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Among the Oscar nominations announced on Thursday morning were two first-time nominees who were recognized for their first movie roles.
Abdi made his acting debut in the Paul Greengrass movie inspired by the real-life takeover of the ship Maersk Alabama by Somali pirates in 2009. Abdi played Muse, the Somali leader.
Months before shooting began, casting director Francine Maisler started to search the U.S. for Somalis, especially in and around Minneapolis, a hub for East African immigrants. More than 700 locals were interviewed at a community center — among them, Abdi, who had never acted before but had heard about the audition while watching the news. The Somali immigrant was 6 years old and living in Mogadishu when war broke out there.
“People around me would say, ‘Oh, they’re going to embarrass Somali people, don’t go,’ ” he told The Hollywood Reporter for a cover story. “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.'”
Said Greengrass of Abdi: “He had this instinct for expression; he is a very interesting man. His ability as an actor is rooted in personal experience and a sense of drama.”
Before 12 Years, Nyong’o had starred in the series Shuga, which focused on the love lives of a group of young Kenyans, for MTV Base, a channel available in Europe and Africa.
12 Years director Steve McQueen cast her as Patsey, a young slave who works for the slave owner Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) and is the subject of his wife’s jealousy and both characters’ brutalization. He told THR for a cover story that he had auditioned more than 1,000 actresses for the role — “It was like looking for Scarlett O’Hara. I thought we would never find her” — before meeting Nyong’o, who was about to graduate from the Yale School of Drama.
“[My manager] put me on tape with a camera in her house against a plain background,” said Nyong’o, who is of Kenyan descent and was born in Mexico. “I did two scenes from the movie — the scene where Patsey asks Platt [the name Solomon is given by his master] to kill her, and the scene right before the whipping [when Fassbender attacks the young woman]. It’s pretty difficult to do in a room with fluorescent lights.”
When McQueen saw her tape, he flew her to the set: “She came down to New Orleans, and that was it.”
Stephen Galloway contributed to this report.
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