Two of this year’s Academy Award nominees made their feature debuts in their Oscar-nominated roles, and one, Barkhad Abdi, is nominated for his acting debut in Captain Phillips.

Abdi, 28, a Somali immigrant who fled Somalia at age seven when war broke out, was working as a chauffer in Minnesota when he auditioned for the part of Muse, the Somali pirate leader who hijacks an American cargo ship from Captain Phillips, played by American legend Tom Hanks.

How Barkhad Abdi Was Cast In 'Captain Phillips'

In Minnesota, Abdi worked at the Mall of America through High School and had a passion for film, though he never knew how to pursue acting as a career. Minnesota is home to a large population of African immigrants, so the casting director for Captain Phillips placed adds in local newspapers and various media outlets looking for Somali actors to participate in an open casting call.

“I was at my friends house, just watching the local TV and they came out with the casting call for a Tom Hanks movie,” Abdi describes, saying he was sold the minute he heard the name Tom Hanks.

“People around me would say, ‘Oh, they’re going to embarrass Somali people, don’t go.’ I was like, ‘It’s Tom Hanks. I’m going to check it out.’ So I went [to one casting call]. There’s a lot of people there. I said, ‘My name’s Barkhad Abdi. I was born in Mogadishu, and I am the part,’” Abdi told The Hollywood Reporter.

Civil War Forces Barkhad Abdi To Leave Somalia

Abdi’s road to the Oscars might sounds like a fairytale, but it’s been a long road. When he was six, gunshots became the soundtrack to his life in Somalia and at age seven he relocated to Yemen with his family. At 14, his family moved to the U.S. where Abdi was tasked with a whole new challenge: learning English.

“I remember I had my uniform and everything, like, finally I get to start school tomorrow. That afternoon, I started hearing gunshots. And, I remember… I wasn’t allowed to play outside anymore. The next day, it was war,” Abdi told CBS News about his childhood.

Abdi auditioned for Captain Phillips with a group of friends, some of whom were also cast in the film, and won the critical role, beating out some 700 Somali actors who attended the open casting call.

Barkhad Abdi Reacts To Oscar Nomination

Abdi’s performance opposite Hanks was quickly praised and earned him a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actor in a Drama. Now, with an Oscar nomination for his acting debut, Abdi lies in the company of actors Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club), Bradley Cooper (American Hustle), Michael Fassbender (12 Years a Slave) and Jonah Hill (The Wolf of Wall Street).

“[The nomination has] been crazy, in a good way. It was just so exciting. I’m really humbled and honored and really happy about the nomination. I still cannot comprehend it fully,” Abdi said following the news of his nomination.

Abdi now has an agent and is planning a move to Hollywood to pursue a career as an actor.

“It’s been a really wild ride. Every time it gets bigger and bigger and now it’s an Oscar nomination. It’s just a little too big to comprehend. But that’s life. I’m just looking forward to the next adventure,” Abdi told EW.

Captain Phillips, directed by Paul Greengrass, is also nominated for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Film Editing, Best Sound Mixing and Best Sound Editing, for a total of six Oscar nominations.

Olivia Truffaut-Wong

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