The power of Captain Phillips (as laid out in our Captain Phillips review) does not work without the protagonist taunting Tom Hanks, and that actor is Somali-born Barkhad Abdi, who answered an open casting call near his Minneapolis home for Paul Greengrass’ based-on-a-true-story thriller. We caught up with Abdi for an exclusive chat at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills, and it could not have been further away from the filming experience on the high seas that the new-to-filmmaking actor takes us through.
Barkhad plays the lead pirate Muse, and tells us about the casting process, working with the visionary Greengrass and how it feels for a man who watched the real-life story unfold on the evening news to now be a part of it.
Movie Fanatic: How did you go from living in Minneapolis to being in Captain Phillips?
Barkhad Abdi: It’s a weird story, man. It was just another day for me. Just hanging out with friends and I don’t usually watch TV, but it was on that day. Local casting call came on for a Tom Hanks film. I like Tom Hanks! So, I went there, I wanted to give it a chance. There was a big crowd of people, almost 700 people. I worked so hard to get noticed through all those people. The thing about Somali people is they will look, but they might not come [laughs]. But they came! They asked me where I was born, my age and my name -- those three questions. They gave me a paper with lines on it, told me to memorize them and come back tomorrow.
Movie Fanatic: What scene was it?
Barkhad Abdi: The part on the bridge where the pirates first take over. The next day I came back, less people now, and everybody is studying the same character… about 40 people. They told us to form a group of four, so I found four people I knew from my neighborhood and worked with them on the audition. We auditioned it. I didn’t think it was that good. We went home and practiced. Went back and did it again… a little better. After that, nobody said anything for two weeks. I figured, “I’m not going to get this part.” Then, I get a phone call saying Paul Greengrass wanted to meet me in LA. I met Paul and he told me I got the part. I was so excited. I was at the beach in Santa Monica and I jumped in the ocean! I don’t even know how to swim [laughs]! It was crazy.
Movie Fanatic: Paul kept you apart from the rest of the cast until that scene on the bridge when you took over. That first day when you were going to shoot with Tom, were you nervous or excited… or both?
Barkhad Abdi: I was nervous that I didn’t even have enough sleep. I couldn’t sleep the night before. It all comes down to me in that scene. I thought about what I was going to say. But, it was the same scene that I auditioned. Paul is a great director, and he helped me with how I was going to approach Tom. Finally, I just let go and I forgot he’s Tom Hanks and I believed I was the character.
Movie Fanatic: Once you got to filming, what impressed you most about Paul as a director? You’ve done some directing too.
Barkhad Abdi: How he used what he got, so wisely. He rolled with it over and over in this movie. Scenes that weren’t in the story, he just went with it. He makes something out of nothing. He never says, “You have to be like that.” That’s great, especially for me. You never know how things will turn out. You need to feel open. That was amazing to see that from a guy with his level of success.
Movie Fanatic: The scenes in the lifeboat seem very tough to film. Were those tough days?
Barkhad Abdi: It was hard, but easier in a way. The scene that we shot in the ocean was sick because it would drop and you don’t know when the next drop is… you don’t know whether to act or be ready for the next drop. But, at the same time, it’s more dramatic because it’s a close set.
Movie Fanatic: Do you feel that you appreciate the ocean more now?
Barkhad Abdi: Absolutely, the ocean is really strong. It’s a power. It’s like the snow in Minneapolis. You have to learn to drive in snow. If you try to be fast or strong, snow will win. You have to let go… and control it. It’s similar.
Movie Fanatic: You spent time on one of the battleships involved in the Captain Phillips shoot. What did you make of that massive machine of war and peace?
Barkhad Abdi: It’s amazing. As scary as it looks, there was some really good people, young people there. We had all kinds of conversations and they came from all parts of the U.S. We had a lot of laughs. You would think a lot of people would think of me as the outsider, he’s playing the pirate… keep him away. But, it wasn’t like that at all. Some would want pictures with me, it was amazing. But, yeah, it is just huge.
Movie Fanatic: You remember the real event?
Barkhad Abdi: Yes, I watched it all on TV.
Movie Fanatic: Now you’re part of a movie that chronicles that headline-grabbing event. Is that hard to wrap your head around?
Barkhad Abdi: A lot of the stuff I’m doing, I’m talking about it, but mentally… I’m not fully understanding it. I’m scared in a lot of ways. I’m not used to having people recognize me walking down the street.
Movie Fanatic: It must be like that in Minneapolis.
Barkhad Abdi: It’s funny! People don’t recognize me there. A lot of people recognize me here and in New York. When the first Captain Phillips trailer came out, people at the airport recognized me. How did you know me?!