How a childhood in Somalia helped one guy co-star with Tom Hanks in 'Captain Phillips'

Player utilities

Listen to the story.

Carol Hills: I'm Carol Hills, this is The World. The film "Captain Phillips" opens today. It's based on the real-life tale of a container ship captain, who is kidnapped by Somali pirates in 2009 and rescued by US Navy Seals. [music] Tom Hanks as Captain Phillips: Listen up. We have been boarded by armed pirates. Stay hidden at all costs, we don't want any hostages. We will follow the procedures: lock down, go dead in the water and wait for help. Stick together, we'll be all right. [gunfire] Hills: That's Tom Hanks in the title role. But some say Somali-American Barkhad Abdi may be the real standout. Abdi plays the lead hijacker of the Maersk Alabama. It was his first acting job. He says his childhood was a big help in understanding the character he plays. Barkhad Abdi: What helped me a lot. I was born in Somalia, I lived there about six years, and I witnessed the war. Me and my mom, and two brothers, my sister. Hills: And are there particular memories that you have of Mogadishu that you drew on for this role in Captain Phillips? Abdi: It's just the heartlessness. It's like the people who came to attack Mogadishu. They were just outside from human to me. I just understand, you know, my basic understanding of it. It's, this guy, what he been through, you know, I been through that. I relate to this character because I was lucky enough to have parents that got me out of Somalia and took me from country to country. And I look at him as someone who didn't have that chance. There was no country there, there was no hope, there were no schools. What he's doing is wrong. Me as a person, I believe there's other ways to be somebody. Hills: Now I know the director of the film, Paul Greengrass, actually kept you and the other Somali-American actors apart from Tom Hanks, the big star, until your first confrontation on the bridge, until they filmed that scene. We're gonna hear a little bit from that scene where you and Tom Hanks - you and the Tom Hanks character, Captain Phillips - are meeting for the first time. Both on screen and in real life. [screams] Abdi as lead hijacker: Where is the crew? Phillips: I don't know! [screams, shouting] Hijacker: Look at me. Phillips: Sure. Hijacker: Look at me. I'm the captain now. One minute, I kill all your friends. One minute! [clang] Hills: That's a pretty tough scene. I wanna ask first, do you think it was a good idea to keep you and Tom Hanks apart until that scene? Abdi: Absolutely, I think it was a great idea. That idea made the film what it is now. Hills: Why? Abdi: Because it built our characters, and it gives it that depth of who we really are, and how much we're so different from each other, the two characters. Because me and my friends, the main reason we came to do this - additionally it was because we loved Tom Hanks. That's one thing we all agreed on, we wanted to see Tom Hanks after that. So, after we done training, we done some fighting and skiff training. We even had to learn how to swim. So after we finished with all that, we wanted to see Tom. And Paul decided not to show us Tom. He said, "You can only see Tom when it's that scene, when you actually meet at the bridge." Hills: That's a real challenge. Here you can't wait to meet your hero, this actor who you adore, and the first time you meet him you basically have to put him in his place and threaten him. [laughs] Abdi: [laughs] I had no choice. Hills: Some of the wildest scenes in Captain Phillips is when you and the other Somalis - you're in this rickety junkyard skiff, you're being thrown around by these huge waves, and you're about to take over this giant container ship. You're trying to hook your ladder onto this massive ship. It's pretty wild, I imagine. What was it like out there for you? Particularly, you hadn't known how to swim even before you made the movie. Abdi: Well, it was scary. It wasn't all fun. But with my friends, we would have laughed right as the scene is finished. It was just a whole new experience for us. And I was truly fascinated by this whole pirates thing, and how a small skiff taking over a big ship. Up close, I was amazed by it, honestly. We would fall here and there, but at the end of it, it was just "I have to do this, I'm in it, and I'll do the best I can." Hills: Can you imagine a Hollywood movie where the Somalis are the good guys? Abdi: Well, Somalia do have the good and the bad, as well as America. Hills: That's for sure. Somali-American Barkhad Abdi plays a leading role in the film "Captain Phillips," which opens today. It's based on the real-life tale of container ship captain Richard Phillips, who was kidnapped by Somali pirates. Thanks so much, Barkhad. Abdi: Thank you so much.