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Barkhad Abdi's big night at the Oscars

  • Article by: Colin Covert
  • Star Tribune
  • March 2, 2014 - 8:07 PM

Barkhad Abdi got his red carpet moment Sunday night as millions watched around the world.

“In Somalia he’s a sommelier,” joked Oscar host Ellen DeGeneres as she opened the ceremonies. “Who’s the wine captain now?”

The Minneapolis resident, an Oscar nominee for his acting debut in “Captain Phillips,” lost to Jared Leto. But it was still a victory of sorts for the first Somali ever to compete for an acting Oscar.

“I just want to remember all the people who helped me,” he told an ABC-TV interviewer outside the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. “It’s an amazing family.”

Abdi’s journey from Mogadishu to Minnesota to Hollywood is an immigrant success story unlike any other. His family fled the peril of the Somali civil war, following many others to settle in the Cedar-Riverside area in 1999.

A onetime limo driver and cell phone salesman, Abdi won praise for his sensitive portrait of a complex Somali pirate leader. He was chosen for the role from a mass casting call of 700 hopefuls in Minneapolis’s Brian Coyle Community Center.

Abdi’s screen debut drew widespread critical acclaim. The New York Post hailed him as the film’s “breakout star.”

But he entered the final length of this year’s Oscar race a long shot — and still looking for a payoff for his sudden fame.

According to a New Yorker story published over the weekend, Abdi’s salary was $65,000, paid two years ago. During the publicity whirl surrounding awards season, he has received a per diem from Sony Pictures to cover living expenses — and occasional rides from a Los Angeles cabbie who is an old friend from Minneapolis.

A ‘magnificent reality’

“Captain Phillips” recreates the real-life 2009 hijacking of the Maersk Alabama, an American-crewed freighter, by Somali pirates. Director Paul Greengrass cast Abdi, 28, alongside Tom Hanks, who shared most of his scenes. Abdi traveled to London and Malta to shoot the film, learned to swim, sail and fire a gun, and improvised the iconic line, “Look at me. Look at me. I’m the captain now!” Hanks praised his costar for delivering a “magnificent reality that couldn’t be gotten any other way.”

His Oscar rivals are a field of veterans. The other nominees are Bradley Cooper (“American Hustle”), Michael Fassbender (“12 Years a Slave”), Jonah Hill (“The Wolf of Wall Street”), and Jared Leto (“Dallas Buyers Club”).

“I’ve been blessed,” he told the Star Tribune in January before the Golden Globes, where he got a shout-out from co-host Tina Fey but lost to Leto, the presumed Oscar front-runner, who had a showy role playing an HIV-positive transgender woman.

The early stretch of awards season was a mixed bag for Abdi. He also earned a Screen Actors Guild nomination but lost again to Leto. His fortunes shifted in mid-February when he took home a prestigious trophy from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts. His BAFTA win did not impress Hollywood oddsmakers, however, since Leto was not nominated.

Awards handicappers at the Hollywood Reporter gave him only a 50-to-1 chance of winning the Oscar.

It’s rare for a novice actor to beat a roster of seasoned performers. Haing S. Ngor and Harold Russell are the only two non-professional actors to win an acting Oscar to date. Ngor won in 1985 for “The Killing Fields” and Russell in 1947 for “The Best Years of Our Lives.”

A graduate of Roosevelt High School, Abdi studied at Minnesota State University before joining his brothers’ limo and cell phone businesses.

Possible role as marathoner

Now that Abdi has made a memorable film debut, the question is: What next?

At the time “Captain Phillips” was released, he didn’t have an agent and described his days as “waiting around” until more film work appeared.

He now has representation and reportedly is negotiating to star next as a legendary South African long distance runner. He’s vying to play Willie Mtolo, winner of the 1992 New York Marathon and many other races, in a historical drama currently titled “The Place That Hits the Sun.”

According to the New Yorker, he plans to move to Los Angeles, where he’ll share an apartment with his “Captain Phillips” co-star and Minneapolis friend Faysal Ahmed, also looking to make it in Hollywood.

“What I believe will make my acting career successful going forward is hard work,” Abdi told the Star Tribune in January. “I like to challenge myself. Then it’s the people I meet and choosing the projects I want to work on correctly. There’s a lot of characters I can play.

“There’s nothing that I’ve decided on yet. I’m waiting for the awards season to be finished. Then I’ll go for it.” After the Oscars, Abdi plans to move to L.A. and live with his Minneapolis friend and fellow “Captain Phillips” actor Faysal Ahmed.

Colin Covert • 612-673-7186

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