Mahershala Ali

What’s your favorite thing about acting?

I’ve always been a relatively creative person and grew up looking for ways to communicate and express myself. The more I got into acting, it seemed like this endless world of opportunity to be creative and tell stories. You just see how stories have such a potential to not only entertain, but to impact people’s lives. I just love the challenge of it, I love bringing characters to life, and I love how it encourages me to be reflective in some way, examining my own life and my own choices. You always have to really look at these characters, and somehow get down into the root of why they’re making the choices that they make. In some ways, as much as I give to it, it gives more back because it inspires me to work a little harder to know myself. I’m not sure if there’s another occupation I could step into where I would have this type of experience. I’m really appreciative for the craft and how much it gives to me.

What has been your most memorable role to date and why?

Maybe I’m a prisoner of the moment, but my most memorable role would be playing Juan in “Moonlight.” I absolutely love that character. I worked on that role for about 7 days and I would fly out to Miami and go back to New York, Baltimore, or New Jersey. I was working on four different projects at once, and I would have to leave and while I was working on “Luke Cage,” or “House of Cards,” even though I was committed to and loved them, I really found myself missing Juan and it kind of ached. I’ve never had that experience where I missed being on set, and working on a specific character. I’ve done some wonderful shows-“House of Cards” is a terrific series-but I didn’t miss that character in my hiatus the way I missed playing Juan. I don’t mean to belittle that character, or that opportunity because I feel like it was an amazing one, but there was something special about Juan and my personal connection to him. The story itself just felt so important to all of us and we were so committed to it that when you stepped out of that world, you couldn’t help but miss working on that film.

You’ve starred in an array of different genres, both on the big and small screens. Do you have any rituals that help you get into character?

My main ritual, especially if I have the time, is to really be able to sit with the character, and really think about him. Sometimes I use a journal and write stuff down, but I have to be careful of that because I can be a little bit heady or over think things, so I try to stay in the emotional world and connect through what the character’s intentions and feelings are. Usually, I need to just process what they’re experiencing in the story and take my cues from there. It’s really about spending a little bit of time walking and taking in the city where I’m working and trying to get to know him through thinking about him. Another thing I do 100% of the time, and I’ve spoken about this quite a bit…I always make playlists that are very specific to the character that I’m working on. I ask myself what they might be listening to, and it depends on the era as well. If I can’t get music specifically from that time, I try to find things that reflect the essence of that character. The playlists always reflect that character’s tastes and what he’s experiencing. I think music speaks to us and we have a very rich emotional attachment to it. Whether it’s hard-core hip-hop, punk rock, or heavy metal, it just has a very specific energy that we connect to, and those connections help inform who we are.

What’s your most embarrassing moment? On or off the set!

I can’t believe I’m telling you this, but my most embarrassing moment happened when I was doing “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” Kate Blanchett was getting her star on the Hollywood walk of fame when the film was about to be released. A few days before it was, they were having the ceremony for her and Brad Pitt was there, along with David Fincher and all these A-list Hollywood folks. I flew down from Berkeley, and had bought this nice blazer for the occasion and I wore it with jeans and a fedora, and felt like I was looking pretty smooth. I was staying with a friend in L.A. and when I went back to his house after the ceremony, I went into the bathroom and did something with my arms in the air and noticed that I had a price tag hanging from my armpit. So, basically…I had been at this ceremony, for hours, hugging people left and right, stretching my arms out, laughing, and I had a price tag, just hanging there, the whole time!

Your new series, “Luke Cage” crashed the Netflix server during its premiere! Why do you think the show has been so successful?

I don’t know if there’s any other fan base quite like the superhero one. Whether it’s Marvel, or DC, or people who vacillate between both of those worlds, that fan base is just so rich and decades old. I think that’s because, in some ways, people get to have a vicarious experience through these characters and they carry with them the best aspirational qualities that we all want to believe we have within us. And we do! We might not have the ability to fly, perform telekinesis, or see through walls, but the attributes that superheroes tend to have, and even their reluctance to embrace them, makes them worth watching! We love going along for that ride, coming out feeling inspired. I think that’s why they’ll always be around. Marvel has made a real focused effort to produce these projects at a really high level, especially for the medium. It’s one thing to make a 300 million dollar movie, and the expectation is for it to be absolutely amazing, and for the graphics to be really tight and cutting-edge, but it’s another thing to do that on the small screen, where budgets don’t quite compare and the narrative needs to be really tight and entertaining. It’s definitely a combination of the projects, what the characters inherently carry, the production quality, and how so many terrific actors have been attracted to these projects.

One of the main images of the series is the protagonist in a hoodie, with multiple bullet wounds on his chest. Many have said the photo resembles that of Trayvon Martin; do you think that image was deliberate? What are your thoughts on having a black male super hero take the lead, in light of the increasing police brutality and racial profiling in the US?

From what I understand, it was intentional. Mike Colter had conversations with Hodari Coker about wardrobe and wanted that to be Luke Cage’s uniform, because of the Trayvon Martin story and so many others like it. In terms of the increasing police brutality, I don’t necessarily think there has been one. I believe that people have the platform now to capture what has happened. It’s been happening my entire life! It’s not new information…it’s just new information for people outside of those communities. It’s akin to the Rodney King situation, which was captured on a VHS camera. How many people are walking around with those cameras and seeing Oscar Grant lying on a train platform and they just pull out a VHS camera? If we were still in that time, it wouldn’t have been captured. The fact that everyone has the ability, at least technically, to be local journalists and videographers, sharing this information on social media, has changed everything. What’s happening is that things that were normally occurring in these communities for decades are just being captured now because the technology is within arm’s reach. The frequency with which the brutality happens is now being documented in a different way than what were accustomed to. Twitter and Facebook weren’t around 10 years ago, so I think that is really contributing to what feels like a new phenomenon and honestly, if you talk to anyone who has grown up in communities that have relatively large percentages of black and brown people, it’s commonplace! I’ve been pulled over a number of times, and by the grace of God, have never gotten in trouble with the police, but I’ve had a few offensive situations happen that would give the layperson pause. But it’s normal, we go through it, and we’ve never really had the platform to talk about it. In 1995, no one was coming to the hood and giving you a microphone to talk about it, but now we don’t need someone to come to us and ask about the abuse that’s going on at the hands of those who are supposed to be serving and protecting. Of course, I would hope, and I believe that the vast majority of law enforcement are good people who try to follow and enforce the law in a balanced way, but there’s a percentage who don’t do that and there are people who experience that injustice on a fairly regular basis.

Can you tell us a bit about your character, Cottonmouth, in “Luke Cage?” Do you identify with him in any way?

Cottonmouth is a crime boss and a drug runner, but he didn’t see this life for himself that he’s been forced to embrace. In many ways, I look at him as having an out of body experience. I don’t think his soul quite fits in his body and the things that he’s doing aren’t things that I think are really in alignment with who he truly is. He was forced into that life and eventually he just went along with it, but he was a music prodigy beforehand. I think what he’s trying to do is preserve the family legacy and leave a lasting impression on Harlem. He runs this nightclub called Harlem’s Paradise and it’s a hub in the area of this country, which is the Mecca of black culture. He’s really cognizant of the opportunity and responsibility he has to keep this club, not only up and running, but to grow it and leave his mark on the city…it’s an extension of his identity. A lot of the negative things that happen the way they do in the series-beyond the gunrunning-has more to do with Luke Cage disrupting what Cottonmouth would view as the natural order of things and a lot of violence kind of pops off. I don’t think that that’s how Cottonmouth would normally operate…that degree of violence is excessive and he’s aware of that, but it’s really in response to Luke disrupting things. He operates from the standpoint of survival, and feels that everything he does is out of necessity.

Your new film, “Moonlight,” comes out next week! It’s a coming of age tale depicting the struggle of a young boy growing up in Miami and discovering his identity, sexual and otherwise. What does the story mean to you? Do you feel it has an important message for viewers experiencing the same thing?

Different people go through different things, but were all the same in that we are all human. Unfortunately, within the scope of stories that come out, they can be fairly limiting. There are a few select experiences that tend to be highlighted and explored, over and over again. It’s challenging in getting people to go to the movies because they feel like they’ve already seen a version of this story. I think “Moonlight’s” story is important because it’s specific and very personal. It’s about a young boy who’s struggling with his identity, in a very specific way. In that, there is so much value because there are real people who are walking around today, right now, experiencing the same thing as Chiron. They haven’t really seen their story told and it’s important for everyone to have the opportunity to see themselves reflected onscreen and in these narratives. It’s a reminder that they count too; they’re worthy of being listened to, having their own narrative, and being heard. It’s more of a conversation with the world, with people having a platform to express themselves. I think we have to support everyone having an opportunity to be heard! That’s what I love about this story-it’s unique. I’m really appreciative for having the chance to be a part of it.

What was it like working with Barry Jenkins? How did his directing enhance your performance?

Barry Jenkins is a genius. I’ve said it about other directors, like David Fincher and Derek Cianfrance, and it’s just one of those things you know you’re in the presence of, and it’s really inspiring. Barry is a very brave director. He’s a writer/director and writers tend to trust themselves more than they’re going to trust an actor and they have to write down what they need you to communicate in a scene. Barry’s dialogue is sort of sparse, and he trusts that he’ll be able to direct an actor to carry the larger thoughts and intentions of the scene, without needing words. It’s a difficult thing to explain but he operates beyond what’s on the page. He directs you in a way where you feel a healthy pressure to communicate the intentions through silence and he has this expectation of his actors to be emotionally intelligent. He’s really a wizard at crafting performances, within the dialogue and also beyond it. For me, that was so refreshing because I’ve had so many experiences where you just say what you have to say, they cut away from you, and you’re onto the next scene. Barry has the camera sit on you and just because you’re silent, doesn’t mean you can’t not be alive; you have to be alive and having real thoughts as a character and person. It’s really more reflective of real life, where you could be driving in the car with your partner, and on an hour trip, you’re not going to talk for the whole time…you’ll sit in silence for 30-40 minutes (laughs) but in that time, you’re still alive and thinking and maybe communicating in some way. Barry works with that in mind and it was truly a refreshing experience.

“Moonlight” has been featured in the Telluride and TIFF festivals. What has been the general reception of the film?

The film has been at Telluride, TIFF, and The London & New York Film Festivals and it’s beautiful seeing it all string together like a pearl necklace. There have been these consistently wonderful responses to the project with the reviews starting to come out now. That’s not necessarily why you do it, at least for me. I read a script, I’m inspired by the story, and connect to the part, and try to do my best work. The response is just wonderful icing for that cake and it just informs me of what the power of good filmmaking is. It’s amazing to experience and to have something that feels socially relevant and cathartic for so many people. To walk away feeling like you experienced something and were fed and had to think about it for a few more days, in a time when there’s so much content, and you hop onto the next thing you’re bingeing, to get to do a project that gives people pause and they want to dissect it to some degree-whether I agree with what they’re saying or not-the fact is it inspires them to talk about it and reflect…I don’t know if you can really achieve more with a story.

If you could have dinner with one person, past or present, who would it be and why?

Wow…I don’t know why, but Sidney Poitier keeps coming to mind. I think what he did in his time was really miraculous and I would just love to learn more about his experiences-his approach to the work and how he selected roles-to try and get a larger context of the time. What he achieved was probably one of the more revolutionary things in the history of film. Just to sit down and have a conversation with him, or spend some time with him and be educated would be really eye opening.

You’ve been in the industry for about 15 years! If you could give your younger self one piece of advice, what would it be?

I would just say be patient, keep doing the work, and believe. I feel like I have been patient to some degree. There have been definitely been times where very real frustrations have come up because I didn’t feel like I was making progress. I think I’ve been looked out for.

You’ve been keeping quite busy and have a few projects coming up in 2017. Which one are you most excited about?

Right now, I’m just in the midst of experiencing “Moonlight” and I just want to see how much this project is going to be embraced. I think that for a lot of people, it’s a really challenging subject matter and I would like to see how ready people are for this type of film. It’s a film for everyone and I sincerely mean that. I say this because as much as it tackles a very specific story and journey of a young man struggling with his identity, hiding from his sexuality, then struggling to embrace that sexuality and what it means for how he abuses himself…I do feel the connecting point for so many people is that we can really relate to being the “other,” the one who isn’t part of the tribe, or doesn’t quite fit in, trying to change ourselves and curate our personalities to do so. As we do that, we rob ourselves of the things that make us unique, and while it’s intended as protection, it’s dishonest. Just that struggle-whether it’s weight, intelligence, or athleticism-it’s a challenging world with so many images and ideas of what is best, what is beautiful, what is to be admired, and what is to be shunned. At some point, we all find ourselves reflecting and questioning if we’re good enough and do we fit the mold? Then we find ourselves trying to reshape our identities so we can be celebrated too, based on some collective socially constructed model that we haven’t chosen for ourselves. In a much larger way, that’s exactly what Chiron is dealing with and if not all of us, most of us have to wrestle with that, at some point.

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