How Breakthrough 'Captain Phillips' Actor Connected To The Role

Jan 19, 2014
Originally published on January 19, 2014 6:43 pm
Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit


"Captain Phillips" is one of those films, a true life story of war and drama. It's based on the story of the hijacking of the Maersk Alabama. Five years ago, pirates attacked the freighter ship off the coast of Somalia. The film star is 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.


RATH: But here's where the formula gets upended. Hank's was ignored in the Best Actor category and first-time actor Barkhad Abdi was nominated for Best Supporting Actor. It's not just his lack of movie experience that makes Abdi an unlikely Oscar nominee. Abdi was born in Somalia. His family moved to Yemen when he was 7, and he didn't get to the U.S. until he was 14. When I spoke with him last October, he told me that he learned about the "Captain Phillips" role from a TV ad.

: Casting call, Tom Hanks film, Somali actors. And I went there to give it a chance.

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

: 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.


RATH: Have you done any acting before?

: You know, I have not done any acting before. I shot some music videos, but I was never in front of camera then. 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?

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


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

: Right.

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

: 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.


: He is someone that is used to the waters, someone that's used to weapons, fighting, skiffs. So I had to learn all that.


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

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

: No.

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 in him to relate with?

: It was difficult at first. But, you know, when I really thought of the actual character, he's a very desperate guy that had his 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 had 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?

: 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?

: You know, it was exciting. But at the same time, it was life-changing. I had to start 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?

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

: I don't think of myself as the 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's - I think it's safe to say in the film, there's a lot more context to the experience of the Somalis. What are you hoping that people will take away from the film in America?

: I hope people will 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's - in forces outside of their control.

And, you know, that 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: That's Actor Barkhad Abdi from a conversation that first aired back in October. Abdi was just nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role in the film "Captain Phillips." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.