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'Captain Phillips': Meet the Pirates

The four men who terrorize Tom Hanks in the high-seas, high-stakes drama (in theaters Oct. 11) are nonprofessional actors who never dreamed they’d see themselves on screen

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Barkhad Abdi
Muse
Barkhad Abdi has always loved movies. After immigrating to the U.S. at age 14, he would happily lose himself in Jackie Chan action flicks and Mr. Bean comedies. ”I didn’t need to speak English to understand those,” he says in his now-fluent English. If you’d told him back then that he’d one day find himself costarring in a movie with a two-time Oscar winner, the idea would have seemed absurd. ”Acting never crossed my mind,” says Abdi, 28. ”Not once.”

In late 2011, word spread throughout Minneapolis’ large Somali population that a movie starring Tom Hanks called Captain Phillips was seeking Somali actors. Like everyone in the tight-knit community, Abdi — who was born in Somalia and escaped with his family to Yemen at age 6 when the country fell into civil war — had closely followed the news in 2009 when four Somali pirates hijacked an American container ship and took its captain, Richard Phillips, hostage. Though he’d never acted before, Abdi was interested in filmmaking and had started directing his own low-budget movie about young Somalis in America. He decided to audition along with three of his friends: Faysal Ahmed, Barkhad Abdirahman, and Mahat M. Ali. Some in the community worried that Captain Phillips would further hurt the image of Somalia, which already carries associations with chaos, war, and poverty. ”There was a rumor: ‘They’re going to embarrass the Somali people. Don’t go there,”’ says Abdi. ”But I didn’t listen. I thought maybe if I was in it, it might be different. I hadn’t gone down that path. But I imagined, what if I was in Somalia the whole time and I had no other way?”

After seeing a tape of Abdi’s audition, director Paul Greengrass cast him in the critical role of the leader, Muse, whose criminality is fueled by desperation. ”He had a look that could be both menacing and have a humanity, too,” Greengrass says. ”There was some quality of depth there.” Once on set in Malta, Hanks was equally impressed: ”Barkhad is a thoughtful man and a dedicated artist who put great thought into his performance, as artists do.”

With that performance earning raves and even talk of a possible Best Supporting Actor nod, Abdi — who has gone back to working at his brother’s cell-phone store in Minneapolis — is still adjusting to the attention. ”It’s like, okay, I did good, but now there’s too many eyes on you,” he says. “If there are more movies that need actors [like me], I’m looking forward to it. But I want to live day to day.”

Faysal Ahmed
Najee
Ahmed, 29, had initially auditioned for the role of Muse, but was steered toward his hotheaded right-hand man, Najee. ”I didn’t think I would be a perfect fit for it because my personality and the character’s personality are totally different,” says the soft-spoken Ahmed, who is of Somali descent but was born and raised in Yemen before moving to America at age 14. ”He’s violent and short-tempered, and I’m more of the quiet person. I come from a really huge family where I’m just in the middle, so I’m almost forgotten about.”

To ratchet up the tension, Greengrass deliberately kept Ahmed and the other actors playing pirates from meeting Hanks until the time came to film the scene in which their characters storm the ship’s bridge. ”It was extremely effective,” Hanks says. ”Those guys were strangers to us all and they came in pumped.” Now back in Minneapolis, where he works with his contractor brother, Ahmed says, ”It was an amazing experience. I almost feel like going back to shoot it again tomorrow.”

Barkhad Abdirahman
Bilal
Only 19, the youngest of the four actors was affectionately dubbed ”Little B” by the cast and crew. Born in Kenya to Somali parents, Abdirahman has a boyish innocence that comes through on screen and contrasts starkly with the pirates’ ruthlessness. ”He just has this amazing face and smile,” says the film’s casting director, Francine Maisler. ”And he really worked well with the other guys.”

Mahat M. Ali
Elmi
The 20-year-old Ali, who was also born in Kenya, plays the volatile pirate who drives the cramped lifeboat in which the Somalis hold Phillips hostage. Off camera, Ahmed says, ”Mahat is the funny guy of the crew.” Adds Hanks: ”We had long stretches of talking with each other, joking, then hours of working out the specifics of each scene, followed by minutes of sheer terror and anger. Then back to hanging out with each other in that tiny, smelly place.”