'Captain Phillips': A First-Time Actor, Opposite Tom Hanks Actor Barkhad Abdi plays the ruthless leader of Somali pirates in the film Captain Phillips. To train for the role, Abdi learned how to swim, handle weapons, drive a skiff — and act.
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'Captain Phillips': A First-Time Actor, Opposite Tom Hanks

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'Captain Phillips': A First-Time Actor, Opposite Tom Hanks

'Captain Phillips': A First-Time Actor, Opposite Tom Hanks

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From NPR West, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Arun Rath.

The movie "Captain Phillips" spent a second weekend at number two in the box office. It's based on the true story of the hijacking of the Maersk Alabama. Four years ago, pirates attacked the freighter ship off the coast of Somalia. The film stars Tom Hanks as the title character, Captain Richard Phillips, and Barkhad Abdi as the man who leads the charge to capture the ship and crew.


BARKHAD ABDI: (as Muse) Look at me.

TOM HANKS: (as Captain Phillips) Sure.

ABDI: (as Muse) Look at me.

HANKS: (as Captain Phillips) Sure.

ABDI: (as Muse) I'm the captain now.

RATH: Abdi was born in Somalia, moved to Yemen when he was 7, and then to Minneapolis, Minnesota, at 14. He learned about this role from a TV ad.

ABDI: It came on the local TV channel: casting call, Tom Hanks film, Somalia actors. And I wondered to give it a chance.

RATH: So just a wide open casting call. Had to have been a lot of people showed up for that, right?

ABDI: Yeah. It was about close to 800 people was there auditioning. You have to wait in line. And after a long day of waiting, I was given the script. I was assigned to a character, Muse.


ABDI: (as Muse) Captain.

HANKS: (as Captain Phillips) The ship's broken.

ABDI: (as Muse) Captain, no one get hurt if you don't play no game.

HANKS: (as Captain Phillips) It's, the ship's broken. We had to go...

ABDI: (as Muse) Nobody gets hurt.

RATH: Had you done any acting before?

ABDI: You know, I have not done any acting before. I shot some music videos, but I was never in front of a camera. This was my first time acting or even thinking about acting.

RATH: You knew the story that the film was portraying. Did you have any concerns about auditioning for a role like this, worried about maybe the way that Somalis were going to be portrayed?

ABDI: Well, people around me did, you know? But to me, it was just an opportunity. I knew it was a true story, so it was just a chance that I can take.


ABDI: (as Muse) Stop the ship.

RATH: I'm thinking about some of the scenes in the film where this tiny little skiff is attacking this giant shipping vessel.

ABDI: Right.

RATH: What was it like, you know, learning how to go through that, doing the staging of it?

ABDI: You know, I went through about a month and a half of training on the basics of the film. You know, my character, you know, he's a pirate.


ABDI: He is someone that is used to the water, someone that's used to weapons...


ABDI: ...fighting, skiffs. So I had to learn all that.


ABDI: Most importantly, I had to learn how to swim.

RATH: Hmm. You didn't know how to swim?



RATH: Obviously, you're not a pirate. So how was it, you know, not being an actor, to relate to this character? I mean, what did you find and to relate with?

ABDI: It was difficult, at first. But, you know, when I really thought of the actual character, he's a very desperate guy that have this only chance to be something. I relate to him simply because I was born in Somalia. I lived there till I was 7 years old. And I witnessed a whole year of the war - killings, rape, you name it. I was really blessed to have parents that got me out. Certainly, he did not have that. I look at him as someone that have nothing to lose. A man that have nothing to lose is very dangerous. So that's how I became his character.

RATH: Can I ask you what was it like working with Tom Hanks?

ABDI: It was an honor, you know? It was an honor. I did not expect him to be that nice, honestly. He's a very humble guy, and he's a hardworking man.

RATH: You came to America when you were 14. What was it like for you when you first came to America?

ABDI: You know, it was exciting. But at the same time, it was life-changing. I had to restart high school at a country that I don't speak the language. And it was hard. At the same time, it was easy because of the large Somali community in Minneapolis. I fit right in, honestly. It was just a whole new life for me.

RATH: You're off to a pretty amazing start as an actor. Your performance has been praised by a lot of critics. I'm wondering are you going to keep on with this now as a career?

ABDI: You know, that's what I want to do. I want to give it a chance, and I want to see if this was the only character I can act or I can act.

RATH: Hmm. Are there other sorts of roles you'd like to play? Would you like to play a hero?

ABDI: I don't think of myself as a hero, honestly. But I'm an open person, you know? I don't know. That'd be a better look for my family, I guess.

RATH: Right. With this incident that's dramatized in the film, "Captain Phillips," a lot of Americans, you know, all they know about it was what they heard in the news. And there is - I think it's safe to say in the film, there's a lot more context of the experience of the Somalis. What are you hoping that people will take away from the film in America?

ABDI: I hope people understand the culture clash between these very, very different characters - Captain Phillips and Muse. You know, one had just the normal life. You know, he went to school, college, graduated, family, and now he have a job. And the other one is just someone that grew up in a war-torn country that have, you know, no hope, no school, no job, no government, nothing, and they meet in something that is - on forces outside of their control.

And, you know, there it shows a lot about life. You live life and, you know, you have to survive somehow, someway and, you know, you just live it, you know? And you never give up, and you just keep going.

RATH: Barkhad Abdi stars in the film "Captain Phillips." Thank you so much.

ABDI: Thank you.

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