Actor Barkhad Abdi

The first-time actor shares his thoughts about being on many best supporting actor lists for his performance in the film, Captain Phillips.

Barkhad Abdi was working as a chauffeur and a DJ in Minnesota when he answered a local casting call and auditioned for a part in the film, Captain Phillips. His acting debut not only resulted in critical acclaim for his performance—in both English and Somali—as the leader of pirates that take a ship captain hostage, but Golden Globe, SAG and BAFTA supporting actor noms. Abdi was born in Somalia and, at age 7, moved with his family to Yemen to escape civil war. At age 14, he and his family moved to the U.S. and settled in Minneapolis. He's directed several music videos and is directing a movie about the struggles of first generation Somali-Americans living in Minneapolis.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: Somali-born Barkhad Abdi, who immigrated with his family to this country 14 years ago, answered an open casting call in Minneapolis and won over hundreds and hundreds of other hopefuls the part of a desperate Somali pirate in “Captain Phillips,” which stars, of course, one Tom Hanks.

This is his first film, and he’s already earned outstanding reviews for his work, and he is considered one of the front-runners for a best supporting actor nod. The film is opening in a thousand more theaters tomorrow, comes out on DVD and Blu-ray next week.

Before we start our conversation with Barkhad, let’s take a look at a scene from “Captain Phillips.”

[Clip]

Tavis: I was saying to Barkhad that he must hear this all the time, and he said indeed, everywhere he goes, people walk up to him and what do they say?

Barkhad Abdi: “I’m the captain now.” (Laughter)

Tavis: It’s a great line, one of the best lines in the movie. Look at me – I like how you say, “Look at me.” Look at me, look at me – I’m the captain now. It’s a great film, a great film, great line, everybody loved it.

Abdi: Thank you.

Tavis: I don’t want to color this question too much. I want to sit back and let you tell me the story. So take me back to Minneapolis, where you live.

Abdi: Okay.

Tavis: How did you hear about the open casting call? What happens? Just tell me the whole story of how you first heard about this and ended up hanging out with Tom Hanks. Just tell me the whole story.

Abdi: Yeah, so I’m at my friend’s house and we were just hanging out, and we were watching TV. There was a commercial came on, Tom Hanks casting call film, coming to my neighborhood like two days after that day.

So I was like, “I’m going.” I thought about it and I went there, and it was a huge crowd that was there, like about more than 700 people. Maybe about a thousand.

I was there, and at first you just fill out the paper, write your name, and they asked me just simple questions, and they assigned me to a character, Muse, and they gave me part of a script to study and come back.

So I came back the next day and I auditioned that first time, and then we had to be in groups of four for the audition. There I found three of my buddies there, that we live in the same neighborhood and we’re almost like brothers.

After we find out we each had different characters, we decided to form our own group and we auditioned that day, and it wasn’t that good. But we went home, we practiced, we came back, and we auditioned more.

Then we had two weeks of silence after, like, four audition with the group. Two weeks of silence, like we didn’t know if we got the part or not. After that we got a phone call from Francine Maisler, the casting director.

She told us that Paul Greengrass wants to meet us in L.A. But yet we have no idea if we got the part. So all four of us came to L.A. and we met the director Paul Greengrass at Santa Monica, and that’s where he told us we got the part.

Tavis: So the group of the – all four of you got hired?

Abdi: All four of us, yup.

Tavis: Man. See, that part of the story I didn’t know. So you go to the casting call, just happen to run into your buddies, and you all had different parts. So you all just start rehearsing together, and Paul Greengrass hired all four of you.

Abdi: All four of us.

Tavis: Wow. So when you got the part that you obviously played so well in the movie, when you started reading it, just give me some sense of what you thought about the character when you started reading the part that you had been given.

Abdi: Well, he was a ruthless guy, but he had a – there was his motivation. I’m from Somalia myself. I was born in Somalia, and I left there when I was seven years old, after the war. So I look at him like someone that wasn’t fortunate to have parents like I did.

To get me out and see this thing as the only way out. You hear enough stuff about people that did it in front of him and became millionaires, so he’s just going all-out with this thing, and when he finds out it’s American ship, then it’s like the only way out.

He’s not going to stop, and at the same time he doesn’t want to kill. So he’s just a complex character.

Tavis: Had you ever, prior to seeing this TV commercial, had you ever given any thought to being an actor? What were your dreams prior to hanging out with your friends and seeing a TV commercial?

Abdi: Well, I didn’t want to be an actor, honestly, but I loved films. I love stories. I was working on music videos; I had my camera and shoot music videos, short films, stuff like that. But I wasn’t an actor.

Tavis: Yeah. So you were in the creative field, the creative space; just not as an actor.

Abdi: Just not as an actor, yeah.

Tavis: Yeah. So I’m trying to jump ahead here. So you come to L.A., you see Paul Greengrass, the director. He hires you and your buddies. Everybody has his role now that he’s supposed to play.

So fast-forward and tell me what it was like when you – when, where, and how you met Tom Hanks.

Abdi: Meeting Tom Hanks was – at first, when we got to Malta we had about a week – about a month and a half of training of boats, just a skiff. I had to learn how to stand still in a skiff that’s going fast.

My other (unintelligible) had to learn how to drive the skiff, and we had to learn how to do weapons, fighting, just all the stuff that we really need to be like the native pirates, how comfortable they are with (unintelligible).

Tavis: So a lot of training and a lot of rehearsal.

Abdi: Yeah, and we had to learn how to swim too.

Tavis: I’m glad you said that, because I read this somewhere. So I heard that you were just a little bit dishonest when you (laughter) filled out the form. You wanted this role, and I can understand why you’d want the role. It’s a Tom Hanks film; I’d want to be in it too.

Abdi: Right.

Tavis: They asked you on the form could you swim, and you said yes. But you really couldn’t swim.

Abdi: No.

Tavis: Okay.

Abdi: I couldn’t swim. (Laughter)

Tavis: So when you got to, when you started training and rehearsing, did that become an issue?

Abdi: I had the (unintelligible) and it was like I wanted to learn how to swim, and I had to. I wanted to do this part because that was the scary part. Like when I got the part, that’s when I started getting worried. Like, can I do it?

This (unintelligible) on the other side, and if I don’t do it fully correctly, it’s not going to come out nice. So we, it wasn’t that hard, but we used a month and a half, and it was training daily, and the ocean is right there. We’d go there afterward. So we managed to learn how to swim.

Tavis: When did you actually meet for the first time Mr. Hanks?

Abdi: After that training. Then we were all excited about meeting Tom, and Paul came and told us, “You are not meeting Tom until the first time in the scene.” You the first time you’re acting together in character. Then you’ll meet Tom.

So that’s – that scene, so that’s the first time I actually see him, and it was really, really nerve-wracking for me, because that was the same scene that I did the auditioning for.

We just – I became the character. Paul calmed me down and I just became the character.

Tavis: Was this the scene that we just saw, or another scene?

Abdi: Yeah, it’s the scene, yeah, we just saw.

Tavis: Same scene?

Abdi: Yeah.

Tavis: Whoa, hold up, hold up, hold up. (Laughter) Wait a minute. I’m just trying to follow this story. So – and I understand why Paul Greengrass, brilliant director, I totally get why he did what he did.

Abdi: Yup.

Tavis: Because Tom Hanks, as you know, is the nicest guy in the world.

Abdi: He’s a nice guy, very nice.

Tavis: He didn’t want y’all to get to fall in love with Tom Hanks and be buddy-buddy. You had to get in Tom Hanks’ face. So I understand why he wanted to keep you away from Tom Hanks, because he’s such a nice guy.

But I’m just laughing inside, because the very first time you meet this venerable actor, Tom Hanks, you’ve got a gun in his face and you tell him, “Look at me, look at me, look at me – I’m the captain now.” That’s the first scene you shoot with him.

Abdi: Yeah, it was the character.

Tavis: Wow. (Laughter) That takes a lot of nerve, to look at Tom Hanks and say that. Did you enjoy the experience? When I saw this movie and discovered that you were going to come on our show, and I’m honored to have you, of course, it just seems like it was a lot of hard work to make this happen. Did you have fun doing this thing?

Abdi: I can tell you I had a lot of fun doing this film. It was more like an adventure. It was like every day there’s a new obstacle, there’s a new way to find out and to find the scene and to get it. So it was fun.

There’s my buddies there, and we’re in a different country. It was fun. Yeah, but it was hard work at the same time.

Tavis: Sure, I can imagine. So when you finally saw the finished product, what did you think of what you and your buddies had been fortunate and blessed to do?

Abdi: Yeah, it was beyond exciting, man. It was a great moment. Because I wouldn’t watch the scenes right after I do it either, so watching the whole movie together, it was -

Tavis: So you waited till the end to see it.

Abdi: Yup.

Tavis: You didn’t look at what they call the dailies. You passed on that.

Abdi: I passed on that, yeah.

Tavis: Yeah, you waited till the end.

Abdi: If the director’s fine with it, I’m fine with it.

Tavis: Yeah, yeah. Well, that’s mighty nice of you. If the director’s happy, you’ll take it.

Abdi: Yeah.

Tavis: So do you want to do more of this now? Do you want to do more acting now that you’ve done it, or do you still want to – you want to get back to your camera now?

Abdi: No, I want to do more acting. I want to do more acting, and I want to see what else can I do.

Tavis: Yeah. It’s a great story. It is a great story, and Hollywood is full of these stories. You don’t hear them all the time, but every now and then you run into a story like this, where somebody answers the call and they happen to have the talent.

The timing is right, and before you know it they’re on everybody’s list of great performances. So Mr. Abdi, congratulations.

Abdi: Thank you.

Tavis: Good to have you on the program. The movie, you all well know, is Tom Hanks’ “Captain Phillips,” and if you have not seen it, it’s a great film and I encourage you to go see it, and Mr. Abdi does a magnificent job as the leader of these Somali pirates. You will not be let down, I can assure you. Congratulations to you again, and all the best to you, sir.

Abdi: Thank you.

Tavis: I’m sure – I hope to see you again on this chair one day a little further down the road.

Abdi: Hopefully, yeah.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

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Tavis: Coming up, a conversation with “12 Years a Slave” actress Lupita Nyong’o – stay with us.

Last modified: January 15, 2014 at 2:32 pm