IAR EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Barkhad Abdi Talks 'Captain Phillips'

Friday, 11 October 2013 10:03 Written by  Jami Philbrick
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IAR EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Barkhad Abdi Talks 'Captain Phillips'

Barkhad Abdi has won the Hollywood lottery!

Born in Somalia, Abdi moved to the Minneapolis area as a youngster and a few years ago decided to attend an open casting call for a Tom Hanks movie along with three of his childhood friends. To their surprise … they were actually cast in the movie! Now, Abdi and his pals (Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, and Mahat M. Ali) can be seen starring opposite two-time Academy Award-winner Tom Hanks (Philadelphia, Forrest Gump) in the new Paul Greengrass (The Bourne UltimatumUnited 93) film Captain Phillips, which opens in theaters on October 11th. 

Captain Phillips is based on the true story of Captain Richard Phillips and the 2009 hijacking by Somali pirates of the US-flagged MV Maersk Alabama, which was the first American cargo ship to be hijacked in two hundred years. In the film, Abdi plays Muse, the leader of the Somali pirates who forges a reluctant and strange relationship with Phillips during the ordeal. Abdi’s real-life friends, Abdirahman, Ahmed, and Ali, play Muse’s pirate cohorts. The screenplay was written by Billy Ray (The Hunger Games), and based on Phillips' book “A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea.”

I recently had the pleasure of sitting down with Barkhad Abdi to talk about his work on Captain Phillips. The young actor discussed his new movie, the incredible story of how he got the role, acting with his friends, the strange relationship between Muse and Phillips, meeting Tom Hanks, working with director Paul Greengrass, and if he would like to continue making Hollywood movies. 

Here is what Barkhad Abdi had to say about Captain Phillips:

IAR: To begin with, did you have any aspirations towards film acting before you were cast in this movie?

Barkhad Abdi: No, I would shoot music videos and short films but nothing major. It never crossed my mind. It's just a long road and I felt like there were a lot of people trying to do it already so there was no chance for me. I don’t think I fit the criteria they’re looking for.

How did you become involved in the casting process for Captain Phillips and ultimately get the role? 

Abdi: I love acting and I always loved movies. I was especially always a fan of based on true story movies. What happened was that I was hanging out at my friend’s house. I’m not a big fan of TV, I don’t watch a lot of it, but if someone is watching TV I’ll watch it too. One night the news came on and they said that a casting group in Minneapolis was casting a Tom Hanks film and looking for Somali actors. So it was an experience I wanted to try. I went there the first day and there were more than 100 people. All types of ages and different races too, it wasn’t just all Somolians. So I went there and the camera came to me and asked me my name, my age, and where was I born. I answered that and they gave me a paper and said, “Take this paper with you, study the lines, memorize them, and come back tomorrow.” I went back the next day and then it was less people. There were like 40 people now. A few of my friends were there too, people I grew up with in the same neighborhood. So after a few minutes the lady tells us that we can make our own group or go into a separate group. My friends and I all had different characters. So we just formed our own group and we auditioned that day. We did okay on the first day. But we went home and we practiced. We tried to make it better so the second day we came and it was better. Still there were some mistakes so we went home and tried to make it even better. Until the last day we performed and that was the best we could do. No one told us anything and every time they call us back we thought it was just our group, but it was all 40 people coming back. I don’t think they were going to cast us. So I figured I’d just live my life. So I was just working living my own life you know and not worrying about being cast in the film. Two weeks later they called. The casting director called me and said, “The director wants to meet you. You have to come to LA.” I thought that maybe there was more auditions because I knew auditions was going on in Ohio. So we didn’t know exactly what was going on. When I got to the airport I saw my friends. So we all came to LA, we went to the same hotel and in the afternoon we went to a Santa Monica restaurant to meet Paul Greengrass. We met Paul and he didn’t know that we didn’t know we had the parts. He thought we had been told that we had the part, so we don’t know and he’s just talking about stuff. This Super Bowl was going on that day and I was just watching the Super Bowl hoping the Giants would win. Paul said, “Let’s just have a walk.” We walk on the ocean and we walked down the beach. Then he realized that we didn’t know. He said, “You guys all got the parts.” 

So you and your childhood friends got to star in the movie together, did you enjoy working with them on your first film?

Abdi: Yeah, that was great. It made me more comfortable. It’s always not good when you have someone trying to challenge you, or someone you don’t know, someone that wants to do it his or her own way. But we all understood and respected each other. When it came to work everybody knew what he had to do and was doing it. Then when we were done we just left. 

Can you talk about the mutual respect that your character Muse unwillingly forges with Captain Phillips during the course of the film?

Abdi: As far as the film goes they’re two different men. One has his life in order. He went to college and graduated, found a job, a family, and has everything in order. The other one grew up in a country with no government, no jobs, and no hope. There’s nothing there, so I had to understand why. The piracy is internationally organized and the people that get the most out of it don’t even live in Somalia. They live in mostly western countries and some even here in America. The relationship between these two men is weird. They are in this situation and they don’t want to be around each other. Muse has to keep Phillips alive to get money. But Phillips has to build a relationship with Muse in order to stay alive. So it’s a relationship that none of them wants, but they’re forced to try and understand each other.

What was it like working with Tom Hanks and what did you learn from him about the craft of acting?

Abdi: Tom’s great. Paul put us through training for about a month and wouldn’t let us meet Tom. I had to learn how to swim, I had to learn how to fight, climb, and use weapons, until I got comfortable with it. But the whole time me and my friends wanted to see Tom. We were excited to meet Tom. We were like, when are we going to see Tom? Then Paul said, “You’re not going to see Tom until the first scene of the movie. He made sure we didn’t see Tom, and there were people that were working with us that made sure we didn’t see Tom. It helped because that scene was the same scene I had been auditioning for, my first scene on the boat’s bridge. I couldn’t sleep the night before. I was thinking a lot about it and I had to finally let go. I just became the character. 

As an actor, what is it like working on a Paul Greengrass set? 

Abdi: Paul Greengrass before every scene would take me and Tom and we would go to the side. We would discuss that particular scene and how it had to be done. After the scene it’s either everybody’s quiet or Paul would give me a direction. There was nothing in between. He would give me more insights, details, how Tom’s character’s feeling, how I’m feeling, and how my character was feeling. He would always have some sort of insight to make the scene better. Tom was always saying, “You can do it big Barkhad. Don’t worry about it, just let go! Do it! Don’t worry about it! You were a little nervous this time, come on!” I was just blessed by all these people that believed in me and I got it right.

Finally, do you think you’ll continue to make movies? 

Abdi: I want to try it. I want to give it a chance. Why not? I’m good at it. I want to give it a chance. Maybe I can do better. I don’t believe that I can, but I’ll see how it goes. 

Captain Phillips opens in theaters on October 11th.

To read our interview with Tom Hanks about Captain Phillips, please click here.


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