Barkhad Abdi is used to finding his way in strange new places: At age 7, he moved with his family from war-torn Somalia to Yemen, where he learned Arabic on the soccer field. At 14, he moved to Minneapolis and learned English from Jay-Z songs and “Seinfeld” episodes.
Now, at 27, Abdi has made himself at home in another new town — Hollywood — by starring opposite Tom Hanks in the film “Captain Phillips.” In director Paul Greengrass’ fact-based thriller, which opened Friday, Abdi plays Muse, a Somali pirate who hijacks an American cargo ship and takes its captain hostage.
When Greengrass cast him, Abdi was driving a limo in Minneapolis; now his face is ubiquitous on billboards and in TV commercials, and he has appeared on the “Today” show and CNN.
“My Facebook is just going bananas,” Abdi said, breaking into a toothy grin during a rest between two recent screenings of the film on the Sony Pictures lot in Culver City. “People all over are telling me they’re proud of me. Someone said to me, ‘You put Somalia back on the map.’
The tale of Abdi’s life is as improbable as any Hollywood movie. The son of a teacher in Mogadishu, Abdi was on the verge of starting elementary school when the Somali civil war broke out in 1991.
“Everything changed,” said Abdi, who is one of four children. “At night, me and my brother would sleep to the gunshots. We would name the guns. And there was this lady that would be raped, very loud…. You would hear that lady every night, ‘Someone help me,’ she’s screaming.”
Abdi’s family fled to Yemen during the night when he was 7, and though they left the violence of Somalia behind, they also left the comforts of their community.
“Mostly black kids don’t go to school in Yemen,” Abdi said. “They’re poor people there. In Somalia, everybody was my family, neighbors…. Now all of a sudden I’m an outsider.”
When he was 14, Abdi’s family won a U.S. greencard lottery and moved to Minneapolis, where a Somali immigrant community was growing rapidly. Today, more than 14,000 Somalis live in the city, but transition to the American Midwest was a challenge.
“It’s just human nature that people don’t like something different,” Abdi said. “When the Somali people started coming to Minneapolis, some of the African American community saw them as a threat. But most Somali kids, we don’t fight. So when people would start, we just….” Abdi shrugged.
After high school, Abdi worked at Target. He was working as a chauffeur when he saw a report on the local news that a casting director for a Tom Hanks movie was coming to Minneapolis looking for Somali actors. Abdi was familiar with the story of the hijacking, which he had followed in news reports when it happened in 2009.
“Some Somali people were saying this movie would embarrass the Somali people,” Abdi said. “Before I went to the casting, there was that kind of talk. But to me it was an opportunity. I had to try it and give it a chance.”
“Barkhad just had a great charisma and a sense of menace,” Greengrass said. “But also something sort of different, some sort of humanity in there too. You feel him in all his violence but also his desperation, and that’s good.”
Abdi and his friends also had a physical attribute that would have been difficult for many American-born actors to match — their incredible leanness. He is 5-foot-10 and 120 pounds. “I’m naturally like this,” Abdi said. “I eat whatever. Burgers, pasta, rice.”
Cast as a group, the four young men journeyed to the set in Malta to learn how to handle the boats and guns they would be using in the film. Abdi, who didn’t know how to swim, learned to balance on an unstable pirate skiff in choppy waters and to climb a ladder up a swaying cargo ship.
Greengrass deliberately kept the Somali actors apart from Hanks to improve their performances, he said. “I didn’t want them to be intimidated by him, and I didn’t want them to be nice to him,” Greengrass said. “I wanted them to be absolutely ruthlessly committed to what they were doing, which is an armed takeover of a container ship.”
Abdi, who had grown up watching Hanks’ movies, suffered his first bout of nerves the night before they were to shoot the storming-of-the-bridge scene.