Barkhad Abdi, pirate leader in ‘Captain Phillips,’ treasures his nomination

Hollywood loves a Cinderella story, and few have ever fit that shoe better than Barkhad Abdi. The actor, who played Somali pirate leader Muse in the Paul Greengrass film “Captain Phillips” to great acclaim, was born in Mogadishu. He recalls an idyllic childhood there, making and flying kites and playing marbles, until the age of 7, when civil war broke out in Somalia. He and his family fled to Yemen, where his father was already working as a teacher. Seven years later, they immigrated to the U.S., joining a vibrant Somali community in Minneapolis.

Working as a limousine driver, Abdi never imagined acting until he heard about an open casting call in his town. He auditioned with three friends, all Somali natives, and they were hired as a group, soon finding themselves acting opposite one of the biggest names in Hollywood, Tom Hanks.

Since the film’s release in October, Abdi, 28, has garnered just about every supporting actor nomination available, including the Screen Actors Guild Awards and the Golden Globes. Now he’s dazed to find himself an Oscar-nominated actor as well. He’s planning to move to Los Angeles this spring to continue acting, with friend and costar Faysal Ahmed (who played Najee). By phone, Abdi recounted some of the more surreal moments of his journey so far.


PHOTOS: Oscars 2014 nominee reactions

How did you research the role of Muse?

There is not much research, there is more word of mouth among the Somali community going around about pirates. You don’t know which story is real, which is not. So there was no legit information or a source that I could even look for. There was nothing. So what I did was I just thought about him. He just didn’t have parents to get him out of Somalia, and now he’s a grown man, and he sees this piracy as the only way out. He has no education, no job; all he knows is how to rob because that’s what he grew up watching. He’s trying to be safe, he doesn’t want to kill, and he wants the money. That I could understand. It’s almost similar in America. A criminal in America is just an average someone that wants quick money and doesn’t want to get caught.

When was the first time you and your “pirate crew” friends (Ahmed, Barkhad Abdirahman and Mahat M. Ali) saw the results on the big screen?

The four of us came together to Los Angeles for a special screening. We were all blown away by it. Each one of us had been thinking we’d have an embarrassing part, and we were going to have to deal with it. But there was nothing embarrassing; it was so nice. We had to watch it two times. The first time it went by like that [snaps his fingers]. Each of us was looking for, “What did I say?” It was really fun. I’m glad — I wasn’t comfortable with my acting fully. I wouldn’t watch the dailies, and I think that’s a good idea. I’m going to keep doing that from now on.

How have your friends been reacting to all your nominations?

They’re happy for me. Any nomination I get, I will get screaming calls. “You got that!” I say, “That wouldn’t have happened without you.” It’s not just what I did. It wouldn’t have been as good if they didn’t do their part right.

PHOTOS: Crucial images from the top films in 2013

You didn’t meet Tom Hanks until your first scene with him, attacking the ship he captains. After that, did you hang out together on set, or did you try to keep that tension between scenes?

We kept it. We would talk, but I was afraid to get out of character. I would always go somewhere by myself. I was always nervous during the shoot. Always. But Paul was always there, and he would just find a way to tell me how to do it, how to correct it.

When did you first realize that your role and the movie were getting big reactions?

After the premiere. My friends said they forgot it was me after the first 10 minutes. They didn’t think they would take me seriously, like, “You look good in the trailer, but come on.” Now they believed it. And they were scared the whole movie.

What’s been the most overwhelming moment so far?

When I got the Oscar nomination. That really got to me. I didn’t see that coming. It’s just amazing, I’m really humbled by it. I want to thank the academy for their generosity.

How did your parents react?

They’re happy for me. My mom knows what the Oscar is, but my dad didn’t. He said, “What is this thing everybody is congratulating about? Did you win?” I was like, “No, Dad, I didn’t win. I am in the competition, but that’s considered winning.” He said, “You didn’t win, then why is everyone so happy?” “OK, Dad. One day you’ll understand.”

How did you feel about Tom Hanks and Paul Greengrass not getting nominated?

Well, that was a disappointment, honestly. But I’m not going to say it’s not fair because it’s people’s votes, and I’m not here to judge. So it’s all right, they’ve both been nominated [before] and Tom has won the Oscar before, so I guess they’ll be OK. I’m new to this, so it’s all right.