By any measure, Mahershala Ali is having a banner year. As Remy Danton on House of Cards, Ali went toe-to-toe with the likes of Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright. But he moved on in a big way this year, delivering a menacing turn as Cornell ‘Cottonmouth’ Stokes on Netflix’s Luke Cage, before jumping into the press circuit for Oscar contenders Moonlight and Hidden Figures. Speaking to Deadline, Ali touches on the process of working with breakout Moonlight director Barry Jenkins, an encouraging year in Hollywood, and the challenge of tackling highly personal, emotional material.
The story was just so well told, and it was something that I hadn’t seen that was contemporary and fresh. It just had a strong sense of social relevance—it felt important—and coupled with all that, the character was one that just really spoke to me. Having come up through doing a lot of television work, I’ve done a couple of period pieces as well now, but this one ended up being a character from an urban world, so to speak. Up to that point, I hadn’t read something that was that well written, and a character that was just so clear and alive, and multi-dimensional on the page.
Barry Jenkins has attracted a lot of heat with this project—What, to you, stood out most about his process?
From the very first time we met, which was via Skype—I was in New York and he was in Miami prepping—I just really connected to his energy. He felt like family to me in some way, and his passion for the project was just so clear. And then working on the day, you could feel good about a take, and anyone could argue it was a good take, but then he would get in there and try to tweak the moment a bit to make them deeper. He doesn’t do a lot of takes—usually, if we did a lot of takes, it was more of dealing with the dance of it all. For instance, the scene with Naomie [Harris] and myself, when she’s doing drugs in the car, there’s a little bit of a dance that has to happen with the camera, how it follows me from where I was initially positioned to getting her out of the car, to doing a little bit of the physicality, the wrestling of it. All that stuff had to time out in a way where it took a bit, even the very first scene of the movie, how the character kind of movies around in a certain way.
Those are the things that took a little bit of time, but in general, we didn’t do a lot of takes because we just didn’t have the luxury of time. But the way he would go in and tweak moments and sort of encourage you to sit in the beats, and not necessarily rush anything, was really liberating—especially having come up doing a lot of television, everyone is so time-conscious, and the scenes are these very quick bits. There are moments, and some of them didn’t even make the film, but there are moments that were fairly short on the page, that felt like snippets, but he really encouraged us all to live and be in those moments, in a way where we got to take our time, and kind of luxuriate in the silence. But also, he would challenge you to really carry the scene in those silences, and that just wasn’t something that I was accustomed to.
I’ve seen a lot of performances in a lot of films that are rich in silence, and sort of take you on an emotional journey, and I love those films, but I hadn’t had an opportunity to be a part of one of those projects. So that was a little bit of an adjustment for me, but he’s one of the more optimistic directors that I’ve ever worked with. I don’t think he really believes that you can do anything wrong, but at the same time, I don’t think Barry is about getting it ‘right’ per se. I think he’s about getting it true. If he sees that you’ve tapped into a truth there, then it’s just about him tweaking that in a way that gets a little bit more specific to bring his vision to life.
Working from material that is personal, on a number of different levels, for your director and screenwriter, do you find there’s a different weight to the process?
From the first time I spoke to Barry, the only resistance I had to the project had to do with the time I felt was necessary for me to do good work. That resistance was attached to how personal the story was for Barry—sort of going against what I said earlier about Barry, I felt an extra layer of pressure to get it right because of it being a story that reflected Barry and Tarell [McCraney]’s upbringing. I didn’t want my lack of time to be a disservice to the character which would impact and affect the film negatively, so I was really concerned about that. I was committed to three other projects—it was kind of in negotiations at that time, and looking to see how they could all fit together—and my wife had said to me, “Well, you know you used to do this all the time in grad school,” because we knew each other in college.
She kind of reminded me that, look, you’ll be in scene study one moment, and then you’re in your improv class, and then you’re working on something else in your cabaret class, and then you’re going off to rehearsal for one of the plays that you’re doing. We would work on three or four characters in one day, and all those characters had to be really different, and specific and truthful. I hadn’t had to juggle anything like that in 15 years, but when she reminded me of that, it helped with my confidence to take it on, and in some ways, compartmentalize, and encourage myself to be really focused and singularly minded when I was working on whatever project I was working on that day.
Naomie Harris has stated her reluctance to take on the role of a crack-addicted mother—was there no resistance, on your part, to the idea of playing a drug dealer?
Not at all. In thinking back, maybe I would have some resistance to playing a drug dealer in how they’re most commonly framed—they usually are one-dimensional. They’re just drug dealers, and they’re there to push a certain element of the story along, or represent a criminal element. As a black man, it’s very difficult for you to feel good about contributing in that way, and sort of already enabling and supporting certain stereotypes, but with this, it’s a project that is written from the inside out, people who have had these experiences and know these people as full human beings. With both Barry and Tarell being very talented writers, they can’t help but write characters that are three-dimensional, so with that in mind, and just what was on the page, I didn’t really think of it as being a negative.
Now, look—obviously, anything with a criminal element is something that should give you pause, but as a character, he was so human that to me, it wasn’t any different from Remy [Danton, House of Cards] and his flaws. It was a character flaw, but it wasn’t what he was. Since we’re all flawed, one of his flaws is that he makes money illegally, but it doesn’t mean that he’s a bad or evil human being. I felt like there was a real opportunity with this character to play someone who reflected people from my own upbringing and experience. I didn’t grow up in a world filled with drug dealers per se, but I’ve known a few, or have been close to a few, and over the years, have had to consciously separate myself from them because of the work that I started doing, and how my life has changed. The stakes have been really high for me. I can’t be rolling around in my hometown in a car with a guy making deliveries. [laughs] I just can’t do that.
Your life, your circumstances change, and you have to continue to grow as a person, and once you have means and opportunity, you have to make different choices to protect what you have. It doesn’t mean I love those people any less—I just can’t really be in close proximity to them, in the way in which I was growing up. Though to bring that back around, the character was human in a way that as an actor, I’ve always aspired to play people who were multi-dimensional, and for someone who has really tried to make the best of any opportunity that I’ve had, those characters haven’t come around a lot for me, not to the degree to which I’ve wanted them to. There wasn’t one second where I thought about not playing Juan because he was a drug dealer; if anything, I just had some anxiety about being able to do a good job because of what was going on with my schedule.
Juan has quite a conflict to face within himself, shepherding Little through the world, all the while enabling the addiction of the boy’s mother.
It is! You know what, though? I also think, even in watching it, and just imagining being in that situation, I don’t even think Juan thought of it that way. I feel like Juan’s probably been selling drugs for 15 years or so, or having these little illegal hustles that support him financially. Also, you’ve got to remember: Juan is never physically selling drugs; he delegates, so he’s sort of in a position where he quickly comes to the realization, and it’s really when Little confronts him about it. He actually has to process and come to the realization that he is indirectly responsible for Chiron’s circumstances, but up until that point, he felt he was a positive influence on this young man, and I think Chiron is a positive influence on Juan, and I believe Juan is aware of that.
I think, in part, what happens in that dinner table scene, and just in two very simple questions, Juan becomes aware of the repercussions of his actions, and up until that point, I don’t think he even processed it that deeply. It took a little kid who was being directly affected by what Juan does to point that out to him, and there’s nowhere for Juan to hide—there’s no way he can really justify it. I think Juan is sort of the last to realize that in the story. I don’t think Juan is really conscious of how complicated that relationship is until Chiron confronts him about it, or at least asks him about it, and I think that’s why it hits him the way it does.
Bearing in mind the universality that sits at the heart of this film, and the way it has translated to a wide audience, what does the success of this film mean for the African American community specifically?
I think in part, if you look at the circumstances for so many African American people in this country, or people of color—but speaking specifically about African Americans—we haven’t traditionally had access to therapy, we haven’t traditionally had access to rehab, right? You’ve got to figure it out—those resources just aren’t prevalent in our communities, and so therefore, I think we are a people who have had to really kind of figure things out on our own, and also simultaneously, are dealing with surviving, and in some ways, just aspiring to go beyond existing just to survive. We want to live, too. When you look at the things that our communities deal with and have to navigate, that are not necessarily unique—there are obviously white people and Latino people and Asian people who are homosexuals, and they all deal with drug addiction, or they all may deal with families that are struggling to stay together, or single parent homes. But I do think that there aren’t the systems in place that may exist in other communities that are there to support people being able to communicate about these issues, and having the help present to do so.
I think that’s part of it, and also, in terms of this film in some ways serving as a conversation for homosexuality, and you sort of set that up against the expectations of masculinity. It recently came out where one in three African American men will experience prison at some point, so you can’t ignore what that means. If a third of black men in this country are going to go to prison, how does the hyper-masculinity and the toxicity of prison…how do those people come back into the communities? How do those things affect, culturally as well, what we think it is to be a man, and how tough do you have to be to survive in that? So if somebody is gay, or if somebody seems effeminate in some way, doesn’t live up to that standard that we all unconsciously or subconsciously accept as being masculine, if somebody in some way looks to be the opposite of that, they are going to be hard-pressed to find support in the community—not to mention there are also influences in religion that contribute to that, as well.
With the combination of all those things, obviously it makes for a very difficult journey for someone to be young and identify as homosexual, or at least be in the process of coming to terms with that. Because of the circumstances of black people in this country, I think you’re going to be hard-pressed to find several people to communicate with about that, and it might be difficult for you to be supported in that journey. I think it’s a very complicated conversation, and I think the intimacy of this film and it being such a specific experience for the Chiron character, in some ways, makes it much simpler, by being able to just follow this one young man’s journey, and watching him trying to navigate coming to terms with his identity in a very specific community.
People will be watching to see how issues of representation are handled and represented at this year’s Oscars. Are you encouraged to see the huge success of Moonlight and what seems to be a growing diversity on the big screen?
I’m absolutely encouraged—I’m encouraged also by Cheryl Boone Isaacs and the Academy, their response to try to be more inclusive and diversify the body of the Academy. Look, Hollywood has been a certain way for 100 years, so to expect these issues to be fixed in one awards season, I think, is a little bit unrealistic, but I do think that we have to continue to work to greenlight content, on all levels, projects that, in some ways, have the potential to receive critical acclaim. These projects have to continue to be greenlit with actors and producers and writers that, in some way, reflect the society that we live in. Then, if race is not the driving point of the story, then I really would hope the best actor just gets the part, because people need to see themselves reflected, and also it’s important that we have writers and directors who come from all walks of life because they’re going to be the ones who want to tell their stories, in some way. Those people have to be enfranchised and empowered equally because it’s good for our culture.
Look, I’ve seen white people in the Hamptons, literally, come in and watch this movie and be absolutely blown away by it, and their experience is not one that has anything to do with growing up in Liberty City, Miami. They seem to be equally blown away by that experience as they may be walking out of La La Land. They’re just different stories—they’re both very powerful, but we want to be taken into these other worlds, because we all have the ability to empathize, and so therefore, there is an opportunity for us to, in some ways, transcend our own experience, and go into other worlds, and come out of it having been educated in some way. That’s not going to happen if these people from other walks of life aren’t consistently given the same opportunity to tell their stories, as well. It just makes us all wealthier. We go and travel to these other countries and we come back and suddenly, we’re cultured in some way, because we went and experienced something that was different from our own experience. That has to be true for entertainment, as well.