Barkhad Abdi is a Somali–American actor and independent director, best known for his award-winning role in the multiple-‘Oscar’-nominated biographical thriller ‘Captain Phillips,’ starring Tom Hanks. He was essentially a non-professional actor, cast by director Paul Greengrass (of the ‘Jason Bourne’ series fame) to play the menacing leader of a band of Somali pirates in the film. He had never acted before in his life, but admittedly, had dabbled in directing amateurish music videos and short films. Since the immense critical and commercial success of his debut role, Abdi has appeared in major Hollywood projects such as ‘Eye in the Sky,’ ‘Blade Runner 2049,’ and ‘The Pirates of Somalia.’ “I just want to keep acting and better my craft and see how far it goes,” says the understated and grounded Hollywood rookie, who is known for his characteristic skeletal appearance and protruding incisors. Abdi hails from a first-generation Somali immigrant family that had fled war-torn Somalia when he was just a small child. He was named an ambassador for ‘Adeso’ in 2013, which is a grassroots African humanitarian NGO founded by Somali environmentalist Fatima Jibrell.
Childhood & Emigration to America
Barkhad Abdinasir Abdi was born on April 10, 1985, into a Majeerteen family in Mogadishu, in the Banaadir coastal region of Somalia. He was the second of four children, and grew up with two brothers and a sister.
His father was a school teacher who decided to flee with his family to Yemen to escape the civil war that had broken out in Somalia, when Abdi was only 6. “I left Somalia when I was 7 years old, but I witnessed a whole year in a war,” he once stated. The actor has said in interviews that he has both good and bad memories of Somalia.
He and his family members were accepted as legal refugees in the US. They moved to Minneapolis, Minnesota, in 1999. It was a city with a thriving Somali community, the largest in North America.
It took young Abdi a while to get used to life in America. He once stated he was used to playing football (soccer) in Yemen, but had to give it up since it was nowhere to be seen in the US. Instead, he learned how to play basketball to fit in. He later attended the ‘Minnesota State University Moorhead.’
Abdi worked at his brother's mobile phone shop at a mall in Minneapolis and as a limousine driver at a relative's chauffeur company. He also worked as a part-time DJ. He once mentioned: “I would DJ pool parties in Minneapolis, but I never swam there!”
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While working as a limousine driver in Minneapolis, Abdi answered an open casting call for ‘Captain Phillips’ (2013), helmed by ‘Oscar’-nominated director Paul Greengrass, who was looking for actors to play the desperate Somali kidnappers involved in the ‘Maersk Alabama’ ship-hijacking incident of 2009, during which merchant mariner Captain Richard Phillips was taken hostage in the Guardafui Channel.
Abdi lunged at the opportunity to work with “the Forrest Gump guy” and auditioned with three of his close friends, all from the same Minneapolis neighborhood. They ended up being hired together and became key to the success of the film, which went on to bag six ‘Oscar’ nominations. The group of four were selected because they were "the chosen ones, that anointed group that stuck out,” according to the casting director.
Besides being nominated as the ‘Best Supporting Actor’ at the ‘Oscars’ and at the ‘Screen Actors Guild Awards,’ for his performance in ‘Captain Phillips,’ he was also a ‘Best Actor In A Supporting Role’ nominee at the 2014 ‘Golden Globes,’ alongside fellow nominees Bradley Cooper, Jared Leto, Michael Fassbender, and Daniel Brühl. He ended up winning the ‘BAFTA’ award for the film.
Abdi was famously paid only $65,000 for his work in Greengrass’s film and had to return to working at his brother's shop afterward. This was partly on account of him getting sacked from his job of reading scripts for a TV show in January 2014. He appeared in a guest role in an episode of ‘Hawaii Five-0’ in 2015, but the same year, a big-banner gig in the Judd Apatow and Amy Schumer comedy ‘Trainwreck’ went under the chopping block.
He finally bagged a supporting role in the Helen Mirren-starrer ‘Eye in the Sky’ (2015) and then appeared in the action–comedy ‘The Brothers Grimsby’ (2016), alongside Sacha Baron Cohen and Mark Strong. He also reprised the voice role for Abduwali Muse in a 2016 episode of the hit animation comedy ‘Family Guy.’
In 2017, he appeared in ’Pirates of Somalia,’ also known as ‘Dabka,’ alongside Evan Peters, Melanie Griffith, and Al Pacino. It was a film based on journalist Jay Bahadur’s book ‘The Pirates of Somalia: Inside Their Hidden World.’ Jay Bahadur had also co-written the film. Abdi played a local Somali agent and translator for the Canadian freelance journalist, documenting Somali piracy from within in the weeks leading up to the Maersk Alabama hijacking.
He co-starred in the Robert Pattinson-starrer ‘Good Time’ and ‘Extortion,’ both in 2017.
In October 2017, he appeared in the ‘Oscar’-nominated French director Denis Villeneuve’s remake ‘Blade Runner 2049,’ sharing screen space with Hollywood heart-throb Ryan Gosling. His last big film was ‘The Extraordinary Journey of the Fakir,’ starring Indian superstar Dhanush.
In 2019, he will appear as a regular cast member in the second season of ‘Hulu’s Stephen King horror–fantasy ‘Castle Rock.’ Some of his upcoming projects include ‘Beneath a Sea of Lights’ and ‘Tyson's Run,’ both of which are in post-production.
Family & Personal Life
After a flurry of media appearances, following accolades and nominations for his portrayal of the convicted real-life pirate Abduwali Muse, the Somali revealed to ‘The Los Angeles Times’ that he had plans of making a permanent move to Los Angeles to try and build a real career in the entertainment industry. “I don't see myself only as a Somali character. I think of myself as an actor, and if the job fits me and I like the story, I will go for it,” he said. He now divides his time between Los Angeles and Cedar-Riverside, Minneapolis.
He stands at 5’10’’ but weighs only about 120 pounds. The actor says that his leanness is natural and is not affected by his diet. He once stated: “I eat whatever. Burgers, pasta, rice.” Remarking on his casting in ‘Captain Phillips,’ ‘The Chicago Tribune’ mentioned: "Abdi and his friends also had a physical attribute that would have been difficult for many American-born actors to match - their incredible leanness.”
Abdi believes that ‘Captain Phillips’ truly changed his life for the better, including how people approached and spoke to him. He states: “it's exciting but quite surreal.” He wants people to know how hard-working Somalis are and how they can adapt to any situation or environment they are thrust into.
Abdi and his Somali castmates were kept from meeting Tom Hanks by director Greengrass until their first tense scene together, when the former was shown storming the bridge of the ship. The idea worked wonders.
The band of Somalis had to undergo an intensive month-and-a-half-long training in using weapons, riding skiffs, enacting fight-scenes, and in Abdi’s case, learning how to swim.
The famous and ubiquitous line of the film, “I’m the captain now,” was an improvisation by Abdi.
His favorite films include classics such as 'The Usual Suspects' and 'Scarface.’ He admires actors such as Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, and Denzel Washington. He is also a fan of comics Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle.
The notable lump on the left side of his forehead is the result of a vehicular accident that he had suffered prior to venturing into acting.