If a hero can only be as good as his villain, then there's a reason Tom Hanks is so good in "Captain Phillips": Barkhad Abdi.
Abdi plays Muse, the leader of a skeleton crew of Somali pirates who overtake an American cargo ship and kidnap the captain. Though the part of a gun-wielding hijacker could easily be played with mustache-twirling villainy, Abdi's performance conveys all the grey-shaded nuance of a desperate man reacting to a complex and unfair world.
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While his performance is garnering early Oscar buzz, what makes it even more impressive is that this was Abdi's first time acting. Not long ago, Abdi was a limo driver in Minneapolis, Minnesota, home of the largest Somali population in the United States. Then one day, he answered an open casting call, where he was pitted against several hundred contestants.
At the casting call, Abdi, who escaped war-torn Somalia at age six, formed an audition group with his friends Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, and Mahat M. Ali. Some two weeks later, the foursome was flown to Los Angeles, where director Paul Greengrass delivered the life-changing news: they were going to play the hijackers in "Captain Phillips."
"We just jumped right into the ocean. Right into the ocean with our clothes on. It was just really exciting," Abdi told Yahoo Movies during an interview at the Four Seasons hotel in Beverly Hills. "It was exciting. We didn’t believe we got it. It was just happy. Faysal started it and I wanted to swim, too. I didn’t know how to swim though."
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He would soon learn though. "We spent a lot of time in the water. We had about a month and a half training," said Abdi. "We would wake up in the morning and we'd have swimming training, and after that, we'd go and have fighting training, and climbing, guns. In the afternoon, after lunch, we would go and do skiffs training, all afternoon doing skiffs. I had to learn how to stand still on a skiff that’s going fast. That helped a lot because it’s just easier for me to become the character. "
And become the character he would, so much so that he thoroughly impressed a man who knows a thing or two about inhabiting a character: Tom Hanks. "Berkhad Abdi is an extremely thoughtful man. He put great importance on the job that he was doing, and the portrayal of Muse every single day," Hanks told Yahoo Movies in a phone interview. "He's a mysterious dude, and it came out."
To keep that mystery heightened, instead of doing a meet and greet before filming started, Greengrass kept the Somali pirates separate from Hanks and his crew until shooting the scene where the pirates take over the ship (shown above).
"That scene it was the one we did the audition for. I thought about it a lot of ways and I knew it was really important for the movie, because there is no reason why the director would choose that scene to do the casting and auditioning for only that scene. And now, he’s not going to let me see Tom because of that scene," said Abdi. "I thought about it a lot of ways and finally I let go. I believe that I'm the character. I remember that night, I couldn’t sleep. I was up for a while and I came there and I didn’t have enough sleep and I just said, 'Never mind Tom, it’s not him.' And we became the characters. And we just did it. That’s the line, when the line comes out, 'I’m the captain.' I didn’t even know. It wasn’t part of the script. It was just something that came out of me, because I believed so much that I was the character, that I just become it. I just let go."
That's right; the trailer-making money line was adlibbed by Abdi, a novice, untrained actor, on the spot.
"There was a gajillion moments in the course of improving in that. We did not rehearse that scene until after we had done it four or five times just completely on adrenaline," said Hanks. "We reacted to whatever the guys did. And the first time they came barreling in was the first time we laid eyes on 'em, and really we were petrified. The second time they came in, everybody was doing brand new stuff that we had to adjust to. You know those guys might have been doing their first movie, but they're all actors. They all have a natural ability to pretend and make believe."
And to make us believe, not just in the veracity of Muse, but in the ability of Barkhad Abdi.
"Captain Phillips" is in theaters now.
See Barkhad Abdi and Tom Hanks in the "Captain Phillips" theatrical trailer: