Rookie actor, limo driver Barkhad Abdi upstages Tom Hanks in 'Captain Phillips'

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By Randee Dawn

Tom Hanks may be the actor with all the Oscars in "Captain Phillips," but it's Barkhad Abdi, a first-time actor who plays the lead pirate in the film, who's sailing off with all the attention lately.

Just ask TODAY's Matt Lauer: "No offense to Tom Hanks, in some ways, you stole this film," he told Abdi on a Thursday visit to the studio. 

"Tom helped me a lot to get the part out, would motivate me in a lot of ways," said the soft-spoken, Somali-born but Minneapolis-based Abdi. 

Abdi was working as a limousine driver when he answered a casting call that ran on a local TV channel. Once cast, he did not get a chance to meet Hanks until the day their characters confronted one another on set, as per director Paul Greengrass' orders. 

"I was a little scared," admitted Abdi. "(I) wanted to see Tom, but I understood the situation of the scene."

In the film, Hanks plays Captain Richard Phillips, whose cargo ship is taken over by Somali pirates while at sea. Abdi is the most conflicted of the pirates, and in his performance he shows Phillips and the audience that he's trapped into this way of life. 

As it turns out, Abdi was a natural-born actor: He ad-libbed what has become one of the film's most memorable lines. As he confronts the captain, he insists Phillips give him his full attention as he orders, "Look at me. I am the captain now."

"I became the character," he told Lauer. "I tried to get to be that guy for that moment.... I had to come out with all I got. I used a lot of imaginations."

For now, Abdi is riding the film's release, but when he goes back home to Minneapolis, he's back to the life of a non-celebrity, helping in his brother's store. But, he told Lauer, "I want to continue to act."

"Captain Phillips" opens in theaters Oct. 11, and the real-life Captain Richard Phillips will be in the TODAY studio Friday, too.