When Barkhad Abdi arrived in Minneapolis in the United States with his immigrant family in 1999, he didn’t own much. In his new film, Eye In The Sky, he owns the screen.
The drone-warfare drama features Abdi as the sole actor appearing in tense conflict on the ground. When he’s present, all the action revolves around him. The film had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival to a standing ovation and critical plaudits.
It’s already been released in Britain, where The Guardian called it “exceptional across the board, with a standout performance from Barkhad Abdi.”
On the film’s posters, Abdi is listed in the star quartet alongside Helen Mirren, Alan Rickman and Aaron Paul.
“It’s worked out,” he chuckled in a phone interview. “I feel really blessed, thank God. At the same time, it’s all hard work. You get what you pray, that’s how I see it.”
Abdi has followed a slow and steady course to success. He was selected from 1,000 amateur candidates to play the ferocious Somali pirate leader alongside Tom Hanks in Captain Phillips. He earned a 2014 Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor, but seemed to hit a slippery career path afterward.
Bringing tangible humanity but no formal experience to that big debut, he seemed for a time to face diminishing opportunities. With his return to the screen he has not only held his own against scepticism, but has pushed back.
Abdi originally hoped to be an engineer, attending Minnesota State University, Moorhead. “When I was a little kid, where I’m at now, I never dreamt about it.”
His family moved from war-torn Somalia to Yemen when he was six, then won the visa lottery to come to the United States when he was 14.
“Actually, I don’t worry about everything,” he said. “There’s nothing that’s promised in advance. We work to get ahead and we work to be passionate,” which is how he handled his former job as a driver for his brother’s limousine company as well as his current line of work. “You know, I love filmmaking. I don’t consider it a job. It’s something I enjoy doing, though it’s very hard at the same time.
“I’m kind of opening doors. That’s how I see it, and crossing bridges” like the one leading to his latest role. Oscar-winning director Gavin Hood (Tsotsi) drew him into the cast over “lunch in Los Angeles and a copy of the script by Guy Hibbert, an amazing writer.”
The film examines the ethical conflicts between military and governmental leaders guiding a drone missile strike against East Africa’s Islamist militants. It’s a complex balancing act measuring inaction against collateral damage that threatens the life of a nearby little girl.
Abdi plays a Kenyan intelligence agent on the ground. He called drone technology “something that I’ve heard about here and there but I didn’t pay that much attention to the details of it.”
The story of the innocent girl in harm’s way reminded him of his own youth. “That makes me think back to that age. I thought it was really different and at the same time similar. You know, in our situation you could see who’s coming, where they’re coming from and you can prepare, hide or something. But for the situation she’s in, it’s totally different. (She’s) a kid stuck in a war zone; that’s mainly who suffers in war zones, kids and the women.”
This is Abdi’s second key role in a political thriller showing East African conflict, dealing with issues he calls important and worth viewing.
“There hasn’t been a movie that talks in this way about drones and people in this situation,” he said.
Abdi, who turns 31 this month, now lives in Los Angeles but regularly makes visits to Minnesota.
“Minneapolis is my city, it’s home,” he said. “There still are close friends, those who are similar to family. And there are different people, those who don’t know me and see me as an actor. But the majority of people see me and, ‘Oh, it’s the old Barkhad,’ you know? ‘He’s back.’ And I love that, you know?”
Abdi’s movie roles are piling up: He is currently starring with Al Pacino in Where The White Man Runs Away as a translator helping a rookie journalist navigate Somalia. Then he joins Uma Thurman in the comedy adventure The Extraordinary Journey Of The Fakir.
Viewers can also see him as an African drug dealer in Sacha Baron Cohen’s spy satire The Brothers Grimsby.
“Sacha was fun,” Abdi said. “I loved Borat, it’s a classic movie. He’s very hardworking and he takes it really seriously. I haven’t had a chance to see it yet, but I’m looking forward to it.”
In the meantime, he’s focused on Eye In The Sky and seeing his name listed alongside its veteran stars.
“It’s truly a blessing,” he said. “It’s just unbelievable to be considered in that way. I’m really glad it worked out.” – Star Tribune/Tribune News Service
Eye In The Sky opens at cinemas nationwide on Thursday.