Editor's Note: This profile of Barkhad Abdi originally ran when "Captain Phillips" was released in October. Thursday the actor's already improbable story grew even more fantastic when he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.
Few paths to Hollywood begin in Somalia.
Even fewer include detours in Yemen and as a limousine driver in Minneapolis.
Yeah, Barkhad Abdi is going to have a pretty good story to tell reporters next February while clutching his Oscar at the Kodak Theater, which is where some film critics suspect his unbelievable path may ultimately lead him.
Tom Hanks is the star of the just-released "Captain Phillips," which revisits the 2009 Indian Ocean hijacking of the Maersk Alabama cargo ship by a gang of Somali pirates. But the total unknowns he shares the screen with just may be the most interesting story going on here. Even more so, perhaps, than that of Capt. Richard Phillips himself.
Just how "unknown" is Barkhad Abdi? Even now, his IMDb page is essentially blank. No biographical notes, nothing, except for a single acting credit, for playing the role of pirate leader "Muse" in "Captain Phillips."
Here are the gaps in his story which the movie information site is currently lacking: Abdi, 28, was born in Mogadishu, Somalia, where he lived with his father, who was a teacher, his mother, a sister and two brothers. However to escape the escalating war there in the 1990s, the family moved to Yemen.
"I was lucky enough to have parents who took me from country to country to better myself," Abdi told the St. Paul Pioneer Press. "That could easily have been me in a country where war has been going on for 24 years, where there are no jobs, no schools, no nothing."
His family moved to Minneapolis, home to one of America's largest Somali populations, when Barkhad was 14. He went to high school there and then attended Minnesota State University Moorhead.
There was the limo driver gig, his job helping out at his brother's cell phone store and some film work directing music videos and a documentary, according to HLN affiliate KARE. But Abdi's expanding resume didn't include any acting.
Then he and some friends responded to a 2011 casting call for some new Tom Hanks film. After auditioning, Abdi didn't hear anything for two weeks. "But then I got a call that the director wanted to meet me. I didn't tell anyone," he recalled to the Pioneer Press. "I just went to the airport to go to L.A. and my friends were there. They got called, too! And then we just all got the job together."
The friends celebrated in pretty much the exact fashion you would hope for a group of Somali-Americans plucked from obscurity to star in a major film alongside one of the world's biggest stars: They sprinted into the Pacific Ocean and began screaming and splashing around, according to the casting director who tabbed them and who says she received texts and photos from their impromptu celebration.
When production began in Malta, the "pirates" were not allowed to meet Hanks until they began filming their initial scene together, when the machine gun-armed gang boards the ship and storms the bridge. Not because of any implied star system where the new guys -- which include Abdi's co-stars/friends, Mahat M. Ali, Faysal Ahmed and Barkhad Abdirahman -- just get jerked around like second-class citizens, but because director Paul Greengrass wanted the first-ever interaction between them and Hanks to be authentic.
So how did the new guys do?
"I found them so convincing that my lower lip began to tremble a little bit and the hair was standing on the back of my neck," Hanks recalled on CBS' Sunday Morning. "You cannot believe your eyes that someone is that skinny and that scary and that fast and has that much malevolence and seriousness in their eyes."
In that scene, which is probably familiar to anyone who's seen a preview for the film, Abdi projects a fierce intensity as he stares into Hanks' eyes and demands, "Look at me -- I'm the captain now." It's already become a signature line for the film and, it turns out, was completely ad-libbed. Clearly, the rookie was unfazed by the situation.
First pics: On the set of "Dumb and Dumber 2"
On the "Today" show, Abdi says that he "became the character. I tried to be that guy in that moment. I had to come out with all I got. I used a lot of imagination. I talked to a lot of people who came back from Somalia and I read a lot of pirate stories."
Clearly, Hanks found the Somali-born, American-raised actor to be a quick study. But what about the guy who actually lived through the ordeal, held in a cramped lifeboat by menacing pirates who rarely dropped their guns during those five terrifying days on the Indian Ocean?
"Barkhad really did it," Phillips said on Sunday Morning. "In his eyes you really saw, and his acting, that, that he was very close to the real thing."
So one wild ride is over for Abdi and his co-stars/friends, Mahat M. Ali, Faysal Ahmed and Barkhad Abdirahman, but the next may just be beginning. The wiry star says he's thinking about moving to Hollywood to capitalize on his success in "Captain Phillips."
But for now, Abdi says he will be heading back to Minneapolis to finish some production work and help run his brother's store. It's a long way from California, but a return trip doesn't seem all that improbable -- and certainly not nearly as improbable as the path which led him there in the first place.
Follow Jonathan Anker on Twitter @JonFromHLN