Barkhad Abdi – How to get awards without training

BY ANNETTE LANGE

In order to win the Bafta Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role and get a part in popular movies, one must simply do the following:

 

  • Come from a difficult background in Somalia and flee to Yemen to escape sudden civil unrest and war
  • Win a Green Card Lottery and move to Minnesota at the age of 14
  • Learn English from TV shows and rap music
  • Become a limo driver, DJ and sell phones to make ends meet
  • Respond to a casting call for Captain Phillips and give the best performance out of 700 fellow auditioners to get the role of a Somali pirate
  • Co-star alongside Tom Hanks and give an excellent performance
  • Improvise iconic lines to add to the believability of the scene

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This, in a nutshell, is the story of Barkhad Abdi who made his major debut in Captain Phillips, without any acting training or experience prior to his role as ‘Abduwali Muse’. And, besides winning the Bafta Award, he got nominated for a Golden Globe and an Academy Award as well.

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I love stories like his. People like Abdi are very refreshing. They haven’t been sheltered from the world, they had other things to worry about than staying in the loop with the latest trends. And when success comes to them as a surprise, it is an even more joyous achievement.

 

When asked about his response to co-starring with Tom Hanks, he recalled thinking, “I can’t believe I’m in a scene with the Forrest Gump guy.”

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I first noticed Abdi in Eye in the Sky and I was extremely fascinated by his performance. When I realized he hadn’t been trained professionally, I was even more impressed.

 

The little training he had in preparation for Captain Phillips happened in the month prior to filming. Abdi had to learn to swim, handle guns and operate a ship. He only met Tom Hanks on the first day of shooting, so I bet his nerves helped him to create such a convincing character.

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There was a lot of doubt whether he would actually be able to make a career out of it, or if it was just a one-time golden opportunity.

 

His salary for his first performance was only increased very little from the mandated Screen Actors Guild (SAG) minimum of $60,000 for a feature film. Even after his success, he was struggling financially.

 

He couldn’t even go back to work in his brother’s phone shop because everyone wanted to see him instead of buying phones. He seemed as if he was back to square one after reaching fame.

Perhaps his experience of reaching fame but finding it harder than expected could be compared to his experience of coming to the States:

 

“When I was leaving Yemen to come to America, things were tough. My dad had just been laid off, and it was a challenge. When I lived in Yemen, I thought America was a perfect place. Everything was bigger and better. I dreamed big. The American dream, you know? You have to work hard for your dream to come true.”
And he is working hard. I’m sure many directors have an eye on him after his performance in Eye in the Sky. And fortunately, his future looks promising as well. He has more acting projects lined up such as Hawaii 50, The Place that hits the Sun and the Sequel to Blade Runner. May the list go on and on!

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I am excited to see more of his acting. May he never loose that tenacious and creative spirit and continue to inspire fellow actors as he continues in his journey!

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