The tale of how Somali-born Barkhad Abdi came to be the primary co-star of international acting icon Tom Hanks in “Captain Phillips” is itself a kind of Hollywood fantasy dream.
Abdi was watching television in his home in Minneapolis, where he had moved with his parents from Yemen when he was 14. A student at a local college, Abdi saw a news story about a search for young men of Somali heritage for a Tom Hanks film.
“I thought, what do I have to lose? If I don’t go, I’ll never know if I could have made it,” said Abdi. When he did show up for the audition, he thought he’d never make it. “There were more than 1,000 people there. Just so many.”
However Abdi spotted several friends and since the casting agents requested the people auditioning to divide up into groups of four — Abdi wisely took charge and made his pals into his team.
“I think that gave us a big advantage. We knew each other and we could quickly connect as a crew.”
After not hearing for quite some time, “I really thought, ‘Well, we didn’t get it. But at least we tried.’ Then — out of the blue — I got the call for us to go to Los Angeles. When I got to the airport there were the other guys from my group. We made it together as a team.”
Abdi also understood director Paul Greengrass’ decision for he and his Somali friends not to meet Tom Hanks before they actually confronted him in character — taking over the ship. “It made it real. It made me feel like we really were the pirates. … You know, when I tell Tom Hanks, ‘Now, I am the captain,’ that was my idea. Total ad lib. But Paul liked it — and it stayed in the movie. I thought it was something that Muse [his character] would have actually said for real.”
For Paul Greengrass, the director of “Captain Phillips,” making this movie had a very personal twist for him. “My father was in the merchant marine like Richard Phillips, and he spent his life at sea. I grew up in that world. So I understand these kind of men — at least to a certain degree.”
But after Greengrass began delving into the very technical aspects of running a huge container ship like the Maersk Alabama, “I realized how little I truly knew about my father’s life at sea. … After all, when he’d come home he, like most sailors, was a man of few words. The sea is a calling, always has been. Those who go to sea are hardworking — it’s a blue-collar world, a world of duty and perseverance. You also always know there’s danger there. Things like piracy that seem outlandish to us, they kind of know, because it’s always been there — going back to the earliest days of men going to sea.
“That was a big thing I wanted to get across with this film.”
For Greengrass, piracy is like “international organized crime,” and while today — and in the case depicted in “Captain Phillips” it takes place on the high seas — the hijacking of property has taken different forms over the years.
“Yes, in the 1920s and ‘30s it was down there on the waterfront of ports around the world, in the 19th Century it was the railroads, in the 18th Century it was stagecoaches in Europe. Today it’s the global shipping lanes.”