An outsider looking in

Hollywood diaries

An outsider looking in

The most nervous he’s ever been, Barkhad Abdi tells me, was at the New York Film Festival in 2014, being interviewed — first on the red carpet and then on stage — at the premiere of Captain Phillips.

In the preceding few months Abdi had learnt to swim, operated a skiff in high seas, got comfortable around guns and acted alongside Tom Hanks. But he was not prepared for this ordeal. “I’m just not someone who can talk on stage,” he says. “I’m more of a private person.”

We are in Los Angeles, where he now lives. Abdi, 30, is a shy, slight figure, belying his enormous screen presence. He has a striking, almost triangular face, with pronounced cheekbones and large eyes, and an air of quiet determination. By any standards, his is an incredible story: he was born in Mogadishu, but his family came to America after winning a Green Card Lottery; while working as a limo driver in Minnesota, he went to a casting call having never acted before and landed the part of head pirate Abduwali Muse; he gave an outstanding performance, was nominated for 41 awards, including an Oscar and a Golden Globe, and won 6, including a Bafta for best supporting actor.

Now Abdi is appearing in Eye in the Sky, Gavin Hood’s tense and beautifully orchestrated thriller about modern warfare. It relates the story of the decisions behind a drone strike in an al-Shabaab-controlled zone in Kenya; in the end it comes down to weighing up the consequences: when a little girl sets up her bread stall next to the targeted area — a house that contains a terrorist who is high on the US most-wanted list and 2 armed suicide bombers — what will the collateral damage be?

The story is set in London, Nairobi and the Nevada desert air force base. It stars Alan Rickman in his last role, as Lt Gen Frank Benson chairing a meeting of high-ranking officials who implement the mission from London, and Helen Mirren as Col Katherine Powell, in charge of executing it.

Drone pilots played by Aaron Paul (Breaking Bad) and Phoebe Fox have their own dilemma: whether to pull the trigger that will launch a Hellfire missile from a high-flying drone, and how to give the girl the best chance of survival while trying to manoeuvre within the constraints of their orders. Abdi plays Jama Farah, a heroic young Kenyan intelligence operative whose job is to pose as a trader in the hostile territory, initially to operate the surveillance and then to try to save the girl.

It was Hood who chose Abdi for the part of Jama Farah. He says, “I saw Barkhad, as so many of us did, in Captain Phillips, and I thought that he was absolutely extraordinary. This raw, honest power that he had — in that part he could so easily have been simply unlikeable. He delivers all of that inner anger, but there’s a vulnerability in the character, and a kindness at moments, which is only just peeking through, but in our film that warmth is what Jama Farah is all about.”

Abdi had admired Tsotsi (Hood’s Oscar-winning 2005 film. He recognises the situation that Eye in the Sky depicts. “It’s a dilemma. They had to consider the young girl’s life, but should you save one person’s life at the expense of possibly saving hundreds? Sometimes you just have to accept that there will be casualties. When someone lives in a war zone, stuff happens, and this girl didn’t deserve any of it. But modern warfare and moral issues — that’s what it’s all about.”

Abdi himself spent part of his early childhood in a war zone — in Mogadishu. He remembers Mogadishu as being beautiful. “I grew up surrounded by cousins, aunts, my grandma. Everything was stable,” he says.

“It was very sudden. Mum didn’t believe there was going to be a war, she just thought that someone else would be president, and who cared. It was 1991. For a year the family stayed in Mogadishu while the conflict raged around them. When Abdi was 14, his mother won an American visa for the family in the Green Card Lottery. The family went to Minneapolis, Minnesota, which has the largest Somali community in the US. After high school, Abdi went to Minnesota State University at Moorhead, but left after two years. He was broke. “I dropped out and I started working.”

Filmmaking was one thing he was interested in. “I asked myself, what do you want to do? And that came up…” He made music videos for friends and was working on his own film, using local actors. Then, in 2013, there was an advertisement on local television — a casting call for Somali actors. “Everybody was talking about it, everybody — it’s a movie! Tom Hanks is coming!”

Hard work followed. He was kept apart from Tom Hanks, to increase tension in the first scene they played together, when the pirates board and overwhelm the ship — a powerful moment in the film. “It was during that scene — the first time I saw Tom. I just let go,” he says quietly. “I let go. Sometimes you have to let go of yourself. And it came out really good. After that scene everyone was shocked at how good it came out.”

Looking back at his life, he says, he’s always starting again — in Yemen, in Minnesota, in Los Angeles. If he’s disappointed not to be making films full-time, he’s not showing it. “I keep myself busy. I just live every day as it comes, and I don’t like to make plans for the future.”


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