BARKHAD ABDI is on the telephone recalling a story of happenstance in Minneapolis.
"I was hanging at my friend's house, and he saw an ad for casting in Minneapolis. He said I should go. There were 800 people there. I answered simple questions for the role of Muse (pronounced "moo-see"). I was told to come back the next day. There were less people, about 40 people. I had to do a scene with a group of people that were called my crew. Luckily they were from the same neighborhood (in Minneapolis). We knew each other. We did the scene. There was two weeks of silence. Then I got a call from (casting director) Francine Maisler. She said, 'you got the part, congratulations.'"
It was as clear and fortuitous as that for Mr. Abdi, 28, a Somali-American from Mogadishu who lived much of his life in Yemen before moving to the largest Somali community in the U.S. Hollywood came knocking at his door, so to speak, and, to hear this calm, polite gentleman tell it, it was completely by chance.
"I was never interested in becoming an actor. I was directing videos. I was never into acting. I was into shooting music videos. I've only ever been behind the camera. Never in front of it."
As you watch "Captain Phillips", now playing across the U.S. and Canada, you'd think that Barkhad Abdi was a seasoned actor. Mr. Abdi gives what is the film's best performance in a key role as the leader of a quartet of Somali pirates who commandeer the ship Tom Hanks captains in African seas in Paul Greengrass's drama.
The film is based on the true story of the Somali pirate attack on Captain Richard Phillips's Maersk Alabama freight ship in the spring of 2009. Mr. Abdi was asked about his experience acting for the first time.
"I did it day-by-day on my first film, that's how I got through. I was just doing the best I can," said Mr. Abdi, who was speaking on the phone from New York City.
As played by Mr. Abdi, Muse oozes a volatile mix of danger, charisma and confidence. The poise of Muse is a counter to the fragile state of limbo faced by Mr. Hanks's complex title character. In "Captain Phillips" time is compressed though suspense is elongated. Things move quickly.
So did Mr. Abdi.
"I was nervous but I didn't have the chance to act that way. Paul took a big chance in putting me in the film. He wouldn't let me make a mistake, and if I did we'd get together and work it out."
Mr. Abdi credits his acting on "Captain Phillips" on his directing experience. "My acting was better because I knew how to move people around and tell them where to go, and that helped me."
The former Minnesota State University student talked about how he viewed America. (At Minnesota State Mr. Abdi pursued a major in engineering, staying for three years before leaving.) He spoke about what America meant to him.
"When I was leaving Yemen to come to America things were tough. My dad had just been laid off and it was a challenge. When I lived in Yemen I thought America was a perfect place. Everything was bigger and better. I dreamed big. The American dream, you know? You have to work hard for your dream to come true."
Barkhad Abdi has now been living in the U.S. for 14 years. Naturally he's seen lots of films. He rattles off a few favorites. The first one he mentions happens to be the best film he's ever seen.
"I like 'The Usual Suspects'. Great film. I also like 'Scarface', films like that. Lots of gangster films. I really like watching all kinds of films, dramas, romance. I'll watch comedies. I like Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Denzel Washington, Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle. I'd like to meet them."
Maybe Mr. Abdi will get a chance to work with them.
The actor, who doesn't call himself one, says he's looking forward to Steve McQueen's slavery epic "12 Years A Slave". "I've heard a lot of people talking about it. People are saying that it's good."
For those who land in Hollywood acting circles typecasting is a concern. Before he shot a single scene of "Captain Phillips" Mr. Abdi received bleak assessments and advice from some of his fellow countrymen and women in Minneapolis when he delivered the good news.
"I would hear people say, 'if you do ["Captain Phillips"] things will be bad for Somalis, you will give us a bad name.' I'd be told not to do it. 'You won't be able to do anything else.'
"There aren't very many Somali characters on the big screen so I am glad I got the opportunity. At the same time, I am a Somali but I am also an American. There are lots of other roles out there. I'd like to do other things, play other characters than Somalis. If people out there like what I do I'd like to get a chance to do one or two more different things."
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