Mahershala Ali: ‘I had to protect myself from people’s fear of me’ – The Guardian
12 January 2019 MUSIC
Exactly two years ago, in early 2017, the actor Mahershala Ali and his wife were about to give birth – one after the other. “It’s something we still joke about,” says the 44-year-old American, sitting in a London hotel, smiling at the memory. “My wife was pregnant with a baby. And I was pregnant with an Oscar.”
The actor knows that sounds glib. He knows that however exciting or worked-for an industry prize – Ali won his best supporting actor award that year for a standout performance in the coming-of-age drama Moonlight – nothing compares to the graft of bearing an actual child. But aspects of the comparison stand. There’s a lot of build-up and then things go crazy all at once. Taking home a newborn, like taking home an Oscar, turns life on its head. And forget about sleep. Ali’s wife, the artist Amatus Sami-Karim, gave birth to their daughter, Bari, that February, and 100 frazzled hours later Ali was on stage at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, looking blinky and delighted, and bringing an audience of grandees to their feet when he croaked: “I just wanna thank my wife.”
It was a week that changed everything for Ali. Until then he’d been an auxiliary guy, a well-thought-of actor who didn’t often get his name on the posters and who was probably best known for his regular appearances in Netflix’s House Of Cards. Ali had a fun if slightly underwritten role as the Washington fixer Remy Danton, a job he quit when the show was at its peak – wanting to take one last shot at becoming a leading actor before it was too late. Moonlight, in which he was a taciturn drug dealer, a character who appeared only fleetingly but whose presence hung over the whole movie, suggested Ali had the chops for lead roles. The Oscar win in 2017 pushed him over the top, and in the two years since then Ali has juggled parenthood with work on two huge new productions due out this month – the third season of HBO’s prestige procedural True Detective and the awards-tipped biopic Green Book, about the pioneering African American pianist Don Shirley.
Ali in Green Book as the pianist Don Shirley. Photograph: Universal Pictures/AP
I want to talk to Ali about Green Book, a rich and affecting film which last week won best comedy or musical at the Golden Globes; Ali picked up the award for best supporting actor. But first, I’m curious to know what happened next in the Ali family home, when a newborn and an Oscar came home within hours of each other.
He considers his answer carefully. The actor is an observant Muslim, a thoughtful guy who speaks in long, unhurried sentences. Combined with today’s outfit – a navy blue kimono-like gown, buttoned to the throat – it projects a potent sense of spiritual calm. Ali says that having the baby and the Oscar “was like a jigsaw puzzle which my wife and I had to try to put together. And as soon as we felt like we’d figured it out, it changed. It took a lot of listening to each other. Reacting. Every now and then we had to hit a tuning fork, to make sure we were in sync.”
Throughout a 10-month shoot on True Detective, Ali’s wife and daughter travelled from the family home in Los Angeles to the set in Arkansas as often as possible. After that, he was straight on to Green Book, which was based in New Orleans, and here the young family were able to snatch some life together between days on set. And after that? Ali says he just stopped saying yes to jobs. His wife needed time for her own career as an artist. The couple hit the tuning fork – and the tuning fork said it was blatantly her turn. They moved back to Los Angeles. “You get to the point where you think: ‘If I were to accept the next thing I’d be throwing off the balance of my family.’”
At the Golden Globes on 6 January with his wife Amatus Sami-Karim. Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock
Ali talks a lot about balance. Central to the appeal of playing Don Shirley in Green Book was that here was a historical figure all out of whack, a man blessed with enormous musical talent but with no clear place in the world he inhabited. Shirley rose to prominence in New York in the 1960s, becoming such a fixture at Carnegie Hall that he ended up living in a grand apartment above the main auditorium. “The more he had, the more he attained,” Ali says. “He still couldn’t get away from his isolated existence, because he was sort of a man beyond his time. You think about the Michael Jacksons of the world, the Princes, people so exceptional and extraordinary they almost have alien status.”
Green Book, which also stars Viggo Mortensen, plays out as a road movie. Mortensen is Tony “Lip” Vallelonga, an Italian-American bodyguard who is hired by Shirley to provide protection on a risky tour through the Jim Crow-era South. The film is based on real-life events, though both Shirley and Vallelonga have since died, and controversy brewed last year when Shirley’s surviving relatives questioned Green Book’s accuracy. Was the musician really such an aloof figure, estranged from his family, from mainstream black culture, from the black politics of the era, as Green Book insists? Shirley’s brother and nephew wondered why they hadn’t figured in the writing or the production of the film, calling it “a symphony of lies”, while Vallelonga’s son has a screenwriting credit. Late last year, Ali telephoned the Shirley family to apologise for not consulting them first.
What seems beyond question is that the pianist was a man who struggled to fit in. Ali’s take is that “he was someone who was not black enough for the black community. He was not white enough to be accepted in his profession. And he was not ready to be embraced by society because of how he identified sexually.”
Photograph: Sebastian Nevols for the Guardian
Towards the end of the movie, the actor delivers a big, weepy scene in the rain in which Shirley opens up, about what it is to be black and gay, and so doubly inferior in the eyes of 1960s society. This will be the clip of Ali that gets shown during awards season, whenever they are running down the list of nominees – but, for me, it’s his smaller moments in the film that linger. In one scene, Shirley is invited to a grand black-tie dinner party at which the host, imagining a great treat for his guest, reveals the evening’s menu: fried chicken. And instead of walking out or protesting, Ali has Shirley hesitate for a moment – and then produce a beaming smile, showing exactly the gratitude that white society meant him to.
I ask Ali about that pained smile, which prompts a personal story. “That smile… I think it has a bit to do with Shirley wanting to be comfortable. If they’re not comfortable then he won’t be comfortable. So many times, in my life, just living in New York city for a good bit of time… You’re walking on the street a lot, you’re on public transportation, you’re travelling late at night. And I remember I was always really conscious of how I dressed. Like, I wouldn’t wear clothes that allowed people to identify me with what I would think they would view as the typical black man. I wouldn’t wear tennis shoes. It was a conscious thing, because I found that women would cross the street [to avoid me], day or night. Or turn their ring over on the subway – turn the diamond inward! These were little things I would catch all the time.”
Ali continues: “How people would react to a large, fairly muscular, dark-skinned black man – I would be so conscious of it and it would upset me. It would affect my energy for the rest of the day. So in order to protect myself from having to manage other people’s fear, I would do things to preempt that. And so many black people around the world do this. Because there’s an idea that we’re something to be feared, or that we pose a danger.”
Shirley’s forced smile in the movie? That’s normal, Ali suggests: that’s textbook. “That’s just part of the tactics of a black person navigating a world that doesn’t know how to react. You develop this habit of addressing a situation by communicating how safe you are.” The actor puts out his hands in a helpless gesture: it is what it is, “the double consciousness that black people carry with them”.
I went through a process of digging through different religions and ways of connecting to God. And that ended up being Islam for me
Ali’s mother, Willicia, was the daughter of a Christian minister, and later became one herself. She picked her son’s name – Mahershalalhashbaz in full – out of the Bible. Mother and son lived in the Bay Area of California in what Ali describes as a “prayerful home”. His father, Phillip, was around for a few years, until he left the family in unusual circumstances. An amateur dancer, he was invited, in the late 1970s, to appear on a TV talent contest called Soul Train. He won, came home with a sports car, and then one day moved across America to try to get work in the theatre in New York. For about 20 years, until his death in the mid-1990s, Phillip appeared in the chorus line in Broadway musicals. Ali would occasionally visit. They cannot have seen each other often, because the actor once said he could count on 10 fingers the number of times the two of them were together. “But I always really respected and admired what my dad was doing,” he tells me.
Ali grew up close to his mother until he was in his early 20s, at which point there was a difficult breach over religion. “We lost a lot of years. Being in a relationship with God through Christianity had carried me for a period of time,” he remembers. “And then I felt like I needed to understand something deeper. So I went through a process of digging through different religions and philosophies, and ways of connecting to God. And that ended up being Islam for me.” He converted at the start of 2000, changing his name from Gilmore to Ali. His mother was upset and many of his friends were politely confused. But on the whole, Ali recalls, “it didn’t necessarily seem that deep a thing to do. And then 9/11 happened.”
Moving through airports became difficult. After a few years of being taken aside at security gates, Ali learned that his name was on a watch list for air travel. Meanwhile, his wife, also a practising Muslim, had stopped wearing a headscarf on city streets: too much grief. There was trouble with the couple’s bank account, their funds had been mysteriously frozen, Ali was told.
In House of Cards with Molly Parker. Photograph: Alamy
Having grown up with that “double consciousness” about his race, he watched his religion become another thing that conservatives in America flinched from. He wondered how it would affect his work and tells me he decided to compartmentalise his faith, keeping it separate from his burgeoning acting career, “making sure the work was the work and my spiritual space was my spiritual space”. In fact the two things – the work and the faith – were on a funny sort of collision course that would take years to play out.
Ali might have been a professional basketballer, having once been good enough to earn a scholarship to a private college in California. He was OK, he says, “but I don’t think I had the approach or mentality that would sustain a successful sporting career”. As a student he’d started writing poetry, sometimes performing it, and, “I was sort of caught between the worlds, where I think my mentality was more suited for the arts over athletics.” He enrolled on a graduate course in drama at New York University, and afterwards hung around long enough to play a boxer in an off-Broadway show, before moving back to Los Angeles.
His third-tier Hollywood career began on a TV drama called Crossing Jordan. (“I was the black guy on the show,” Ali once said. “That was kind of it.”) More forgettable TV shows followed, and occasionally he got middle-size parts in middle-quality films, such as The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button and The Place Beyond The Pines. At one point he released a rap album. In 2012, vaguely hoping for a bounce in name recognition, he shortened that astonishing name from Mahershalalhashbaz to Mahershala. (Pronounced correctly it’s Ma-HER-sha-la.) Between episodes of House Of Cards, he played a military grunt in a couple of Hunger Games movies. He’d hoped for more.
I was a person they felt enough respect for to honour with an award – well, I’m not that different from the people not allowed into America
The actor was in his agent’s office when he first read the script for Moonlight, a heavily autobiographical work by the playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney about a Miami schoolboy called Chiron, persecuted for being gay. Ali was told there might be a part for him in the film as a drug dealer, Juan, who becomes a father figure to Chiron. For 15 years Ali had been in auditions that called for a muscular black man to play a criminal, and he might have hesitated – but something about the character of Juan felt different, more nuanced. Ali later said he had a “visceral reaction” to McCraney’s script. Shot by the director Barry Jenkins in late 2015, audiences had a similarly visceral reaction to Moonlight when it began to play at festivals in 2016, and the momentum continued through to Oscars night in 2017, Ali and his colleagues scooping up nominations at the Golden Globes, the Baftas and the Screen Actors Guild awards.
The SAG ceremony took place in January 2017, at the end of a difficult weekend. President Trump had just unveiled the policy that became known as his “Muslim travel ban”. Ali had a lot going on in his life (the baby was due, the Oscar was due) and he could have been forgiven for ignoring the politics of the moment. But it was rare for a Muslim actor even to be nominated at these ceremonies, and on the way to the SAG awards he kept thinking about Trump’s travel ban. The actor didn’t fancy declaiming or fist-waving – not his style. At the same time he felt it worth pointing out that here he was, up for famous prizes, “and if I was a person they felt enough respect for to honour with an award, well, I’m not that different from those people that are not allowed to travel into the country”.
Ali in Moonlight with Alex R Hibbert. Photograph: Plan B Entertainment
When he won, Ali wound up telling a story about his mother. Tender, as personal as it was political, the speech has since been viewed hundreds of thousands of times online. “My mother is an ordained minister,” Ali said: “I’m a Muslim. She didn’t do backflips when I called her to tell her I’d converted 17 years ago. But I tell you now, you put things to the side [and] I’m able to see her, she’s able to see me, and we love each other.” His was one of the first Muslim-American voices the country heard that weekend, certainly from within the arts, and it was a powerful moment. Talking softly from the podium about the particular pain of persecution that comes from within one’s own community, Ali’s voice cracked as he said: “I hope that we do a better job.”
Two years on, it isn’t clear we are doing a better job. The US is full of renewed talk of a border wall. Europe is racking itself over Brexit. The #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements have helped expose even graver social ills than were previously acknowledged. I ask Ali: if he were to get back up on a winner’s podium with this new film, would he speak to the political moment again?
Characteristically, he takes a moment to consider this. He doesn’t say yes, he doesn’t say no. His daughter, born in Oscars week, is now two years old and Ali offers up a lesson he’s learned from parenting her. “It’s not like you get to say to them, ‘Hey! Don’t touch that hot stove!’ And then they never touch the stove again. You’ve got to keep drilling the message, right? You’ve got to carry on the conversation until they grow into a state of consciousness where they understand.” So we’re only at the beginning, Ali thinks. “It’s a conversation that’s gonna go on for a while yet.”
• Green Book is released in the UK on 1 February.
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