SAN FRANCISCO — Barkhad Abdi never thought about being an actor. He only decided to go to the "Captain Phillips" open casting in Minneapolis for one reason: Tom Hanks.
"It came on the local TV about Tom Hanks, Somali actors," Abdi says. "I love Tom Hanks. I like his movies. So we decided to check it out. It was all just curiosity."
Director Paul Greengrass was determined to cast Somali actors in the film, which is based on the 2009 hijacking of the United States container ship, Maersk Alabama, by four Somali pirates.
Abdi was one of 700-800 Somali living in Minneapolis, which has one of the largest populations of Somali in the United States, who showed up to the audition. He got to meet all of the production team, but he never got to meet Oscar-winning actor Hanks.
Even without any acting experience, Abdi was cast to play Muse, the leader of the pirates, which meant he would finally get to meet Hanks. He didn't know that meeting was still months away. The four actors playing the pirates went through long training sessions to be able to handle the small boat and weapons they use in the film.
"We thought after the training and shooting the first scene, now we meet Tom. Paul comes and says 'Oh no. You're not going to meet Tom any time until the first scene where you interact," Abdi says.
During the first part of the filming, Abdi and his fellow pirate actors would stay in their trailer when Hanks was on the set because Greengrass wanted their first meeting to be the key moment in the film — it's the point when Captain Phillips (Hanks) loses control of the ship.
That change of power comes with one line, when Phillips introduces himself as the captain and Muse counters with "I am the captain."
"I came up with that line," Abdi says. He's dressed in a bright green Izod shirt that hangs from his bony frame. It's a sharp contrast to the bright red Chicago Bulls hat that covers most of his head.
The only story more incredible than Abdi's tale of landing a starring role opposite Hanks, is his journey from civil-war-torn Somalia to the wintry weather of Minnesota.
"I was six years old and the afternoon before I was to start school, the civil war started. It was like what you would see in a movie. The gun shots don't stop. Dead people everywhere. Killing. Rape. My brother and I would listen to the gunshots at night. We would hear the bullets and go 'What kind of gun is that?'," Abdi says. "What would disturb us most, while we were listening to these guns, was there was a very loud lady getting raped every night. You would think she had a microphone. To this day, I still don't understand how loud she was."
Abdi and his family survived because the neighbors kept watch over them. It was a year before they were finally able to leave Mogadishu, Somalia and escape to Taiz, Yemen, where Abdi was raised. He came to the United States in 1999, when he was 14, with his parents and siblings when his mother won a visa lottery. After a short stay in New York, they moved to Minneapolis because they had family there. Abdi attended Minnesota State University, Moorhead and is now working behind the camera shooting music videos.
"I want to make a great Somali movie one day," he says. "There are a lot of movies made in Somalia, but they are not very good."
TV and movie critic Rick Bentley can be reached at (559) 441-6355, firstname.lastname@example.org or @RickBentley1 on Twitter. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.