Barkhad Abdi had never acted before, but his portrayal of a Somali pirate in "Captain Phillips," which on Wednesday earned him a Screen Actors Guild nomination for supporting actor, was drawn from his years living in the dangerous Horn of Africa, where desperation and brash criminality collide on the glittering seas.
Abdi’s empathetic portrayal of Muse, a pirate with the ragged charisma and naivete of the larger world, is part of the actor’s odyssey, which began when he was a 7-year-old refugee escaping the war in Somalia and eventually ending up in Minneapolis. He has gone from a limo driver to sharing the screen with Tom Hanks. And he hopes his nomination will bring a bit of good news to his tormented native land.
“A negative light has been shed on Somalia for a long time, and this (nomination) will be a positive light” he said. “Hopefully peace will come to Somalia one day.... As a Somali it was a good thing to do. I love acting, but this was a true story. I lived in Somalia. I lived through war. I put myself in the character’s shoes. I put all that in my head.”
Abdi has been nominated with four other actors: Jared Leto, as a transsexual with blistering wit in "Dallas Buyers Club"; Michael Fassbender, a vicious plantation owner in "12 Years a Slave"; Daniel Bruhl, a relentless Formula One race car driver in "Rush"; and James Gandolfini, a divorced father worried about his waistline and looking for love in "Enough Said." Gandolfini, who created the indelible mob boss in the HBO series "The Sopranos," died in June.
“I’m just beyond excited,” Abdi said by telephone shortly after the nominations were announced. “It was a big role for me. It was challenging, but I took it day by day. Tom (Hanks) helped me and so did [director Paul Greengrass]. Paul put us through a lot of training."
He said he and the other amateur African actors “did it together. We tried to connect with one another.”
When asked what his next project might be, Abdi, 27, a reed of a man who personified the poverty and grit of villagers along the Somalia coast, said: “There is nothing I’m up to yet. I have an agent and I’m coming to L.A. real soon. It’s been an amazing ride.”
The 20th Screen Actors Guild Awards will be held Jan. 18, 2014.