With an undeniable talent, countless stand-out roles, and a wide-ranging background in film, television and theater, actor Mahershala Ali has been riding a much-deserved wave of success this year, into what’s already shaping up to be a very interesting 2017. As the drug dealer Juan, who becomes the mentor and unofficial guardian of protagonist Chiron in Moonlight, Ali has received much critical praise for his performance and has already started racking up awards. And as the chilling and vicious Harlem nightclub owner Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes in the Netflix series Luke Cage, he made viewers want to learn as much as possible about the hero’s nemesis.
During this exclusive phone interview with Collider, actor Mahershala Ali talked about how grateful he is for the year that he’s had, why he’s surprised it never crossed his mind that he’d be in the thick of awards season with Moonlight, the overwhelming response he’s gotten for the film, doing a project as secretive as Luke Cage, and how the character of Cottonmouth evolved. He also talked about the appeal of a project like Alita: Battle Angel, the experience of working with Robert Rodriguez, taking on villainous characters, and what made him want to be a part of Hidden Figures.
Collider: Congratulations for the big year that you’ve had! You’ve been in this business for some time now, but your career has been on quite a roll lately.
MAHERSHALA ALI: Yeah, I’ve seen a couple of people say, “Where’d he come from?” Believe me, I’ve been here! I’ve been around a long time, but I’m very grateful for everything.
Do you feel a personal sense of professional satisfaction, or do the successes make you want to work even harder for what the next thing could be?
ALI: Growing up, I played sports and I went to college on a basketball scholarship. In high school, I really had a goal to get a scholarship and play Division 1 basketball. When that happened, I remember this sense of accomplishment that I had. I had a rough and really challenging four years, thought, for a lot of reasons. I didn’t set realistic goals. I was happy to be there and I got my tuition paid for, but I didn’t figure out the next things that I needed to work on and attack, and I needed to work on my skill set to have success at the collegiate level. I think back on that time a lot. For 20 years, I’ve thought about that time when it pops up in my mind. So, when I find myself attaining goals, or being in a place that feels more fulfilling and that clearly is a difference from where I was, at some point prior to that, I’m careful to really embrace a sense of accomplishment or satisfaction, and focus back on what the work is that I need to do now. Now, I feel like I’m definitely in a new and differently place, but it’s more about how I approach the work next. Maybe I don’t do anything different. Maybe the parts are just more fulfilling and multi-dimensional, or maybe I’m working more days. I think it’s really just time to put my head back down and go to work on whatever comes my way.
When you made Moonlight, could you have ever imagined that you’d be here now, with the film receiving so much critical acclaim, awards recognition, and now Oscar talk?
ALI: I don’t mean for myself, but for the film, I’m surprised it didn’t cross my mind. When I read the script, I was really blown away by it. Everyone in the cast will tell you that they were blown away by it, and they cried several times reading it. That was my experience. But it didn’t cross my mind that we would be in the conversation for Best Film of the Year, or the way it’s been reviewed and appreciated by folks. Even before I got the script, there were several agents and people buzzing about it and saying, “This is an excellent film. You’ve gotta read it.” That is just not the case, most of the time. Most stuff comes with disclaimers like, “It needs work,” or “It’s a great part, but it’s got problems.” With this, from the jump, the film was great. If anything, it was people saying things like, “I just hope people support it because it’s a tough subject matter, but man, it’s terrific.” So, I’m just surprised that it never crossed my mind. I don’t think it ever crossed (writer/director) Barry Jenkins’ mind. He’ll tell you that he was hoping five or 10 people would see it, half of which would be his family. We’re all a little blown away by it, which I think makes it that much sweeter because we didn’t go into it with any expectations. I’ve done that before. I remember when I first read Free State of Jones, it was a really powerful script, so I was a little surprised that it didn’t quite come together to be a film that was being released in October or November, or something like that. You never know how these things are gonna come together. So many things have to fall into place, just right, for it to be considered one of the contenders or for it to be one of the Ten Best Films for awards seasons. We’re all pleasantly shocked.
Even a great script, a satisfying experience on set, or a great time working with a director doesn’t guarantee that the film will turn out how you hope it will, or that audiences will go see it and respond in the way you hope they do. The word of mouth for Moonlight has really made an impact on getting people to the theater to see it.
ALI: Right, and people have seen it two or three times. That’s a pretty common thing that I’m finding, just online or with people stopping me and saying, “Man, I loved it better the third time!” That blows me away. People have really connected to this film, in that way. One thing that the audience, and perhaps critics, aren’t aware of is that, especially in a film like Moonlight, you always shoot a lot more footage than makes the cut of the film. There’s another 15 minutes of story that I know I shot for Juan, and of other characters. As good as that feels on the day, you still don’t know what’s going to be used or how it’s going to cut together. So, for it to have come together the way that it did, it just really fit together perfectly. The first time I saw it was probably about five months ago, when it still had temp music and it wasn’t color corrected and they were still trying to get the edit right, I thought it was amazing then, but I never thought it would ride this wave into awards season.