I meet Barkhad Abdi the day after he won the London Critics’ Circle award for supporting actor of the year for his portrayal of Somali pirate leader Abduwali Muse in true-life hostage drama Captain Phillips.
If he’s thrilled to have gone home with the gong he doesn’t show any signs – Abdi is a very laid-back
interviewee, sitting on a sofa in a suit that swamps his lean frame. ‘I’m truly honoured and flattered,’ he assures me. He also doesn’t seem to have done much hobnobbing with his fellow award-winners, revealing the only other thespian he spoke to was Naomie Harris. ‘I’ve met her before. She said she liked the film and I’m a big fan of hers – her performance in Mandela is amazing.’
Abdi’s having a busy awards season. His role as the intense and brooding Muse in Paul Greengrass’s action thriller has also earned him nominations for the best supporting actor trophies at the Baftas and Oscars. It’s a situation the first-time actor says is taking some getting used to.
‘It’s exciting but quite surreal,’ says the 28-year-old. ‘I don’t go thinking “I better win” – I’m just glad to be there at all. It’s fun to go to these events. I’m not a big fan of the interviews. I don’t think anyone can get used to doing ten interviews back-to-back. The red carpet shocks me every time.’
It’s certainly unusual for an actor to make such a big splash with his debut role – especially since Abdi had never acted until the day he went to an open audition, alongside 700 other hopefuls, in his home city of Minneapolis. Surprisingly, there is a thriving Somali community in the city and producers advertised on local TV for would-be actors.
Abdi found himself auditioning with his friends – all of whom were cast in the film. ‘We’re like brothers,’ he says. ‘We grew up in the same neighbourhood. None of this would have happened without them.’
How do they feel about him getting all the attention? ‘They’re happy for me,’ he says. ‘Their time will come.’
Abdi and his pals had a month of training before filming began – learning how to use their weapons, ride on a skiff, do the fight scenes and, most importantly, how to swim. Their first meeting with Tom Hanks, who stars as the unlucky title character, came when they shot the pivotal scene in which they take over his ship.
‘If I’d met him before it would have changed the dynamics,’ says Abdi. ‘In that scene I have to prove I’m the leader and it wouldn’t have worked if I’d got to know him out of character. During the movie I’d try to stay in character while he and the other guys would have fun. We talked more during promotion – he’s someone to look up to. He shows no matter how big you get you should always work your hardest.’
The stand-out line from the film, Abdi says, where he puts a gun to Hanks’s head and announces, ‘I’m the captain now,’ was improvised. ‘It just came out,’ he says, ‘and now everyone I meet says it to me,’ he adds, as if he’s beginning to find it a bit irritating.
People are keen to congratulate him now but it was a different story when he first accepted the role. ‘There was suspicion about the film in the Somali community,’ he says.
‘No one spoke to me directly but I’d see things on Facebook or hear things in the coffee shops. People were saying I shouldn’t do the film but what people think doesn’t concern my life. It’s a true story, someone had to tell it and they decided to use real Somalis. It was an opportunity – that’s how I saw it.’
Abdi and his family fled Somalia when he was seven shortly after the civil war began. Every night, he and his brothers would hear his neighbours in Mogadishu being shot or raped. His family lived in Yemen before moving to Minneapolis.
‘I loved America and we all wanted to move there. There were some difficulties – not knowing the language and not getting on with some people…’ he says of some residents who weren’t thrilled to have new Somali neighbours. ‘I used to play football all the time. In the US, people don’t play football so I had to learn basketball. Looking back, that’s what I like about my life – doing new things, having a new perspective.’
Before his big break, he worked in a supermarket, as a limousine driver and as a DJ. ‘Jobs aren’t fully available for Somali teens in the US. Especially when you don’t have a college degree. I didn’t have a job for a while but you have to manage yourself and stay away from trouble.’ Was that easy to do? ‘It depends who you are. If you look for trouble you will find it.’
Abdi has signed up as goodwill ambassador to African development charity Adeso and he’s hoping to return to Somalia – he hasn’t been back since the day he left. ‘I’d love to go back and check it out,’ he says.
Will it be a difficult experience? ‘It will be weird but that’s not how I look at it – I’m a big actor now and want to go back and find out who needs help and how to help them.’
For now, though, he’s signed up with an agent and another move lies ahead – to Los Angeles. Has the lack of Hollywood roles for Somalis made him think twice about his acting ambitions? ‘I don’t see myself only as a Somali character. I think of myself as an actor and if the job fits me and I like the story, I will go for it.’
Captain Phillips is out on DVD, Blu-ray, and VoD on Monday.