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Mahershala Ali

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Mahershala Ali: Hollywood’s Brightest Star

Words by Rob Chilton

The hottest star in Hollywood right now has just become the first African-American, and Muslim, actor to win Best Supporting Actor twice at the Academy Awards.

When Mahershala Ali picked up his first Oscar in 2017 he was sleep-deprived and giddy with excitement having become a father only a few days before. “I just wanted to get home,” he smiles now.

Recalling that Oscars night, he says, “I’m all foggy, and then my name was called. I didn’t have a speech, so I’m nervous in general. I’ve watched [the speech] back a couple of times and I can remember it as I watch it back, but just thinking to myself and sort of digging in the recesses of my mind, it’s not really there. It just happened so quickly – it was a crazy experience.”

Mahershala Ali Oscar

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Sources Ali picking up his first Academy Award in 2018

Star turn

His second Best Supporting Actor award arrived courtesy of his sterling performance in Green Book. Ali plays real-life pianist Don Shirley, a gifted performer and an eccentric man who lived in a lavish apartment above New York’s famous Carnegie Hall. Ali likens him to Michael Jackson and Prince: “people so exceptional and extraordinary they almost have alien status.”

Opposite Ali is Viggo Mortensen, who was a Best Actor nominee at the 91st awards. He plays racist, uncouth, junk food-scoffing chauffeur Tony ‘Lip’ Vallelonga who drives him on a concert tour of America’s Deep South in 1962. 

Green Book works as an odd couple story, a road trip movie and, ultimately, a drama about race relations and prejudice in the years leading up to the height of America’s Civil Rights struggle. “The evolution of both characters is really beautiful and revealing about humanity when their guards drop,” says Ali.

Green Book

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Universal Pictures Mortensen and Ali in Green Book

Family man

Directed by Peter Farrelly (Dumb and DumberThere’s Something About Mary) the movie’s touching central relationship and underpinning social drama made it an awards show regular already this year. Ali won the Golden Globe and Critics’ Choice Awards for supporting actor and collected his second Oscar last night. Ali’s first Oscar came for his work in 2016’s Moonlight, Barry Jenkins’ coming of age drama set in Miami. 

Farrelly describes Ali, 45, as “kind of like a holy man,” adding, “he’s got a very open heart, you’re happy to be in his presence.”

Ali’s calm and thoughtful demeanour is often remarked upon by those who know him. “I’m just trying to find a balance,” he told Rolling Stone magazine. “Do meaningful work. Then the family thing, fighting to make sure their needs are met, your wife and your child.”

Ali continues “And then make sure I have time for myself! I’ve always been a bit of a loner. But my hypothesis is that if it’s all in proper alignment, there’s this magical space where it all feeds into each other, until everything is richer. I’m getting there.”

Moonlight

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A24 Mahershala in the excellent Moonlight

Late starter

Ali’s success came later than most.

He started acting in his early 20s after a stab at poetry hit the buffers. After realising he wasn’t good enough to pursue a basketball career, (he won a university basketball scholarship and once played on the same team as future Hall of Fame NBA superstar Jason Kidd) Ali studied drama at New York University, graduating in 2000 at the age of 26. He moved to Los Angeles where he bounced around television roles. 

Supporting roles in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Hunger Games came along. However, it was playing Washington DC lobbyist Remy Danton in the Netflix hit House of Cards that brought Ali’s face and name into the mainstream. 

“I owe a lot to my time on House of Cards,” he explains. “Up until I booked that show, I had been working consistently for 12 years, but I wasn’t working on anything that mattered in the way House of Cards did to its audience, to casting directors, to directors and producers. The show hit this sweet spot.”

However, when Ali was approached about the White House drama, he wasn’t filled with confidence. “My manager called me and said, ‘Hey, there’s a series at Neflix.’ I’m like, ‘Netflix? Oh, boy.’ At that time, it was a strange thing to hear. It’s like going, ‘There’s a series at Blockbuster’.”

House of Cards

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Netflix Ali as Remy Danton in House of Cards

Enter Hollywood

The show was a major hit and gave Ali the opportunity to shine. Then he quit. “I think it surprised them,” Ali says, looking back. “Most actors aren’t going, ‘I want to be off your hit show’.”

But Ali was sure his future lay elsewhere. “I said to my manager, ‘I believe I’m a leading man.’ Forgive me if that sounds arrogant. That’s not my intention. It’s where my vision for my career, my experience, was at. I never let go of that in my mind.”

The first step on his path was Moonlight, which won Ali an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor and eventually took Best Film after the notorious mix up when La La Land was incorrectly announced. Just four days before he stood on stage with his award, Ali’s wife, the artist Amatus Sami-Karim had given birth to their first child, a daughter named Bari.  

He quipped of the frantic lead-up to the Oscars: “My wife was pregnant with a baby. And I was pregnant with an Oscar.” 

Ali scooped a string of awards for his powerful performance, including a SAG Award, which arrived days after President Trump’s controversial travel ban. Movingly, Ali accepted his award and used his speech to tell the world he was Muslim. 

Since Moonlight, Ali has been busy with fatherhood, shooting Green Book and spending seven months shooting season three of HBO’s True Detective, on TV now. 

“It was intense,” he says of the show in which he plays detective Wayne Hays. “But I’d do it again, just because of how stretched I felt as an actor.”

Ali as Wayne Hays in True Detective

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Sources Ali as Wayne Hays in True Detective

Seeking peace

Personal growth and finding balance are important to Ali, who was born Mahershalalhashbaz (roughly translated, it means ‘hurry to the spoils’) Gilmore in California and converted to Islam in 2000 because he “wanted spiritual peace.”

“I felt like I needed to understand something deeper,” says Ali. “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.” 

Ali’s mother, Willicia, was a Christian minister, while his father Phillip was an actor. They split when Ali was three years old and his father died when Ali was 20 – Ali says they only met a few times. He shortened his name to Mahershala in 2012, around the time he got back together with his girlfriend from the 1990s, the previously mentioned Amatus Sami-Karim. They married a year later and now live in LA.

Amatus Sami Karim and Mahershala Ali

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Sources Ali with his wife, Amatus Sami Karim

Green Book, like Moonlight, is a movie that encourages audiences to think and that strikes a chord with Ali. “I do believe in the potential of like-minded people coming together,” he says. “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.”

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