Inside the Intense 'Captain Phillips' Shoot: Tom Hanks' 'Mental Stress,' His Co-Star's Horrific Backstory and a 'Scary' First Day on Set
At age 14, seven years after arriving in Yemen and learning to speak Arabic, Abdi moved again when his family got lucky on its third attempt and won the annual U.S. lottery for a green card, relocating to Minnesota.
He remembers arriving in New York and then taking a plane to Minneapolis, where his family accidentally ended up in a limousine because they had asked for a "car" instead of a taxi. "The highway was amazing," he says. "I would see little girls driving cars. It was so different."
Still, the years after his arrival were difficult. Abdi went to an inner-city school and experienced a troubled adolescence, during which he once was jumped by several youths. His mother spoke some English but no one else in the family did, and he would find himself watching TV without understanding a word. (Even now, his English is heavily accented and sometimes stumbling.) Later, he drifted from one job to another -- as a taxi driver, as a Target employee or working in his brother's audio and phone store. Finally, he heard that Hollywood was looking for Somalis.
"People around me would say, 'Oh, they're going to embarrass Somali people, don't go,' " he remembers. "I was like, 'It's Tom Hanks. I'm going to check it out.' So I went [to one casting call]. There's a lot of people there. I said, 'My name's Barkhad Abdi. I was born in Mogadishu, and I am the part.' "
At the audition, Abdi formed a tight group with three friends; it was their real-life bond that made them especially appealing to Greengrass, who met them when they moved on to the next audition stage and were flown to Los Angeles. But there also was something in Abdi himself.
"He had this instinct for expression; he is a very interesting man," says Greengrass. "His ability as an actor is rooted in personal experience and a sense of drama."
The action forced the Somalis to be as real as they could, given that Greengrass had opted not to have them take acting lessons. By contrast, he did have them learn to swim and gave them a crash course in boating: "There's no stunt doubles [piloting the skiffs] -- that's them."
With much of the shoot taking place onboard the cargo ship, or on skiffs out at sea that Greengrass' crew followed on ever-moving boats, the intensity of the shoot was constant. There were guns, hostility, fighting; there were days when Hanks and Abdi were trapped in a lifeboat on a gimbal inside a tank, unable to look through a window; there was the seasickness that overcame many crewmembers (though neither Hanks nor Abdi).
"There's a lot of mental stress," says Hanks of playing his role. "[There's] the anger that goes along with it and the desperation and stuff like that. You've got to start at 60 miles an hour. It takes its toll."
Looking back, Hanks says the film led him to see the Somali pirates in a different light.
"[At first] you think, 'They're bad guys and they have machine guns and they're thugs,' " he says. "But Paul, as soon as we started talking about it, says, 'It's true, but the place has been fished out by the global fishing industry, and Somali fishermen with their little lines and little nets can't compete with these trawlers that have literally swept the place clean of marine life.' Well, that alters life in Somalia a little bit."
He adds: "All the riches of global commerce [are] literally floating by a country that has completely fallen apart, where corruption and violence rule the day, in which famine is truly a part of life. Some of these pirates have no fear, because what's their option? To quietly live in this country that [has] fallen deeply into chaos?"
As for Abdi, he is aware that he might have gotten caught up in that chaos had he not been lucky enough to leave. Now, standing at a precarious point between anonymity and fame -- and wavering between pursuing an acting career and going back to his dream of becoming a recording engineer -- he ponders what his life could have been if he had remained in the country he hasn't seen for more than two decades.
"Somalia was a lawless country for 20 years," he says. "There's no government. There's no job. There's no hope. If I was in Somalia till now, I wouldn't be the same person."
Abdi still dreams of returning to the war-torn land; but his mind firmly is in America now -- in his home, Minneapolis, and perhaps in Hollywood, too.