First-time Minneapolis actor Barkhad Abdi is in 'state of shock' over sudden fame

COLIN COVERT | Updated 1/16/2014

Plucked from obscurity for a big role in “Captain Phillips,” Barkhad Abdi finds himself a media darling in the midst of awards season.

Barkhad Abdi in a scene from "Captain Phillips."

Three months ago it might have seemed that Barkhad Abdi’s life could not become any more incredible. Two years earlier he was picked from an open casting call at the Brian Coyle Center in Minneapolis to co-star with Tom Hanks in the Sony Pictures piracy drama “Captain Phillips.” He traveled to London and Malta for the filming, an astonishing experience, to be sure. But since the film’s October release, Abdi’s fame has spread in breathtaking fashion.

“Honestly, I’m in a state of shock,” he said of his unexpected acclaim this week. “I’ve been blessed, it’s a really great feeling, but wow.”

The 28-year-old Somali-born actor has been riding a Hollywood whirlwind. He’s walked the photo gantlet at gala openings and been a featured speaker at entertainment industry gatherings. He’s been on the cover of the Hollywood Reporter, interviewed on “The Today Show,” the Conan O’Brien and Arsenio Hall shows, and profiled on “CBS Sunday Morning.” Pile that on top of accolades from virtually every film writer on Planet Earth and you’d have to say he’s off to a good start.

It got better. The first-timer’s work as the frightening yet sympathetic hijacker, Muse, earned prestigious best-supporting-actor nominations from the Screen Actors Guild and the Golden Globes (whose awards ceremony will be telecast Sunday night).

Wednesday he received a nomination from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts. With this winning trifecta, Abdi is all but guaranteed to be an Academy Award contender. The nominees will be announced Thursday.

Oh, and by the way, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie reached out to him at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Governors Awards, congratulating him on his riveting performance and urging him to keep acting.

“They said I did a good job, and I’m a big fan of his. It’s a lot of stuff I can’t believe,” Abdi said. “I’m walking red carpets. Big celebrities recognize me. I never thought it would happen. It is just really unbelievable.”

The avalanche of awards nominations coming his way has kept Abdi, who still lives in Minneapolis, on a merry-go-round of promotional activities. In September he devoted two days to practice interview sessions with former journalists. But Abdi said his best advice came from Hanks, who advised him to “just be yourself and answer the questions correctly.”

“I just go to whatever TV show or interview I’m supposed to do and wait,” he said. “Honestly, I have no idea what’s going on.” Meanwhile, he’s “here in Minnesota, enjoying the snow.”

Life in his old neighborhood continues much as before, except that he’s “not doing anything but waiting here.

“We had a good time catching up this holiday season. Some who’re shocked, I calm them down and say I’m shocked myself. A lot of people expect me to change, and they’re surprised when I call them. But everyone around me is happy about the situation and supportive, but shocked the same as I am.”

“Captain Phillips,” which puts Somalia’s pirate attacks in context, has won high marks from local Somali viewers and Abdi’s friends as far away as Kenya, he said. “Everyone is loving it.” The big objection is “when the guys die at the end.”

Abdi said he expects to relocate to Los Angeles next month. He remains connected with Hanks, who has congratulated him on his multiple nominations and told him to keep going. Abdi already has an agent and offers of possible roles. He’s eager to show that he can act all sorts of roles, but has committed to nothing so far.