soccer as a kid: that helped me balance myself and get my focus."

The first time Abdi met Hanks was the first time their characters meet on screen, as the hijackers storm the ship, and Abdi delivers the line to Hanks that pivots their characters' relationship: "I am the captain now." Not meeting Hanks prior, "helped the dynamics of the film and set the standard," says Abdi. "If we had met, I’d imagine the results would have been different. I had to scare him. Since I admire him that was hard for me. He was more Captain Phillips than Tom Hanks and that made me more my character than me. We kept our distance during filming and didn’t go out for dinner until afterwards." Now Hanks, as seen at the Baftas, is his biggest supporter.

Filming was hard. "I wasn’t confident with myself," says Abdi. "I didn’t watch the scenes after I did them, I was too nervous. Paul calmed us down, especially me, and told me to work one day at a time. He would say ‘You’ve done the best you can today, now you have to leave it.’ Tom gave me advice about handling the media and doing interviews. He told me, ‘Don’t worry about it. Be yourself and be good.’"

For the first seven years of his life, Abdi grew up, "loving the ocean," in Mogadishu. "Growing up in Somalia was beautiful, honestly. Imagine a very peaceful place. Everyone loved each other, everyone was a neighbor, there was a community." Of the outbreak of civil war in 1991, when he was 6, Abdi remembers: "It turned overnight to chaos, killing and guns. You would find guns everywhere, bullets and bullet parts. There were bodies outside. It was a very scary time for me and my family." (His father, a teacher, was in Yemen earning money, leaving Abdi's mother, his two brothers and a sister; Abdi was the second oldest child.)

"It was very frightening," Abdi recalls of the time. "I might have been a kid, but we knew that dangerous things could happen in your own home. Anyone could walk in and kill all four of us." His father returned and took the family to Yemen, where Abdi began "a whole new life," learning to play soccer and speak Arabic. "I wasn't loved by everyone. Now I’m a black kid in Yemen and everyone is having a hard time saying my name." But he got used to it, he says, and was a happy kid, "laughing, running around, and playing basketball."

In 1999, when Abdi was 14, the family came to the US, settling in Minneapolis where there is a large Somali population. At school, Abdi was first annoyed that instead of gym class he was made to do video production, "but luckily I met the coolest teacher in the world," who showed him how to operate a camera and gave him one to record an aspect of school life that interested him. He chose a friend who was a brilliant dancer, and he went on to make other music videos for friends.

‘He was more Captain Phillips than Tom Hanks and that made me more my character than me. We kept our distance during filming.’

Because of the large Somali community, "I didn’t stand out as much as I did in Yemen," says Abdi. "I made new friends and learned the language. He sees racism "as a reality. You experience racism in a lot of different ways. I get racism from time to time. It’s not something that bothers me. It’s your opinion and God knows, I might feel the same way. It’s not something I pay a lot of attention to. People don’t like something different, or something they’re not used to. African-Americans were racist against me. They thought I looked different. They would say, 'You’re a Somalian. You can’t play basketball.'"

Abdi worked with his brother in a mobile phone store, as a DJ, and most recently, a limousine driver. He has been in occasional trouble with the law, and charged with card fraud and giving a police officer a fraudulent name. "I look at that time and think it made me who I am now," Abdi tells me, speaking about the charges for the first time. "Our mistakes shape us. You make a mistake and it makes you a better person. You learn from it. I wasn’t a complete man. I made mistakes to satisfy certain friends and to be cool and I took the consequences. I look back and smile now. Now I know not to do that, and how serious it was."

Abdi only got into acting when the producers of the film came to Minneapolis to audition Somali-born actors. "I thought I’d give it a chance," says Abdi. "I had no acting experience. There were close to a thousand people there." He was given a script to read and told to come back the next day." Eventually the producers whittled the group down to the four "pirates" in the film.

Greengrass told the quartet they had the parts at Shutters Hotel in Santa Monica. "I jumped into the sea water to make sure I wasn’t dreaming," says Abdi, laughing. Some have criticized the film for not portraying the context of the poverty many of the pirates come from. Did Abdi, Somali himself, mind playing such a role? “That’s why I got the job, they had to have a Somali person play it," he says matter-of-factly. "I understand the pirates' motive—they wanted money. They were desperate guys." Abdi did not have any contact with Muse; Greengrass tried to get hold of the jailed pirate, but was not allowed to speak to him.

Next, Abdi would like to work with Chris Rock and Denzel Washington and is writing a film script himself. He is single, claiming not to be good at relationships, and keener to focus on work. Ultimately he wants to be with someone “I’m comfortable with, who understands exactly who I am." He means, as himself, rather than the movie star. He says he doesn't like the glamour and fuss of red carpets, wanting to focus on the "job aspect of it." To that end, Abdi is about to move to Hollywood: "I love acting, I want to keep acting." Most of the stars he has met (he declines to name individual ones) tell him, "You’re good. You did a good performance. Keep going."

Abdi has good friends who help him do the latter, he says. "To them, I’m a normal guy. They don’t see me a star. That’s what I love about them." His parents are very happy, even if when watching Captain Phillips, his mother understandably "walks out of the room when the knife is at my throat."

What comes across most tangibly from Abdi is a sense of delicious disbelief, to suddenly find himself where he is. "Ten years ago I graduated from high school, now I am nominated for an Oscar," he says, with a laugh that mixes both nerves and, quite rightly, pride.