Mahershala Ali Talks About Life After Oscar

The Oakland-born, Hayward-reared actor is back on screen, starring in a new comedy/drama and proving he’s no one-hit wonder.


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Photo of Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen courtesy of AGM

When Mahershala Ali won the Oscar last year for playing a sympathetic drug dealer in Moonlight, he seemed to come out of nowhere. True, he had played supporting roles in House of Cards, Treme, and Luke Cage on television and in The Hunger Games on screen, but until Moonlight, he was never a name-above-the-title star.

“You don’t know if that’s ever going to happen to you, so you can’t prepare for it,” the Oakland-born, Hayward-reared actor said recently. “It was so heightened in comparison to anything I had experienced up until that point.”

Besides the Oscar, Ali won a Golden Globe nomination, a Screen Actors Guild award and honors from the New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco film critics associations. In the midst of it all, his wife, Amatus-Sami Karim-Ali, gave birth to a baby girl — just four days before the Oscar ceremony.

Exhausted from the gantlet of interviews and awards shows, Ali took a 10-month post-Oscar hiatus to be with his wife and newborn child. “It was time to shut down,” he said.

Today, Ali is starring in Green Book, a comedy/drama in which he plays Don Shirley, the late classical pianist and composer. The story is real: In 1962, Shirley hired an Italian-American nightclub bouncer to drive him on a two-month concert tour of the Deep South. Viggo Mortensen, cast against type, plays Tony “The Lip” Vallelonga, who starts out as Shirley’s chauffeur and eventually doubles as his bodyguard.

The movie takes its name from The Negro Motorist Green Book, a travel guide that told African Americans where to find safe lodging and dining during the discriminatory, often violent, Jim Crow era.

The historical backdrop of Green Book may be harsh, but the relationship between Shirley and Vallelonga is intimate, warm. Essentially, the movie is a conversation between two men who, through shared adversity and the slow accrual of familiarity, unexpectedly became friends. They’re an odd couple: Shirley a sophisticate who spoke multiple languages and had impeccable manners; Vallelonga a scrappy, unpolished lug from the Bronx.

Arriving two years after Moonlight, Green Book proves that Ali is no one-hit wonder, but a first-rate actor with a breadth of resources. Whereas Juan in Moonlight was hyper-masculine with the invisible, self-protective armor of the street, Shirley is elegant, fastidious, and a tad imperious.

In his next role, Ali stars in the third season of the HBO series True Detective, playing an Arkansas police detective investigating the disappearance of two young children. It premieres Jan. 13

“I try to give my characters the same respect I give myself,” Ali said. “I look at what it is they feel they have to protect from the world and from others.”

Ali, 44, is sitting in a boardroom of the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco, wearing jeans and an African-style shirt. He’s accompanied by director Peter Farrelly, who with Green Book makes a huge departure from the outrageous slapstick of There’s Something About Mary and Dumb and Dumber.

In person Ali is gracious, surprisingly tall (6-foot-2) and strikingly handsome. And private. He asks that his daughter’s name not be mentioned in this article, and declines to speak about the 1994 death of his father, dancer Phillip Gilmore.

When Moonlight was released in 2016, however, Ali spoke at length about his family origins to a number of publications. He was born Mahershalalhashbaz Gilmore, his first name taken by his mother, Willicia, from the second son of the prophet Isaiah.

Ali’s parents were teenagers when he was born in 1974. When he was 3, he told Interview magazine, his father left the family, moved to New York, and found work with Dance Theatre of Harlem and the original Dreamgirls production on Broadway. Ali spent summers and Christmas with him.

He went to Hayward High and Mount Eden High in Hayward, earned a bachelor’s degree from St. Mary’s College in Moraga, and a master’s degree in acting from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. In 2000, Ali converted to Islam.

Finding the tools to play Don Shirley, who died in 2013 at 86 and was secretly gay, was difficult. “He was a bit of a mystery,” Ali said. His best resource was Lost Bohemia, a 2011 documentary that spotlights the variety of artists, Shirley included, who were forced out of live/work studios above Carnegie Hall.

“One thing that impressed me was that he carried his body like a dancer,” Ali recalled. “His back was sort of swooped, and he had this robe on. I remember him being very conscious and deliberate with his gesturing, his articulation. That really gave me a peek into his essence.”

Ali listened to audiotapes of Shirley describing the 1962 road trip with Tony “The Lip;” spoke with Vallelonga’s son Nick, who co-wrote the Green Book screenplay; and studied piano for months with virtuoso Kris Bowers. In the film, Ali’s playing is digitally — and seamlessly — mixed with Bowers’ keyboard mastery.

Prior to Green Book, Ali said, he never took a piano lesson. “But I’ve had a couple of record contracts, and I’ve always been involved with music. I was on a record label called Hieroglyphics, out of Oakland. Released a couple of albums and whatnot.”

The albums were hip-hop, Ali said, and he used the pseudonym Prince Ali. When Ali reveals this, Farrelly, sitting next to him, is astonished. “I’ve never heard any of this,” he exclaimed. “Are you kidding me? You are private. That makes sense now, because of the way you picked up piano.”

What’s remarkable in all of Ali’s screen performances, Moonlight and Green Book in particular, is the depth of humanity and hint of sorrow that Ali projects. In a Hollywood Reporter interview in February 2017, Ali remarked that after his father left the family, “There was a sadness over me, a melancholy. That’s always been a part of me.”

When I ask if sadness and melancholy are enrichments to his acting, he replied, “I hope so. I think so. I know if something happens throughout my day, if I have an awkward exchange with someone, it just kind of sits on my heart and I have to examine it.”

Moreover, Ali said, “I think a necessary attribute in striving to be a great actor, a great artist, is the willingness to go deep and reflect and be thoughtful with the things that have impacted your life. You can’t separate that out from your work.”

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