No more pirates: Mpls. actor Barkhad Abdi lands the good guy role

Barkhad Abdi as a CIA operative
Barkhad Abdi as a CIA operative working on the ground in Nairobi, Kenya in "Eye in the Sky."
Keith Bernstein | Bleecker Street

Barkhad Abdi gained international fame in 2013 with his first film appearance in "Captain Phillips" where he played a desperate Somali fisherman driven to piracy. The performance earned the Minneapolis actor an Oscar nomination.

Moviegoers will get to see Abdi again this spring in an equally intense but very different role.

In his new film "Eye in the Sky" Abdi plays a CIA counterterrorism operative in Kenya trying to track down a terrorist cell using a drone flying high over the city before they can launch a suicide attack. The mission is commanded by a colonel in England, played by Helen Mirren. The drone is piloted by a U.S. crew in Nevada.

Abdi's character is the one on the ground, in danger. He hides outside the terror cell's house, controlling another tiny drone shaped like a beetle. It allows the drone team members around the world to see inside the building.

Director Gavin Hood, standing
Director Gavin Hood (standing) goes over details on the set of "Eye in the Sky" with actors Phoebe Fox and Aaron Paul who play the drone pilots in the tense drama.
Keith Bernstein | Bleecker Street

Dozens, may be hundreds of lives are at risk. A missile strike may stop the bombers but also result in deaths of innocent people nearby.

The movie opens locally on Friday. Abdi, 30, said he was sold on "Eye in the Sky" immediately when he got a look at the script. "You can feel the intensity just from reading it," he said in a phone interview from New York City.

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He said he knew little about drone warfare and the moral, political and legal issues involved before taking on the part.

"I'm assuming a lot of people don't know the details of drones," he said. "You hear about it but you don't know exactly what happens and how these things work. So this movie, I believe gives a lot of insight on the drones and the modern warfare."

Helen Mirren stars as Colonel Katherine Powell
Helen Mirren stars as Colonel Katherine Powell, the colonel coordinating an international strike force using drones to hunt down a terrorist cell in "Eye in the Sky." When the mission changes from a "capture" to "kill" situation she has to convince politicians in several countries that the potential deaths of innocent people in the area of the strike are justified.
Keith Bernstein | Bleecker Street

As "Eye in the Sky" progresses, the tension mounts. Abdi's character is right outside the building he knows is about to get hit. He tries to move some children to safety without giving away what's happening.

"I thought he was a really good character," he said. "Someone with a heart."

One thing likely to catch the attention of Minnesota audiences, in addition to Abdi's appearance, is that one of the suicide bombers is described as a radicalized young man who has recently arrived from Minneapolis. That's not something that will surprise the Somali community in the Twin Cities, he said.

"It's a really complicated topic that we don't have any answers for," Abdi said. "But as a community we've been working to stop those who promote such acts."

Abdi lives in Los Angeles now, but says he loves returning home to Minneapolis to see family and friends. For a time after the success of "Captain Phillips," it was tough not to feel typecast, and that makes "Eye in the Sky" even sweeter.

"I am happy not to be stuck in one role, and I can do other parts," he said.

He's on his way to Cape Town, South Africa, to shoot "Where the White Man Runs Away" with Al Pacino.

The movie is based on a best-seller called "The Pirates of Somalia," he said, adding, "And I'm not going to be playing a pirate."