‘Captain Phillips’ Made Barkhad Abdi an Actor and Oscar Nominee, Now He Wants to Be a Director

One day, Barkhad Abdi was driving taxicabs in Minneapolis and the next, he was on movie sets in Malta and Morocco, making his acting debut opposite Oscar winner Tom Hanks in the high-octane hostage picture Captain Phillips for filmmaker Paul Greengrass.

A few days after cameras started rolling, Abdi dialed up Francine Maisler, the casting director who locked him in the movie playing the lead Somali pirate responsible for hijacking an American cargo ship. “I called Francine and said, ‘I like this. I want to do more. How can I make this my career?'” remembers Abdi, who beat out more than 1,000 hopefuls vying for the role from open casting calls in Minneapolis, Ohio and San Diego, cities home to large populations of Somali Americans. “She asked me how many Black actors I see in movies each year, and I said, ‘Not that many.’ She then said, ‘Whatever you do in this movie will determine whether you’re going to keep acting or not.’ That was a huge motivator for me and gave me the confidence to really push the battle to the floor and do my best to nail the part.”

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Paul Greengrass, Tom Hanks and Barkhad Abdi attend the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences official Academy members screening of "Captain Phillips" on October 7, 2013 in New York City.

From left: Paul Greengrass, Tom Hanks and Barkhad Abdi at an Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences screening of ‘Captain Phillips’ in New York on Oct. 7, 2013.

He not only nailed it, Abdi added an exclamation point when he scored an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor in a category that featured established stars like (eventual winner) Jared Leto for Dallas Buyers Club, Bradley Cooper for American Hustle, Michael Fassbender for 12 Years a Slave and Jonah Hill for The Wolf of Wall Street. The Oscar nominations rolled out at 5:38 a.m. on Jan. 16, 2014, a morning that felt even earlier for Abdi. “I was at The Beverly Hilton and I couldn’t sleep, to be honest. I tried, but it was so hectic. I got up at 5 in the morning and ended up doing interviews all day. My whole world changed,” he says. “In a lot of ways, it still feels like a dream, but I remember going into computer mode to try and process everything. I don’t remember all the details.”

What he does recall is a few memorable encounters with best actor contender Leonardo DiCaprio, nominated for The Wolf of Wall Street. “I was a huge, huge fan. I watched Titanic and didn’t even speak English at the time,” recalls Abdi, who attended college in North Dakota before settling in Minneapolis, where he now lives. “I didn’t need to speak it to understand what a great actor he was.” At the BAFTA Awards, where Abdi won an award, DiCaprio approached him to praise his comedic timing while presenting a trophy at the Producers Guild Awards. “He said to me, ‘Dude you were so funny. You cracked me up.’ That’s one of the memories that I hold dear. I met so many people, all these actors I had only seen on TV. I felt like a kid in a Disney store.”

Regarding Hanks, Abdi has high praise. “You can say that he’s the reason I’m here. I learned so much from Tom Hanks, mainly his hard work and professionalism because he’s a person who puts everything into his craft and works so hard on each scene,” Abdi says, before taking a moment to share that he found it “heartbreaking” that Hanks did not land a best actor nomination for his work leading the film. But what he did do was make sure that Abdi was OK after each major awards ceremony. “He and his wife, Rita Wilson, they both kind of worried about me losing, and every time I lost, they looked at me to check in. I was like, ‘It’s OK, I’m happy to just be there.'”

Abdi attended the Oscars on March 2, 2014, alongside another co-star, his good friend Faysal Ahmed. Decked out in Calvin Klein suits, he says they made the rounds at the telecast and post-show Governors Ball, followed by the star-packed Vanity Fair Oscar party, where he got to meet an NBA superstar.

Actors Faysal Ahmed (L) and Barkhad Abdi attends the Oscars
Ahmed and Abdi at the Oscars in 2014.

“I met Chris Paul and his wife there. I love Chris, and so that was a big honor meeting him,” says the die-hard sports fan. The morning after the Oscars is when reality set in. “I was finally done with all the interviews and it was time to start my life as an actor. That was a new thing for me and a new chapter I was really excited to start,” he says.

He opened that chapter by placing another call to Maisler, who set him up on agency meetings. Once he secured representation — Abdi signed with SMS Talent, where he remains today along with manager Eric Schulman and Haven Entertainment — the actor was off and running. He was eager to line up new acting jobs, a desire fueled largely by silencing all of his critics. “There was a lot of chatter going around and I wanted to prove people wrong,” he explains. “It was a lot of people saying, ‘He must be a pirate. What else can he do?’ I heard it and I loved the challenge. I wanted to show everyone that I’m an actor and I can do different parts. A lot of times, as humans, we want to do many different things. Sometimes we set goals and they don’t always work out the way that we want them to, but hard work always pays off.”

Over the past decade, he has starred opposite Helen Mirren in 2015’s Eye in the Sky followed by roles in Extortion opposite Danny Glover, the Safdie brothers’ Good Time opposite Robert Pattinson and in Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 in a scene with Ryan Gosling. Most recently, he had a 10-episode run on Castle Rock, followed by a reunion with Benny Safdie for a role in The Curse opposite co-creator Nathan Fielder and Oscar winner Emma Stone.

The year after the 2014 Oscars, Abdi moved to L.A., where he spent time honing his craft and building a résumé while also branching out as an entrepreneur. “I lived there for a few years and opened a restaurant in Inglewood not far from the airport,” he says, acknowledging the hard work it takes to run a successful restaurant. “It was a Somali restaurant and it did not work out well for a variety of reasons. But I’m a hardheaded person and I needed to try it and found out the hard way. Thank God for that.”

Actors Barkhad Abdi (L) and Helen Mirren attend the "Eye in the Sky" premiere during the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival at Roy Thomson Hall on September 11, 2015 in Toronto, Canada.
Abdi with Helen Mirren at an Eye in the Sky premiere during the Toronto International Film Festival in 2015.

He’s supported himself as an actor ever since the Oscar nomination and is happy to clear up reports that claimed he was so broke after Captain Phillips that he went to work in a Minneapolis mobile phone store owned by his brother. “People misunderstood that and thought that I stopped acting,” he says, noting that there were many people who tried to push that narrative. “But that’s not true. I only worked there during the time after we wrapped shooting Captain Phillips and before the movie came out. I could not have worked there after it was released and after awards season. It was impossible, I was recognized everywhere.”

He still gets recognized today by fans of the film, some of whom naturally ask him to repeat the line he made famous, “I’m the captain now.” Abdi is also commonly referred to by the nickname “Captain Phillips” by members of the Somali community in Minneapolis. He returned there prior to the pandemic in 2020, and ever since he’s been focused on expanding his artistic endeavors. “I want to continue being an actor but I also want to be a writer and eventually a director. I have a lot of stories to tell. I want to be the voice for the voiceless, for the refugees in Africa. I want to introduce Hollywood to a whole side of the world that didn’t have storytellers telling their stories,” says the 38-year-old, who got veneers several years back after a dentist “messed up my teeth.” With the help of a friend, he’s written a script tentatively titled Our Love Is Bigger, about the treacherous journey refugees take in trying to reach the European mainland from North Africa across the Mediterranean Sea.

Asked to sum up the entire Oscars experience 10 years later, Abdi says simply that it changed his life — even if it all sometimes feels like a dream. “I look back on it sometimes and think, did it happen? But I know it did because there are videos and photos to prove it. It opened doors for me to chase my dreams. I’m still in awe of all that I’ve done, but I’m nowhere near where I want to be,” he says with a smile. “It’s also changed how people look at me and how people say my name. It’s with respect. It’s no longer just Barkhad Abid. It’s now Oscar-nominated Barkhad Abdi.”

Actress Lupita Nyong'o (L) and actor Barkhad Abdi attend the 86th Academy Awards nominee luncheon at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on February 10, 2014 in Beverly Hills, California.
Abdi with Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o.
Actor Barkhad Abdi, winner of the Supporting Actor award, and actress Emma Thompson pose in the winners room at the EE British Academy Film Awards 2014 at The Royal Opera House on February 16, 2014 in London, England.
Abdi poses with presenter Emma Thompson after winning a BAFTA Award on Feb. 16, 2014.
Robert Pattinson, Taliah Webster, Barkhad Abdi, Ben Safdie and Buddy Duress attend "Good Time" New York Premiere at SVA Theater on August 8, 2017 in New York City.
From left: Robert Pattinson, Taliah Webster, Barkhad Abdi, Ben Safdie and Buddy Duress at a Good Time premiere in New York on Aug. 8, 2017.

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