As a gun-toting Somali pirate, Barkhad Abdi was terrifying, earning an Oscar-nomination for his role in “Captain Phillips” with the chilling line to Tom Hanks: “I am the captain now.”
They liked it in Somalia too: when Abdi returned to his birth nation for the first time in more than two decades, he was mobbed by fans who “wanted their photograph with me”, he said.
But the image of Somalia as shown in such films of relentless war, famine and piracy is one the 29-year-old is determined to change.
“I didn’t see a war, I didn’t see a single gunshot the whole time I was there – and I didn’t see a pirate either,” Abdi told AFP in a green garden in the Kenyan capital, days after returning from Somalia earlier this month
“The Somalia I saw was a country that was in the process of being rebuilt. There is more there than war, drought, and hunger.”
Before “Captain Phillips”, Somalia was known to outsiders because of “Black Hawk Down”, the 2001 blockbuster telling the story of the 1993 battle in Mogadishu, when American soldiers fought through the capital after two of their helicopters were shot down.
Abdi, who won a BAFTA as best supporting actor for his role in the 2013 film “Captain Phillips”, dreams some day of a film that shows a different side of Somalia.
“I hope to tell a different story, because there are so many inspirational people, stories of struggle,” he said. “There is a lost generation, and now that I have a voice, I want to help them out.”
Abdi was born in the Somali capital Mogadishu six years before war followed the overthrow of dictator Siad Barre in 1991.
The country is still one of the most violent and dangerous on earth.
Large areas remain at war, with the Al-Qaeda affiliated Shebab insurgents staging regular attacks to topple the government.
But outside main war zones in the south, some progress is being made.
Barkhad visited Somalia’s northern Puntland region to see the work of the Somali aid agency Adeso, which trains unemployed youth by giving them practical skills.
“It is not as bad as people think,” Abdi said.
“We still need a lot of help, but we don’t just need food and money — we need structure, strong government and we need peace, we need our people to help themselves and be independent.”
“Captain Phillips”, which starred Hanks as the captain Abdi kidnaps, recounts the true story of the Maersk Alabama, a vessel with a US crew that was hijacked in April 2009 off Somalia.
At their peak in 2011, Somali pirates held over 700 hostages but rates of attacks have tumbled, prompted partly by the posting of armed guards on boats and navy patrols.
Still, changing stereotypes and reputations will take time, Abdi admits, who recently played the role of a fugitive African warlord in the US crime drama “Hawaii Five-0″, modelled on Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army rebel chief Joseph Kony.
“Somalis have a stereotype – we’ve been refugees in countries all over the world for more than the last 20 years, it is just human nature, people don’t like what they are not used to seeing,” he said.
“For young Somalis… be the best at whatever you do, just work hard. As a human being if you respect people, they respect you.”
Despite the success of “Captain Phillips”, work took time to come for Abdi.
He now lives in Los Angeles, recently finishing shooting on a drone warfare thriller, “Eye in the Sky”, alongside Aaron Paul from the US TV crime drama “Breaking Bad” and Hollywood legend Helen Mirren, due for release later this year.
But Abdi says he was not being typecast or reinforcing negative stereotypes of young Somali men.
“Actually, I’m a hero, I was playing a Somali undercover agent,” he said. “And as long as the story is good, I’m fine with it.”