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Mahershala Ali knew that he was a leading man before anyone else did. He’s been doing this a long time, he points out. “I have literally been acting for 23 years. And I’ve been a lead, like, twice. Once onstage, and once in an indie film that didn’t have a budget.” You sit across from him in a coffee shop in Venice and wonder how that’s even possible, 23 years. He’s 42, doesn’t at all look it. The kid at the register nearly had a heart attack. He wanted to talk about Luke Cage. Moonlight, the transcendently radiant film that might just earn Ali a Golden Globe nomination—and likely a shot at an Oscar, too—just came out a week before, and he’s been talking about it nonstop since. He’s happy to be talking this much. He’s happy to have so much to talk about.

He’s been acting for decades, always off to the side. He’s played a nursing-home employee (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), a security guard (CSI), a suave lobbyist turned White House chief of staff (House of Cards), and Jennifer Lawrence’s bodyguard (The Hunger Games); he’s played every fourth lead you can play. Now, with Moonlight and Luke Cage, he’s finally getting a chance to show what he can do with the camera on him for more than five minutes at a time. The answer? An awful lot.

GQ: I imagine you have more career perspective and self-knowledge than a lot of other actors, because it’s been such a slow burn.
Mahershala Ali: It’s like holding in a sneeze for 16 years.

Your first on-screen job was on NBC’s Crossing Jordan. A lot of actors would be content to be a series regular on a show like that. Were you?
No. No. No. Back then, there were very clear genres. And it was very difficult to jump from a network-television series into a film and then back onto a network-television series. You just got labeled so easily as “a television actor.” Or “this person is a theater actor, and this person is a film actor.” Film actors wouldn’t dare drop down to go do a television series, other than perhaps what HBO was starting to do. I was afraid I would never get to do what I wanted to do.

Which was movies?
Yeah. And now I just have a little bit of a different relationship with that, where I would go back to television for the right project and for the right part. But I would only really want to do it for, like, eight episodes.

You were in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button in 2008. Did you feel like you’d made it?
Oh, I was geeked. Funny story, man: I was on a show called The 4400. Usually [TV contracts are] six-year deals, but we had worked it out where mine was three years. I was literally shooting an episode where one of these characters has a vision of my character’s death. The vibe was real interesting in the makeup trailer. Everyone was like, “Oh no! Is this it?” I was trying to not feel any kind of way about it, but I was. I walk off the lot, and there’s a strip mall right next to the lot. And I get a phone call: “Yeah, hello?” And my old agent told me that I had booked The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. So I went back geeked to die! I was in a great mood, bro! I was like, “I’m about to die!” [laughs]

What do you feel is the first role that you had that really did make people interested in you specifically as an actor?
Definitely Remy on House of Cards. It wasn’t [the kind of part] I’d necessarily had an opportunity to play up to that point. But it really resonated with people, like the show as a whole.

Netflix original series were a new thing then.
I’ll never forget: My grandmother always wants to know what I’m doing, and I call her [to tell her about the show]. “What is it?” I’m spelling it out, she’s writing it down. And then one day, I hear her telling somebody on the phone that I was about to be on that show that’s “in the computer.” So this was her way of describing it. To be on an original series at that time, that wasn’t something you necessarily ran around telling people, you know?

It must be both a blessing and a curse that the show and your character became so successful.
Huge blessing. But the flip side of when something hits—we do this with music, too—is that people tend to hold on to those shows, and specifically those characters, in a way where they don’t ever want to see the person change or do anything outside of that.


Ecrit par Misty 
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