Most of the notable first time film actors nominated in this category tend to be in extremely sympathetic roles like Haing S. Ngor in The Killing Fields or Harold Russell in The Best Years of Our Lives, but that is not exactly the case with Barkhad Abdi in this film. Barkhad Abdi plays the head of the group of four pirates who decide to try to make money by attacking the ship run by Captain Phillips (Tom Hanks). The film is about the two captains Phillips of the cargo ship, and Muse who runs his own boat. Abdi is almost co-lead with Hanks in this film as it does bother to show him before the hijacking and even gives him perspective beforehand as he chooses his men then chooses to proceed with his plan.
Muse is definitely a villain in the film as he does shoot at, and threaten to kill people to make his money, but the film does show where he is coming from. It allows you to sympathize with him if you choose to, which is one of the strengths of the film. Abdi does not necessarily play him in an overly sympathetic way actually, even if Muse's desperation is an essential part of the film. Abdi plays the part correctly from the begging as he is a pirate who plans on making money no matter what even if it means hurting people. In his early scenes Abdi plays Muse as a bit of the silent gangster and is effective in conveying his underlying determination to get on Phillips's ship even with resistance from both Phillips's and his crew as well as many hesitations from fellow Pirates.
When Muse and his men finally infiltrate the ship and confront the Captain Abdi is brilliant in his magnetic portrayal of Muse in the scene. Abdi plays it as a bit of an act, although an act in the character of Muse. Abdi makes the right distinction in his performance as Muse basically tries to act as the very calm and cool leader of the men, who will not be taken as a fool by Phillips. Abdi is great because there is the performance in him of wanting to be considered the man in charge with his delivery of "I'm the Captain Now" which is flawlessly handled by Abdi. Abdi makes Muse the Pirate who definitely should be taken seriously, but at the same time he suggests that this is in an underlying way that this is not exactly who Muse truly is, rather it is his way of trying to control the situation.
After Muse's attempt in controlling the ship goes far worse than he would have hoped, and instead decides to kidnap only Phillips aboard the cargo ship's lifeboat, and attempt to get some ransom somehow. Abdi is terrific in portraying how his failure to take the ship has hit Muse very hard. Abdi rightfully drops Muse attempting to be in control and effectively begins to show the desperation in the man instead. At this point Abdi suggests he really does not have have any point for the act, and instead just tries to lead his men while it slowly becomes obvious that his plan is going to fail. Abdi matches Tom Hanks in terms of his realistic reactions as the tension increases. Abdi is exceptional in portraying Muse slowly failing attempt to control his men as well as Phillips.
As his plan only seems to become worse as they are surrounded by the U.S. navy Abdi is rather moving in his portrayal of Muse attempt to rationalize still going further with the plan. Abdi is great because he shows the effort as Muse tries to keep on a brave face in face of an obvious defeat and there is such sadness, although a properly restrained form of it, in Abdi's delivery of the line ""I go too far, Irish". Abdi shows that Muse really does know he's been defeated but this pride and desperation will not allow him to admit, so he keeps attempting to keep a brave face. There is even such a tragedy as Abdi still gives off the faint confidence as Muse claims that he will probably get millions from his plan which will allow him to be rich in America.
Abdi's very best scene though comes in a trade off in philosophy between the two Captains as Phillips tries to ask Muse if this course of action was all that Muse could have really done with his life. Abdi fully realizes the desperation in Muse in this scene as there is such a resignation in his words as he basically tells Phillips that he believes there was no other option for him to take. Abdi vividly portrays the state of the man and alludes to his history of Somalia where he likely found very few other ideas other than piracy, and further controlled by his elders who he refers to as his bosses. Abdi's performance of this scene shows the depth of this man as more than just simply a man trying to make money, but rather a series of circumstances that have brought him to this place.
Barkhad Abdi despite this being his screen debut gives a very assured performance. Abdi creates an fascinating character out Muse, by never overplaying an aspect of it. The part could have easily been played as just a constantly angry pirate, or he actually also could have been played as overly somber to gain sympathy. Abdi's performance rises above any of that because he creates a fuller portrait of Muse. He makes Muse the villain he should be with the right intensity suggesting the danger his character does present for Phillips, but he as well manages to show what makes this man the danger he is, which is definitely not simplistic evil. Barkhad Abid gives a great performance as Abduwali Muse, and succeeds, along with the writing, in bringing a greater complexity to this story.