Mahershala Ali has waited so long to realise his potential, he’d pretty much ruled out the idea he ever would. When I meet the frontrunner for best supporting actor at this week’s Oscars, he has an air of being caught off guard, humbled beyond the usual platitudes by the acclaim he has won for his role as the conflicted mentor figure in coming-of-age drama Moonlight.
“When you’re thinking about what you want to do in life, you ask yourself: What’s the highest point I can get to?” reflects the 42-year-old over coffee at the Montage hotel in Beverly Hills, California. “But having acted for 23 years, it feels strange to get any recognition. At a certain point, you cease to have that as a possibility.”
He chooses his words deliberately – but then everything he does feels carefully weighted. Perhaps it comes with the territory, when you’re a Muslim of colour playing a drug dealer in a gay narrative in America, 2017.
Mahershala Ali and Alex R. Hibbert in Moonlight
Like all overnight sensations, Ali spent a long time getting here. After years of TV work and small parts in films, the role that really opened doors was conscience-struck lobbyist Remy Danton in Netflix’s House of Cards (2013-16).
Now he has a memorable turn in Hidden Figures, the NASA drama that’s been a surprise hit, and he’s the villain in Netflix series Luke Cage, a reboot of Marvel’s Blaxploitation comics of the 1970s. But it’s his performance in Moonlight (from an autobiographical play by Tarell Alvin McCraney and now in cinemas) that means the most to him.
Ali once had dreams of being a basketball player as well as a poet, and he thinks in a very physical way. As he talks, his huge hands slowly move as if sculpting thoughts into being. He feels that Moonlight’s message is “right for its time”.
With its almost entirely African-American cast and its tough lyricism, Moonlight feels like a welcome expansion of the range of storytelling, particularly after last year’s #OscarsSoWhite controversy. “I can’t say for sure if it would have been made five years ago,” says Ali, “but I’m glad it exists now.
House of Cards
“It was greenlit before the Donald Trump stuff – but it’s interesting that it’s alive and out in the world exactly when we need it,” he says. “You know, the day after the election, the box office went up 40 per cent. On a Wednesday. That’s evidence to me that it’s a film that resonates with people who feel marginalised. And you don’t have to be a gay African-American boy from Liberty City to feel marginalised. Someone like Chiron [the film’s central character] comes to represent how we all feel.”
Ali was raised in the blue-collar suburb of Hayward, California, in a family with strong political and spiritual ties. His grandfather was the president of the local NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People), while his mother, Willicia Gilmore, is a Christian minister (she named him Mahershalalhashbaz after the longest prophetic name from the Bible).
But he cites his father, Phillip Gilmore, as the strongest influence. “My parents split when I was three and he passed away when I was 20, so I can count on my digits the amount of times I saw him. But for somebody who I didn’t see very much, he may have been the strongest influence on my life.”
In 1977, Phillip won a dance competition on Soul Train, the influential TV music show, and moved to New York where he began a successful career on Broadway. Ali would only go to see him for a couple of weeks each summer, but the visits made an indelible mark.
“He’d take me to the theatre, to museums, to Broadway, to early Soderbergh films. He was always mad at Woody Allen as there were never black people in his movies. But if Spike Lee or Robert Townsend made a movie, we had to go and see it the first weekend. I was being cultured by him for the two or three weeks I’d see him – and then I’d go back to Hayward, which was almost too normal compared to what I’d been exposed to.”
With Taraji P Henson in Hidden Figures
As a teenager, he found it hard to connect with his peers. “I felt like I had an artist’s heart but an athlete’s experience.”
His mother (who gave birth to him while still in high school) became increasingly devout in her faith. He left home at 16 before going to college on a basketball scholarship. It was only after Phillip died that he switched to acting. “I feel like he planted seeds, sending me back to California having seen something of the world. I think about him a lot. I always have – but especially with this project.”
The other defining decision in Ali’s life was his conversion to Islam. “At graduate school in 1999, I finally had the chance to examine why I believe what I believe. I realised that I’d had no period in my life where I’d consciously tried to develop my own theology. I wanted spiritual peace.”
He read up on Bahá’í and Buddhism, toyed with agnosticism, but had a strong reaction to a prayer when he visited a mosque. “It just felt like a life sign. I’d come from sports, so I appreciated the discipline that the religion requires of you. For me, it was a way of living more deliberately. I felt I was connecting to something that was making my physical experience more peaceful.”
Ali is familiar with discrimination. A few years after 9/11, an airport worker let slip that he was on an FBI watchlist. Recently, he and his wife, artist Amatus Sami-Karim, wanted to rent a property – but found his funds frozen. His accountant explained his name had been flagged. “My wife stopped wrapping [wearing a head scarf ] in New York, as she had so many bad experiences. She didn’t feel safe anymore. But I will say, if you convert to Islam after a couple of decades of being a black man in the US, the discrimination you receive as a Muslim doesn’t feel like a shock. I’ve been pulled over, asked where my gun is, asked if I’m a pimp, had my car pulled apart. Muslims will feel like there’s this new discrimination that they hadn’t received before – but it’s not new for us.”
All the same, he sees many reasons for optimism – not least the impending arrival of his first child. “I do believe in the potential of like-minded people coming together. As individuals in our respective fields, we have to draw on the energy of the culture and take the pulse of the world. And, in taking the pulse, we can make some of the best work of our time. In turn, I hope that can inspire people to be their best.”
You can watch the 89th Annual Academy Awards & Red Carpet tonight from 11.10pm on Sky Oscars
Moonlight is in UK cinemas now