Almost anybody with internet access knows what Barkhad Abdi’s face looks like, even if they haven’t seen his movies. “I am the captain now,” goes the dialogue paired with his threatening visage. If you haven’t seen Captain Phillips, you have probably seen this moment dozens of times.
It was Abdi’s breakout role. He credits it with changing his life and leading to great roles in the years since. But it may surprise fans of the Somali actor to know just how little he earned for starring in the film that bagged him an Academy Award nomination.
‘Captain Phillips’ is a modern thriller classic
Captain Phillips garnered buzz well before it premiered in 2013. The film was based on an infamous, real-life incident that took place just a few years before. With Tom Hanks attached, it seemed like a surefire winner for Oscar season the following year.
The movie retells the harrowing story of Captain Richard Phillips, a merchant mariner played by Hanks. The ship under his command was taken over by Somali pirates, and he was taken hostage. Abdi plays his main antagonist, the pirate leader Abduwali Muse.
Despite involving pirates, kidnappings, and a Navy SEAL incursion, the movie doesn’t lean much on action. Instead, it builds much of its tension via the terrifying interactions between Phillips and Muse. The harrowing film earned six Academy Awards nominations thanks to a strong screenplay and breakout performance by Abdi.
Academy Award nominee Barkhad Abdi made little for his performance in ‘Captain Phillips’
Abdi was not an actor by trade nor as a hobby, when he auditioned for Captain Phillips. According to the New Yorker, the Somali ex-pat simply saw a flyer for an audition. Director Paul Greengrass was seeking new actors from the Minneapolis area, in a community noted for a large Somali presence.
He and three friends decided to try out on a lark. After their audition, the group was flown to LA to meet Greengrass. He instantly hired all of them. Unfortunately, as first-time actors without agents, they weren’t exactly subject to the protections offered by SAG-AFTRA.
Abdi found himself playing one of the most important characters in the film, with scenes working directly with Hanks. The line that made him and the film forever famous — “I’m the captain now” — was his own improvisation. For his efforts, Abdi was paid only $65,000. For context, Parade reports that Hanks enjoyed a $15 million payday for the film.
Abdi continues to put in great work in Hollywood films
There was a gap between Abdi’s time on set and the film’s release. He spent nearly two years in limbo, wondering how Captain Phillips would be received. On the day of the premiere, he decided he’d become a full-time actor.
Going by his IMDb page, it was the right move. His performance as Muse led to a Best Supporting Actor nomination. That, and glowing praise from both Hanks and Greengrass, set him up for an ongoing career as a character actor.
He quickly picked up TV work in the Hawaii Five-O reboot series. The Safdie brothers cast him in their nervous breakdown of a thriller, Good Time. He landed a big role in Blade Runner 2049, leading to work a few years later in the TV series Blade Runner: Black Lotus.
These days, Abdi is a SAG-AFTRA actor with proper representation. While his biggest role was ironically one of his smallest paychecks, that is unlikely to happen again. His recognizable face and penchant for tense performances will help him appear regularly in big projects from interesting directors for many years to come.