The new movie Captain Phillips is earning strong reviews for its star, Tom Hanks, and its realistic portrayal of a hijacking by Somali pirates. The young actor who plays the "lead pirate" in the film is also winning praise for his performance. Barkhad Abdi is a Somali-American who spent his early years in Somalia and his more recent years working as a limousine driver in the city of Minneapolis.
Abdi's life was changed by a report he saw on a Minneapolis TV station. It said producers were looking for actors to play roles in a film about Richard Phillips, the captain of the U.S. ship Maersk Alabama that was hijacked by Somali pirates in April 2009.
Abdi auditioned and won a role as one of the pirates. He says his background as a Somali immigrant helped him to be convincing in the role.
"I was always fascinated by the pirates, and I was amazed by what they do. And I'm a Somalian myself - I was born in Somalia, I left Somalia when I was seven years old, and I witnessed the war. So I could relate to the pirates in a lot of ways, I know a lot of people who came from Somalia who lived with us in Minneapolis," said Abdi.
Minneapolis is home to the largest Somali immigrant community in the United States. Thousands of Somalis have moved there over the past 20 years, fleeing war and poverty in their homeland.
The 28-year-old Abdi, who had been working as a limo driver, suddenly found himself working with two-time Oscar winner Tom Hanks and a major Hollywood director, Paul Greengrass. He says both men helped him feel comfortable on the set.
"Tom Hanks is really a humble guy, that, you know, was there with me, and you know, just helped me through it. And Paul Greengrass was the one that gave me a chance and who believed in me from the get-go. And so if ever I'd do anything wrong, he'd take me aside and help me get the scene better. So I'm really grateful about working with them," he said.
The movie has earned a good reception, with many reviewers taking note of Abdi. The New York Times lauded his performance as "very, very fine," while the Denver Post said, "Abdi's turn as Muse... is striking for its avoidance of sentimentality or villainy."
The movie takes pains to show how the pirates were driven to crime not by ideology but by their desperate circumstances in Somalia.
Abdi says that before the movie came out, he received some criticism within the Somali community for playing a potentially embarrassing role. Now, he says, those feelings have vanished.
"The Somali community, they're loving it. I received all kinds of messages on Facebook and Twitter, complimenting me and telling me how proud they are of me," said Abdi.
Abdi says he does not have any offers for future roles, but hopes to keep acting.
Captain Phillips opened in American theaters on October 11.