By Eric Kelsey
BEVERLY HILLS, California (Reuters) - Barkhad Abdi, a tall wisp of a man with a narrow face and a wide grin, sat on the sofa in his hotel suite with one eye on the television and another on a view of the Hollywood Hills.
The 28-year-old Somali-American, who had worked the past year at his brother's mobile phone store in Minneapolis, could hardly have called himself an actor when he began production in British director Paul Greengrass' thriller "Captain Phillips."
But it took a lecture from Greengrass before Abdi, who portrays the Somali pirate Muse alongside Oscar-winner Tom Hanks, was able to fully grasp the role and play it in a way that has critics saying is worthy of awards consideration. The true-story maritime drama will be released in U.S. cinemas on Friday.
"The pressure was high," Abdi said, who speaks with a Somali accent in short, measured sentences often punctuated with a smile or by a clap of his hands for emphasis. "I had doubts in myself a lot of times, but there's no going back."
The actor said he relied heavily on Greengrass' advice during the early days of shooting, and especially after one rough day on set when he said he had difficulty capturing Muse's emotional state during a particular scene.
Greengrass "took me aside and said, 'You know the similarities between you and the real Muse?'"
Abdi said Greengrass' question caught him off guard.
"I'm thinking that this guy (Muse) is a criminal. Why did you compare me to him?,"' Abdi said he asked Greengrass.
The director's message to Abdi was succinct: Muse took a risk in being a pirate and failed. Abdi took a risk in wanting to become a film actor, and if he didn't do it well, he was going to fail too.
"Captain Phillips" focuses on Abduwali Abdukhadir Muse's tense five-day interaction with Richard Phillips, played by Hanks, the captain of a Maersk Alabama cargo ship hijacked by Muse and three other Somali pirates in 2009 while en route to the Kenyan port of Mombasa.
The docudrama, distributed by Sony Pictures unit Columbia Pictures, in which Phillips is taken hostage by the pirates onto the cargo ship's lifeboat and later rescued by the U.S. Navy, leans heavily on the emotionally charged real-life encounter between Muse and Phillips.
Muse was sentenced in 2010 to more than 33 years in U.S. prison for his role in the hijacking.
Greengrass said Abdi, who was born in Mogadishu and spent time as a refugee in Yemen before emigrating to Minneapolis with his family in 1999, was chosen from more than 700 actors who showed up to a casting call in the city in part because of his uncommon appearance and charisma in front of the camera.
"He was able to be both menacing, but he also had a kind of humanity, too," said Greengrass, whose best known for his action-realism in films such as "The Bourne Supremacy" franchise and the 9/11 docudrama "United 93."
Abdi's name has already popped up on several critics' ballots as a possible nominee for the best supporting actor Oscar, according to Hollywood awards tracker Goldderby.com.
Scott Foundas, film critic at trade publication Variety, also praised Abdi's performance for is power and intensity.
"In a movie that affords little dimensionality to its characters, Abdi finds notes to play you scarcely realized were there, until this reedy young man with jutting brow looms as large as Othello," Foundas wrote.
TAKING A CHANCE
But not all have been so supportive of the actor's role.
Abdi, who was cast with three of his friends as pirates, said that there were some within Minneapolis' large Somali community who resented that they would take a role as villains.
Abdi said he gave the criticism some thought. The film did justice to the Somali pirates, he said, and the opportunity was one he felt was too big to miss.
"I'd rather take the chance," Abdi said. "Rather than me blaming someone else later and saying, 'I could've done better than him.' I'd rather take it and see how far it goes. It was a big risk."
And following Greengrass' advice, Abdi learned that by relating to Muse, he himself was not far removed from being left in a destitute situation in his home country.
"He's a young man who's about my age, but he wasn't as lucky as me," Abdi said of Muse.
"I had parents that took me out so I could be a better person. He didn't have that chance. He was just a gangster who didn't have any other options. We know why he's a gangster. We can give him a reason."
(Corrects distributor to Columbia Pictures)
(Additional reporting Patricia Zengerle in Washington; Editing by Piya Sinha-Roy and Philip Barbara)