Casting call for pirates sparks excitement, unease

  • Article by: ALLIE SHAH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 4, 2011 - 5:13 PM

A Tom Hanks film on pirates looks for local Somali-Americans.

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Barkhad Abdirahman, 17, hopes to land a part in “Capt. Phillips,” about an American ship captain held by pirates in 2009.

Photo: David Joles, Star Tribune

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For Barkhad Abdirahman, the invitation to try out for a part in a Tom Hanks movie is a rare chance to break into the film business.

The Somali-American teenager is one of many locals planning to show up for Saturday's open call for African-born men, women and children to audition for a role in "Capt. Phillips."

But the notion that they'll be playing pirates who held an American ship captain hostage is causing unease as well as excitement in the nation's largest Somali-American community.

The Sony Pictures film is based on the true story of Richard Phillips, whose ship was attacked by pirates off the coast of Somalia in 2009. Phillips was rescued after a five-day standoff when Navy snipers aboard a destroyer cut down three of his kidnappers, who were holding him in a lifeboat.

Since the casting announcement came out, Jennifer Blevins has heard mixed opinions from her East African clients. She is director of the Brian Coyle Community Center in Minneapolis, a magnet for East African youth and the place where the auditions will be held.

Mohamed Jama, a Somali-American teenager and co-founder of the Cedar Riverside Youth Council, predicts a huge turnout.

"The city is fired up for this," he said.

He was among those who had concerns about the movie at first. He said the only other major film about Somalia, "Black Hawk Down," depics Somalis as "ruthless" war criminals who hate Americans. Also, actors hired to play Somalis appeared to be people from West Africa, not East Africa.

Jama, who said he hasn't seen the script yet, is cautiously optimistic after meeting with the casting team and hearing more about the story.

"I'm hoping for better, but we'll see," he said.

The open audition on Saturday will be followed by callback auditions on Tuesday with the film's main casting agent, said Debbie DeLisi, a casting consultant leading the search to fill the East African roles.

Minnesota is the first stop. Her team spent the past couple of weeks here getting to know the community, she said. Next, they'll head to Columbus, Ohio, in search of actors for nine roles by the end of the year.

Shooting will begin early next year in New Orleans.

The movie is not a documentary, DeLisi said, but a story. It will focus on the bond that develops between the American captain and the pirate captain.

"Of course, it's about the pirates," she said. "But it's also an opportunity for Somali people to get their face on screen if they want to be an actor or have this artistic opportunity."

DeLisi also led the search in Minnesota a few years ago for Hmong people to fill roles in the Clint Eastwood film, "Gran Torino." For that audition, 900 Hmong people showed up over two days to try out.

'Only half the story'

Abdi Ahmed is not trying out for "Capt. Phillips."

"In general, people are skeptical about Hollywood," said Ahmed, co-owner of Safari Restaurant & Banquet Center.

He worries it will misrepresent not only Somalis, but also piracy in the Horn of Africa, which he says is a very complex issue.

"People make it out to be too simple. They see it as all about criminals. That's true, but that's only half the story," he said.

Before civil war broke out in 1991, people who lived on the country's coast relied on fishing as their livelihood, he said. But with the collapse of the government, ships from other countries began to enter the area and that led to overfishing. The waters became a dumping ground for other countries to dispose of toxic waste, he said.

Out of this chaos came Somali pirates.

"I can tell you what the movie is going to be already -- they will have a bunch of white American people kidnapped and Tom Hanks will save them and a bunch of skinny black guys will get killed," Ahmed said.

"I know either way -- whether I'm a part of it or not -- I know how it's going to be," he said, because it's a commercial, Hollywood movie.

Still, Ahmed and Jama say if the film portrays the historical context and humanizes the characters, perhaps it could be a breakthrough not only for the actors' careers, but also for Somalis' image.

"This movie could play an important role for the Somali community," Jama said.

Allie Shah • 612-673-4488

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