Mahershala Ali, as we say to him below in our interview, is having a “moment.” All of a sudden the Oakland-born actor seems to be everywhere, on film and TV, playing a wide variety of roles that each play to both his powerful presence and his underlying humanity and empathy. He started on TV in 2001 with a featured part on Crossing Jordan, then moved onto a larger role as Richard Tyler in 28 episodes of the sci-fi series The 4400. His film credits include The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Place Beyond the Pines, Predators, and The Hunger Games series (as Colonel Boggs).
But heightened attention came his way when he portrayed conflicted political operative Remy Danton on four seasons of House of Cards, and all of a sudden he’s in two excellent movies, Kicks and the just-released, incredibly moving Moonlight, and he’s also just shown up as the villainous crime boss Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes in Marvel’s Luke Cage on Netflix. Coming up: Hidden Figures, about the little-known group of African-American women who provided crucial data to NASA for the space program, and Alita: Battle Angel, the long-in-development adaptation of the famous Japanese cyborg manga.
At the moment, Ali is promoting Moonlight (for which he shot his role on weekends while working on House of Cards), in which he plays a drug dealer who befriends and mentors a young African-American boy who does not know how to handle his dawning homosexuality in a community that has not always been known for its tolerance of gay men. The central character, Chiron, is played by three different actors as a boy, a teen and a man, with Ali interacting with the youngest. We spoke about that, Luke Cage, his decision to leave House of Cards and more recently in Los Angeles.
Den of Geek: You’re kind of having a little bit of a moment right now. Does it feel like that to you? Does it feel like things are going to the next level in a way?
Mahershala Ali: Yes. Because I’m exhausted. Look, I knew over a year ago when I was working around the clock like seven days a week for a period of time that it was necessary to do. That I needed to do it because it was going to open up some things for me. I just felt it deep down inside, and it’s doing just that. At some point, I believe it will be necessary or I will decide to probably work more deliberately and less, but hopefully having this same if not a larger impact when I do work, but I don’t plan to work like this forever. I don’t think it’s sustainable, but I do intend to, as these opportunities begin to grow, get very specific and then perhaps more particular or whatever with my choices.
You have been choosing great projects.
Yes. I just mean that they’re all kind of, they link together in a way that could be, it would be overwhelming if I tried to do this over the next, over another two, three, four years. I don’t think you can sustain, be healthy in that way to be working how I have been working for the last year.
You’ve said that you started a little bit late in this business. Do you feel like you’ve had to push to accelerate the process in a way and make sure that you got things moving for yourself?
I got out of grad school in 2000. I was about 26 years old. I’ve always said that I was late to acting because I didn’t really start doing it in a focused way until I was in my early 20s. A lot of actors know they want to be actors a little bit earlier on. I didn’t even really start studying until I was about 22. In terms of pace, I think I just have to revisit my relationship with expectations. That has a little bit to do with comparing ourselves to other people and seeing other people’s journey and seeing how they had a certain success at a certain age. Also, in some ways accepting how Hollywood places a premium on youth. If you start feeling like you’re beyond that time, then you begin to question if you’ll have the type of opportunities that you would have ideally liked to have had.
As far as just thinking about expectations, I think they just come from a place of feeling like you should be at a certain place at a certain time because you just want to have the fullest experience you possibly can. I feel like at the age I am now that it’s very possible for me then to be fulfilled as an artist right now at my age, and then in this time.
Moonlight is such a beautifully done, almost poetic film. What was your response to first reading the character Juan and seeing what this is all about?
I was surprised that he just felt real, that he felt like a person that I knew. There were elements of him in people that I grew up with that were really kind, good guys, but in some case were killed, and in some cases were killed or are in jail, and in jail to this day. It wasn’t that they walked around and you thought, “Oh, well there goes the drug dealer.” “There goes the guy who will shoot you at a moment’s notice.” They don’t necessarily walk around like that, even though they’re captured that way in film on a regular basis.
The real guys that I knew were really cool people, who I played basketball with and traveled with on teams and knew their families and knew that they love their family. They just happen to do something that wasn’t all the way legal, but it was a part of their life, and you knew that they hustled. You know their history, you know them as a complete person. You’ve laughed and cried with them, and you know their heart. You know what they’re going for, and how they have an ambition maybe to change their life or the fact that they didn’t really have access to education and the opportunities that move them out of that lifestyle and give them different choices. This project and this part really spoke to me in relation to my own personal experiences. Also, just surprised me that it felt so real.
He’s very self-aware, and that makes him tragic in a way because he knows what he’s capable of as a human being, that he’s capable of great compassion and empathy, but he also knows what he has to do for a living. Does he see helping Chiron as a way to change course a little bit?
There’s some things that didn’t make the cut of this film that we did shoot. Certain bits of improv that were guided by Barry (Jenkins, director) that we recorded, and then some scenes with Teresa counting the money and doing some things that may make in the DVD or Blu-ray. Juan has accepted his lot. This is what he is, and this is what he’s going to be, but he’s not flashy. He floats under the radar to some degree. He’s got a nice home. Nothing excessive relative to that world, but he’s also a guy who would never promote that life. He would never guide Chiron into that life because he’s aware of and that’s what I love about that movie. You feel that from Juan.
You don’t feel like he would be someone who would be trying to necessarily pull people into that lifestyle. That I know for sure because of some other stuff that we shot that just didn’t make the cut of the film.
Did you get to spend a lot time to sort of bond with Alex (Hibbert, who played little Chiron)?
We spent a lot of time together on set just every day, but in terms of spending time together before we started shooting, no. On set, we spent a lot of time together. We had a great time.
You did Kicks before this…
A year before. Kicks took two years to come out.
There are some similarities and an authenticity to them both.
Yeah, but I think Kicks exists in a different world. I think the stakes are a little bit different in Kicks, but they both have elements of persecution or fear or feeling like you don’t belong or being outside of the circle to some degree. I feel like Kicks exists in a lighter place, there’s more space for laughter. It’s not going to drag you under for as long. I feel like there’s just a greater degree of pain in Moonlight. I’m not saying it makes it a better movie. They’re just really different movies with some similar aspects to them for sure.
Do you feel like we’re getting into a better place for films about African-American experiences, especially through independent releases like these that are getting away from the typical Hollywood portrayal?
If you ask someone this this time last year, they would obviously have said no, but you got to think a few years earlier, Precious had come out. I don’t know if we’re in a time where it feels like everything’s getting better. I think we just need some time to see. I do feel like there has been a real shift in the efforts of the Academy for instance to embrace and welcome different voices and people of color. It seems like there’s a real effort happening in television to give creatives, so not just people in front of the camera, but people who are creating content like Donald Glover and Issa Rae, Ava DuVernay, Cheo Hodari Coker. I want to say yes. I really do. I’m hoping that their projects stick around and that they create trees in that people who work under them branch off and they get to start their own projects and get their own thing going. I hope so. I really do.
How was the experience of doing Luke Cage and again finding a human being in Cottonmouth?
Luke Cage was wonderful. It was hard. That character just felt really toxic to me, and I don’t mean that in a negative way. He’s just living in a place and working from such a heightened space that is not necessarily the most positive, healthy wavelength. It was something that I found myself really taking home at night and dealing with to some degree, and just trying to shake off to some degree, but it was great to work on. I had never been given that much space, and I don’t think I’ve been as present in any other show as I was in my time on Luke Cage.
On House of Cards, you walked away at the end of Season Four. Did it just feel natural for you to bring the character’s journey to an end? Any second thoughts about that?
It was just time. It was just time. I asked if they were okay if we could, I basically said that, look I felt like the character has done what he can do. I felt like it was time. He’s reached his shelf life. They agreed. We were able to give him an exit, but I needed to stick around to write the story out in a way that they saw fit because every actor knows you can’t be under a contract and just walk away. I didn’t want to do that. I wasn’t interested in trying in any way to bully anybody into letting me off the show, but it was just time to move on because I just want to do more. I want to explore more. I would love an opportunity to lead my own show or to lead films and television. I’m not going to get to do that being on someone else’s show for seven months out of the year over the course of however many years. You have to let go of one opportunity to go for the thing that you want for yourself.
Moonlight is in theaters today (October 21) while Luke Cage is streaming on Netflix.