Faysal Ahmed, left, Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman and Mahat Ali are Somali immigrants living in Minneapolis who auditioned for 'Captain Phillips' and got roles. Abdi left a particularly strong mark as Muse. (Jasin Boland / AP / Columbia Pictures)
Chicago— Muse is a scary guy.
Something of a skeletal wraith with a machine gun, Muse is the leader of a gang of Somali pirates who take over a transport boat in “Captain Phillips,” the new true-life thriller starring Tom Hanks.
You come out of the theater amazed at Hanks’ performance and the story. But you also come out wondering, who the heck was that guy who played Muse?
His name is Barkhad Abdi. And as a Somali immigrant living in Minneapolis, he didn’t have to reach far to get inside Muse.
“I relate to the character, I was born in Somalia. I left there when I was 7 years old but for a whole year I saw the war unfolding — just killing, rape,” he says in a heavy accent.
“Looking back at the war, there is no school, no structure, no hope, no jobs,” Abdi, 28. says, sitting in a hotel room in Chicago. “That could have been me.”
Abdi’s father was a teacher in Yemen when the war broke out, and it took a year for him to spirit his family out of Somalia. Then, when Abdi was 14, his family won the green card lottery and immigrated to Minneapolis, where there is a strong community of Somali natives.
A couple of years ago Abdi and some friends heard auditions were being held for a movie starring Tom Hanks
“Forrest Gump!” Abdi says with a smile.
So he and his buddies and about 800 other Somali men showed up, even though Abdi had no acting experience. Director Paul Greengrass sensed the bond between Abdi and his friends and could tell Abdi was the natural leader. He hired them.
Then came the tough part. This was an ocean adventure and Abdi didn’t even know how to swim. So the group underwent a month-and-a-half of training.
“Every morning we’d wake up and have to swim for a few hours. We did a lot of fighting, a lot of climbing, training with weapons. We’d train on the skiffs,” he says. “Day after day, until we got used to it. It just became natural for me.”
Working in front of the camera became natural as well, and Abdi ended up improvising some key lines.
“I wouldn’t think about the camera, I wouldn’t worry about the camera. I’d just use a lot of imagination and be the character,” Abdi says.
“I have a lot of lines all over the movie that just came out. Like that line, ‘I’m the captain, now,’” which he says as he takes command from Hanks. “Paul would just tell me to make it my own.”
Abdi says he wants to continue with acting, although he doesn’t have any roles lined up just yet. But he has no plans to leave Minnesota.
“Minneapolis is home. I’ve tried living other places but there’s something about Minneapolis that pulls me,” he says. “I have a lot of friends, I have a lot of family — it’s where I grew up.”
For now he’s just thrilled to be in a movie with one of his heroes.
“After we were done shooting I think, I can’t believe I’m doing a movie with the ‘Forrest Gump’ guy,” Abdi says.