The Quiet Defiance of Mahershala Ali
“I’m just trying to find a balance, man,” says Mahershala Ali, actor, husband, father and star of the new movie Green Book, as he strolls through the parking lot of the Griffith Observatory, high in the hills above L.A. “Trying to be responsible with my choices, do meaningful work. Handling the influx of work opportunities, and how demanding that is to do well. Then the family thing — fighting to make sure their needs are met, your wife and your child. And then make sure I have time for myself! Because I’ve always been a bit of a loner. But my hypothesis is, if it’s all in proper alignment, you do it all better. I think there’s this magical space where it all feeds each other, until everything is richer. So, yeah,” he adds. “I’m getting there.”
We’ve been talking for about five minutes, and Ali has just finished answering the first question I asked him. The question was: “How’s it going?”
Ali, 44, is an expansive thinker and an extremely soulful individual. You could see it in 2016’s Moonlight, where he played an uncommonly tender drug dealer and was rewarded with an Academy Award. You could see it in his speech at the SAG Awards, 48 hours after President Trump’s travel ban, where Ali took the stage, a dark-skinned black man in an immaculate white tux, and proudly declared that he was a Muslim, too. You can see it in Green Book, a civil-rights-era drama in which he plays a pianist confronting racism in the South. And you can see it today, where, even surrounded by sightseers at L.A.’s number-two attraction on TripAdvisor, he can’t help but speak with depth and intelligence.
“He’s an elevated guy,” says Peter Farrelly, director of Green Book. “He’s kind of like a holy man — he’s got a light, a very open heart and spirit, and you’re happy to be in his presence.”
If balance is on Ali’s mind, it’s probably because he’s been working nonstop for a year. After filming Green Book last fall, he had a whopping seven days off before jumping straight into Season Three of True Detective, the HBO crime series he’ll take over in January. Seven grueling months later, he went right back to the festival circuit to promote Green Book, an early Oscar hopeful. Meanwhile, he and his wife, Amatus Karim-Ali, are living in a house that’s “75 percent renovated,” all while trying to keep up with their 20-month-old daughter. “So, yeah, no real downtime,” says Ali. “I saw a couple of pictures of myself recently, and I was like, ‘God, I look so sleepy!’ ”
Ali wanders the observation deck, taking in the majestic views. A few dozen tourists meander around us, snapping photos of the city below and the observatory itself, an Art Deco landmark made famous by films like Rebel Without a Cause and, more recently, La La Land.
You remember La La Land — the film that won, and then lost, the Best Picture award to Moonlight in the craziest Oscars mix-up ever? Which necessitates the question: Is Mahershala Ali trolling?
Nah. He’s way too nice for that. The truth is he wanted to come to Griffith Park because he used to ride his bike around here pretty obsessively, and lately he’s been thinking about getting into cycling again. “I was sort of addicted — but then I got busy and my rhythm got broken,” he says. “But coming here today, I was like, ‘All right, I’m gonna bike.’ ”
That said, don’t think you’ll catch Mahershala Ali out there in spandex. “I don’t do the whole Lycra thing,” he says. “What if you want to stop and get a cup of coffee? Smuggling plums, asking for a cappuccino? Nah, man.” He prefers to ride in a white T-shirt and cutoff Levi’s. “I try,” he says, “to make it cool.”
Ali’s full given name is Mahershalalhashbaz — a biblical prophecy that roughly translates from the Hebrew as “make haste to the plunder” or “hurry to the spoils.”
Ali did not hurry to the spoils. Getting to the spoils took him 40 years.
He was born Mahershala Gilmore in Oakland. (He changed his name after converting to Islam in 2000.) His mom was 16, his dad 17; they didn’t stay together long. “My assessment of it is they couldn’t become the people they needed to become if they stayed together,” Ali says. “My mother ended up becoming a minister, and my dad went and did his thing. Those two people don’t go together, trust me.”
When Hershal, as he was called, was three, his dad, Phillip Gilmore, won $2,500 in a Soul Train dance contest and moved to New York, where he studied ballet at Dance Theatre of Harlem and later worked in musical theater. He appeared on Broadway in a production of Dreamgirls and as a jitterbug dancer in the film Malcolm X. Ali would fly out to see him once a year, but it was never enough. And when he got back, his hometown felt small.
His mom, meanwhile, made a living cutting hair. Eventually she got remarried to a sandblaster at a naval base who tried to instill some discipline, but Ali and his mom weren’t getting along. So, at 16, he moved in with his grandparents. He and his mom rarely spoke for 15 years. (They’re all good now.)
By high school, Ali was a budding basketball star. He helped take his team to the state championship and played on a traveling team with future NBA Hall of Famer Jason Kidd. Still, he never really felt like he fit in. He spent much of his adolescence feeling sad and alone, never finding his tribe.
In 1994, Gilmore passed away after a long illness. He never got to see his son act, but he knew he’d started getting into it. “I think he was excited,” says Ali. “For the first time, we could vibe out on a different level. He wasn’t a guy who was into sports, but this was a thing he could get behind.”
A few years ago, Ali was cleaning out a storage space when he found an old postcard from his dad. It was a calling card he gave out to casting agents, with a photo of himself, posing shirtless in a gym, “and these beautiful pants on,” Ali says, “like velvet or suede or something, kind of unbuttoned, and he’s looking up, and you just saw the bottom of his jaw — it was great. And on the back it said, ‘Hey Ma. Still trying to be that leading man.’ ”
When Ali found the card, his father had been gone for 20 years. “But it hit me hard,” he says. “For a lot of parents, their kids are the focal point. I was more in his periphery. But looking back, I realize I got what I needed from him. Nothing in me feels resentful. I feel like he actually did more by really going for it. In a certain way, it felt like I picked up the baton.”
One fall evening, Ali ambles into a lounge at Saint Mary’s College, the small Catholic school in the suburbs east of Oakland that he graduated from in 1996. He’s on campus to host a screening of Green Book to raise money for scholarships, as well as to visit with students in the High Potential program, many the first in their families to go to college. Ali, a first-generation student himself, was in the program too, and it still means a lot to him. At the campus Intercultural Center, amid Malcolm X murals and pride flags, Ali tells the kids about his journey. “Believe it or not,” he says, “I took my first acting class because I didn’t want to take the second semester of Spanish.”
Ali came to Saint Mary’s on a basketball scholarship, but soon became disillusioned with the way he felt the players were mistreated. He’d been recruited with a pitch about education and family, “but when we got there,” he says, “you suddenly felt disposable, like a product. That felt callous to me. Especially as black boys, I think we felt betrayed.”
At the same time he was drifting away from basketball, he started acting. A theater professor, Rebecca Engle, had seen him speak on a campus diversity panel and encouraged him to sign up for her class; Ali, figuring he’d have a better shot at keeping a 3.0 GPA with drama than with Spanish, agreed. (“She gave me a B, by the way,” he says, laughing. “Which I’m still a little annoyed about.”)
In any case, he caught the bug, and after a few student plays he wound up auditioning for the graduate program at NYU. Three years later he had his first big gig: starring in a 2000 revival of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play The Great White Hope, in the role originated by James Earl Jones. The New York Times called his performance “affecting”; Variety declared him “an enormous talent.” Ali figured he was on his way. It was his last lead role for 18 years.
He got some good auditions at first: for Antwone Fisher (as Antwone Fisher) and for Ali (as Bundini Brown, which eventually went to Jamie Foxx). “And then,” he says, “it was just dead quiet. I had all this energy, I felt like I had the talent to do the work — but nothing was moving. I was totally depressed.” He was living in an illegal sublet in Brooklyn with a collapsed ceiling and no TV, subsisting on oatmeal and Top Ramen. At Thanksgiving, when he flew home to the Bay Area to visit his grandmother, the property manager put his things in trash bags and locked them in the basement. He didn’t go back.
Instead he went to L.A., where he landed a supporting role on a network show, then more supporting roles on more network shows, then supporting roles in movies. His first real breakthrough came in 2013 as a slick D.C. lobbyist on House of Cards. But even then, life as a working actor wasn’t so lucrative. “You might have Kevin Spacey making a million dollars an episode, and you’re making $25,000,” Ali says. “After taxes, agents, lawyers, managers, you’re making, like, eight. And you can’t work on anything else — so you’ve got this four-month period where you’re making no money and can’t do other jobs. If you want to buy a house, have a child, pay off school debt, you can’t unless you move up a little.”
Worst of all, he was unsatisfied creatively. “I was exhausted by . . . I don’t want to say the lack of opportunity, but the type of opportunity,” Ali says. “I’d get offers to do two or three scenes, with a nice note from the director. But I felt like I had more to say.”
He was confident he was destined for something bigger. “[In] basketball, I had coaches who played me in the post,” he says. “But you know your natural position is shooting guard.” So he asked House of Cards to let him go. “I think it surprised them. Most actors aren’t going, ‘I want to be off your hit show.’ ” But, he says, “I just felt like I was a leading man.”
That same year, he got Moonlight.
Back at the observatory, Ali is worried he’s out of time on his parking meter, so we move to a coffee shop, where talk turns to Green Book. In the movie, based on a true story, Ali plays Don Shirley, a virtuoso pianist on a concert tour through the South in 1962. For protection, he hires a tough-guy driver from the Bronx, Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen), and the odd couple hit the road. Laughs are had, tears are shed, stereotypes are demolished, racists get their comeuppance — it’s the kind of feel-good movie audiences and the Academy historically love. But Ali was insistent they not make another white-dude-helps-black-dude-defeat-racism film.
“There was so much we didn’t know,” says Farrelly, who, like his fellow co-writers, is white. (He singles out a scene where a skeptical Shirley agrees to try fried chicken for the first time: “I was nervous, because that could be really racist.”) “Mahershala was the one who really . . . I don’t want to say schooled me, but he’s the guy I leaned on the most,” says Farrelly. “We went line by line through this thing. He was extremely helpful in putting it together.”
“For me, the main thing was the savior stuff,” Ali says. “Just making clear that Don was equally empowered. Otherwise, we’ve just seen it so much, you know? It’s 2018, man. People have an aversion: ‘You’re talking about civil rights and racism, and there’s a white guy in it? I don’t know. . . .’”
Ali studied piano for months for the role (though he admits there’s some digital magic, too). But he was most nervous about nailing the tone — making sure this proud, eccentric, hyper-eloquent, quietly tormented genius still felt familiar and believable. “It’s almost like he’s a fencer — you’ve gotta play him with that finesse, light on his feet,” he says. “As opposed to Wayne in True Detective, who’s more of a broadsword.”
In the new season of the show, Ali plays Wayne Hays, an Arkansas State Police detective investigating the disappearance of two children in the Ozarks in 1980, and then, decades later, revisiting the case as a haunted old man. “It was intense,” Ali says of the seven-month shoot, which required him to age through three different timelines. “But I’d do it again, just because of how stretched I felt as an actor.”
Producers approached him about the job on the heels of his Oscar win; Ali was excited to carry a franchise, and to pay tribute to his grandfather, Willie Goines, a California state trooper in the 1960s. Things clearly went well with HBO, because Ali recently signed a deal with the network to produce and star in shows of his own — nothing he wants to share publicly yet, so that no one will steal his ideas. “I feel like I’m finally working from a more empowered place,” he says. “True Detective was exactly what I wanted to do at the time — not just the best of what’s available.”
As part of renovating his house, Ali is building an office for his production company, Know Wonder, which he’ll oversee with his wife and another partner. (Presumably his Oscar will go in the office too — as soon as he finds whatever box it’s stored in. “It’s bubble-wrapped somewhere,” he says, laughing.)
Ali’s wife is an artist he met at NYU, while they were both studying acting in the Nineties. (The daughter of an imam, she’s the one who introduced him to Islam, when she took him to pray at a mosque on Christmas Eve 1999.) They eventually split up and lost touch for years. “But always at the back of my mind,” Ali says, “I was like, ‘This is the one.’ ” At the end of 2012, he felt like he was in a good, stable place and wrote her a text out of the blue. They reconnected, and less than a year later they were married.
Now, Ali says, his wife has a rule about him shooting on location for weeks or months at a time. “If you’re gonna be gone like that,” she told him, “you can’t go off and do garbage. It better be good.”
Speaking of his wife: She just sent him a text. “What’s your ETA?” There’s a guy coming over to hang some art, and he needs to get home. While he has his phone out, he takes the opportunity to show off a few photos of his daughter (adorable). Then he says goodbye, walks out to his car and heads off to find some balance.
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