Captain Phillips was filmed at sea aboard the same kind of ship as the Alabama, which, despite its size, is as enclosed in its own way as the lifeboat. We get to understand its intricate layout and the details of sailing it as the crew and hijackers play cat and mouse, adding to the suspense of the hijack. The pace never slackens, yet the screenplay still has time for thought-provoking snatches of debate between both sides about the reasons behind the terrifying events taking place.
Abdi says he can relate to the character he played, Muse. He was born in Somalia and lived in Mogadishu until the civil war started when he was seven –“I saw a lot of killings.” His family fled to Yemen via Ethiopia. “You’re frightened to a level, and then you just forget everything and let go.” When he was 14, his family won a US Green Card lottery and moved to Minneapolis to join the growing Somali community there.
At the Minneapolis casting for Captain Phillips, auditions were in groups of four and Abdi was placed in a group with some of his friends. They realised they would play
different characters in the scene they were given, so they went home and practised together to make it better. They’d never been in front of the camera, but they had shot and edited music videos. Their rehearsal turned out to be so successful that all four of them were cast as a group.
When the phone call came to tell them they’d got the parts, they were so excited, they just jumped into the ocean: “We had to make sure we weren’t dreaming.” In fact, Abdi couldn’t even swim then – he had to learn how for his role, as well as how to drive a fast-moving skiff.
“The hardest scene was the first scene where I met Tom [on the bridge of the ship], my first scene as an actor where I had to say lines. It was nerve-racking. I had to use a lot of imagination.” He tells Captain Phillips “I’ve taken over your ship” and, in fact, he adlibbed that memorable and very threatening line “I’m the captain now”. “It just came out. I became the character. I tried to understand him. He’s a very desperate man with nothing to lose, so that’s when I showed his ruthless side. On the other side, I would put myself in his shoes. I would imagine that it was me and I couldn’t make it out of Somalia.”
What does he feel about the way Somalis are portrayed in Captain Phillips? “It’s a true story. What happened in the film, I’ve seen on the news. And the piracy was something real. I was really fascinated by it, and the way it was portrayed in the film was really good. You understand why they’re doing what they’re doing, the desperation behind it, and how Somalia didn’t have a country for more than 20 years. A lot of people do not know that. So the film actually explains why these people became pirates, the motivation behind them and how desperate they are to do what they do.”
The film has changed his life. “People recognise me in the street. Acting is something that I love doing, so I think I will keep doing it. People all over the world are sending me messages saying you did a great job and that makes me feel good. I put a lot of hard work into this film and it pays out when people give you positive attention.”
The real Abduwali Muse was sentenced in 2011 to spend 33 years and 9 months in a US prison for the piracy offences he was charged with. He had boarded two other ships and taken hostages before the attack on the Maersk Alabama. Muse was taken into custody after snipers from the USS Bainbridge, a US Navy missile destroyer, shot and killed his three accomplices, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation brought him to New York. His defence attorneys argued that he was just 16 at the time of the hijacking, although prosecutors said that he told one of his hostages he was 24.
Curiously, while Captain Phillips has made legitimate stars of its Somali actors playing pirates, the lure of the big screen proved the downfall of a real pirate. Mohamed Abdi Hassan, alleged to have spent a decade terrorising the high seas, was lured to Belgium – as he thought, to meet documentary producers for a project based on his life. He was promptly arrested by Belgian prosecutors seeking justice for the hijacking of a Belgian dredger in 2009.