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Somali actor in 'Captain Phillips' makes ND his new home

Mahat Ali is one of the Somali actors who portray pirates in the new Tom Hanks movie, "Captain Phillips." Ali moved to Grand Forks recently.

GRAND FORKS -- A Somali man who earned a pivotal part in the new Tom Hanks movie, "Captain Phillips," is making North Dakota his new home.

For 20-year-old Mahat Ali, it may seem an improbable path from the small village in Somalia where he was born to the city of Grand Forks.

However, it's the one he's chosen to pursue a job and an education, while keeping the door open for future acting roles.

Ali said he was attracted to the state's strong economy and wants to study aviation.

"I want to be a pilot or run an airport someday," he said.

Ali is on unemployment while he looks for a job. He is hoping to take community college courses, and then enroll at the University of North Dakota, ultimately in its aviation program.

And along the way, he wants to be considered for other acting jobs -- for what he calls another "big project."

The casting call

Ali landed one of the coveted Somali pirate roles during an open casting call in Minneapolis in November 2011.

In the movie, based on real-life events off the Horn of Africa in 2009, pirates hijack an American cargo ship and take Hanks' character, Capt. Richard Phillips, hostage.

They're seeking ransom money to escape the wrath of a Somali warlord.

The ordeal ends when U.S. Navy sharpshooters kill three of the pirates holding Phillips captive in a lifeboat.

Ali went in with little acting experience, having only taken part in a 2009 Somali movie.

He became aware of the Minneapolis casting call only because he lived across the street from the community center where it was held.

More than 700 aspiring actors turned out.

"I saw all these people and asked 'What's going on here?'" Ali said.

Before long, he became immersed in a three-week audition process in which the participants, in various groups, were run through parts for the four hijacking pirate roles.

Sometimes the process required 10-hour days.

As a result, Ali lost his job as an assembly line machine operator in Minneapolis.

While he regrets that, he didn't want the movie opportunity to slip away. "I was like, 'How can I get this role?'" he said.

The four ultimately chosen were all friends, several of them having gone to middle and high school together in Minneapolis.

In a way, Ali said, "We chose each other."

They were flown to Los Angeles, but hadn't yet learned they got the jobs.

They sat down to dinner in Santa Monica with the film's director, Paul Greengrass ("The Bourne Ultimatum," "United 93"), who told them they were chosen.

As Ali tells it, the friends began jumping up and down with excitement. To celebrate their good fortune, they tore off their clothes and ran into the ocean -- except for Ali, who stood alone on the beach, smiling.

He didn't know how to swim.

Before filming

While a nonswimmer might be afraid to take a role in a movie almost entirely shot on the ocean, Ali was undaunted.

"I believe in me," he said.

Ali learned to swim during a three-week period before filming began off Malta -- first in a hotel swimming pool on the island, and then in the big waters of the Mediterranean Sea.

It was a crucial skill, especially because of the movie's early scenes, in which the pirates chase down the cargo ship in a skiff, bouncing mercilessly in the ship's huge wake.

"They had lifeguards in case we fell out," said Ali, "but we still needed to know how to swim."

Something else Ali had to learn was how to drive a boat. His character is the navigator of the skiff and of the lifeboat, in which Phillips is taken hostage.

Ali also learned how to handle a weapon -- something he said was completely foreign to him.

"I never hold a gun in my life," he said. "It was like boot camp."

On the set

The Somali actors didn't meet Tom Hanks until after the first take of the scene in which the pirates confront Phillips and his crew for the first time.

Right after the director said "Cut!" the five of them shook hands.

The delayed meeting was by design, so as not to lessen the impact of the first time Hanks' character comes face to face with the pirates.

"After that, it was like 'Hi Tom,'" said Ali.

Ali describes Hanks as many perceive him -- friendly and humble on the set, always making jokes.

"It was like one big family," he said.

Post-movie life

Ali was paid a lump sum for his role in "Captain Phillips," an amount he doesn't want to disclose.

He said he will receive residual payments when the movie goes to rental status.

Before the movie's wide release last Friday, Ali traveled to New York and Los Angeles for red carpet premieres, standing arm-in-arm with Hanks.

Tuesday night, he attended a red carpet event at the Grandview Theater in St. Paul, put on by Minnesota Women in Film and Television.

Ali is enjoying his time in the spotlight.

"I see this big life, and I want to do more," he said.

It's a far cry from growing up in war-torn Somalia and later in a refugee camp in Kenya, which he describes as "a horrible life."

"Things I saw, I'd like to forget," he said.

Ali came to the U.S. five years ago after a sibling sponsored him. His mother lives in Minneapolis, while four older siblings still live in Somalia and Kenya.

Ali is married and has a 3-month-old baby daughter.

His main goal in North Dakota is to earn money for his immediate family here and for his extended family back home, and to make them proud.

Ali became an American citizen just five months ago.

"It was a big day for me," he said.

"America is the land of opportunity. I'm glad I'm here."