True Detective returns after a lengthy hiatus to reclaim the fervent fan following and rampant online discussion that followed the series in its critically acclaimed first season. While the second season may have been a misfire, the inaugural year, anchored by incendiary performances from Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey was a sensation, with critics and bloggers tirelessly poring over every thread of the story, hoping to find some hidden or even supernatural meaning underneath.
McConaughey in particular benefitted from the first season’s widespread success. His performance as whacko existentialist Rust Cohle cemented McConaughey’s Hollywood comeback after his Oscar winning turn in Dallas Buyers Club and the characters spaced out musings became viral memes and a shtick that McConaughey could lean on for ad campaigns. If he’s lucky, True Detective Season 3 lead Mahershala Ali will receive some of the critical adoration and career mileage that McConaughey milked from his time reciting creator Nic Pizzolatto’s dialogue, but don’t expect just a re-do of Rust Cohle.
Cohle was an unreliable protagonist in True Detective’s first season, mainly because his personal philosophy and moral ambiguity kept you guessing about his intentions. Ali’s character Wayne Hayes doesn’t have that same dark edge, yet can be hard to trust all the same due to his character’s quickly fading memory in the present-day storyline. Still, Pizzolatto and Ali still won’t call him an unreliable narrator.
“I do think he’s a reliable narrator,” Pizzolatto says. “I think we can trust what we’re seeing because, I think when hard reality breaks, you know it, you know? It’s clear in the series, and when he’s in an episode, I feel like that’s clear, and generally, you know, a rule I try to stick to is, if you’re seeing it, it happened.”
“I feel like you answered that question pretty brilliantly, in terms of Wayne being a reliable narrator,” Ali confirms.
Ali will have more room to stretch out in the role as well. While Rust Cohle was only presented in two different timelines, this year’s story will be set across three different time periods, giving Ali a chance to really experiment with the character.
Speaking about playing a character has a young man to playing that same character as a man toward the end of his life losing his memory, Ali said, “I remember being very conscious of breathing and articulation, and how those things, as people get dentures and different things starts to change. Your speech changes, it affects how you sound. And so, just trying to be aware of those things and the anxiety around memory, and losing memory, and not being able to track a thought, all of that connects back to speech, breath, body. And so you talk about those things, you try to be aware of them, and then you’ve got to throw it all away because at the end of the day you can’t really wear your homework, you’ve got to just be it, you know? But, I did get to drive myself a little bit crazy for a while thinking about all those things and trying to get it right.”
And while McConaughey was taking on his first major television role, Ali is having somewhat of a homecoming after starting on the small screen, then breaking out into film. But instead of viewing it as a television project, Ali just sees True Detective season 3 as a extension of his film work.
“I came out of school in 2000, so I booked Crossing Jordan in February 2001, or January 2001, so my relationship with television has been ongoing, having always aspired to have a blossoming film career, right?” Ali muses. “Because that’s how you would prioritize things, right? But, over time, I’ve found that it’s less about the medium and way more about the quality of the material.
“So, this was just a 500-page film that happens to be captured on television, for me. And, the gift of having an opportunity to sit in the body and be in the bones of a character like Wayne Hayes for six and a half months, I think as an experience, as an exercise for an actor, I know I’m a better man, I’m a better actor, I’m a better husband/father as a result of my six and a half months playing this part. Because, to do this type of material, to be that close to it, I think it requires you to process and reflect and think about the world and people in a way that goes beyond how I would normally do that, because I’m spending so much time in the bones of another person.”
So while this season of True Detective may be a return to form, Ali’s work is entirely different than what McConaughey was doing with his character. All the same, here’s hoping that Wayne Hays sticks in the cultural consciousness in the same way that Rust Cohle has.
True Detective Season 3 debuts on January 13 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.
Nick Harley is a tortured Cleveland sports fan, thinks Douglas Sirk would have made a killer Batman movie, Spider-Man should be a big-budget HBO series, and Wes Anderson and Paul Thomas Anderson should direct a script written by one another. For more thoughts like these, read Nick’s work here at Den of Geek or follow him on Twitter.