When Mahershala Ali hits the red carpet at Hollywood’s Dolby Theatre as a first-time Academy Award nominee Sunday night, it will represent a breakthrough moment 16 years in the making.
Just a few months ago, Ali, who was born in Oakland and raised in Hayward, was a relative unknown. Despite piling up solid credits in movies like “The Hunger Games” and Netflix’s “House of Cards,” he remained among the many actors relegated to a vague “I’ve-seen-that-face-somewhere” level of familiarity.
But that all changed after a year of rave-worthy work highlighted by his quietly powerful performance in the indie sensation “Moonlight.” Now, the man who director Barry Jenkins describes as “extremely, extremely soulful,” goes into Hollywood’s glitzy bash as the favorite to capture the best supporting actor trophy.
And it could be a week of double blessings. Ali and his wife, artist-composer Amatus Sami-Karim, on Wednesday welcomed their first child, a daughter they named Bari Najma Ali.
“Having a baby is sort of like its own award season,” he said during a recent phone interview. “It’s equally demanding of your presence.”
As for Oscar night, no matter what happens, Ali has taken a big step upward on the professional front.
“I’m obviously in a different place,” he says. “I feel like I’ve just moved up onto the entry level of the highest realm of the business — and I say that without any arrogance.”
It’s an ascension that has Bay Area friends and supporters who knew Ali back in the day passionately cheering.
“He certainly has paid his dues,” says Rebecca Engle, the Saint Mary’s College theater professor who encouraged Ali to give acting a try in the early 1990s. “It’s so gratifying that the general public is finally seeing the kind of remarkable talent he possesses.”
While at Saint Mary’s, Ali, who was born to teen parents who split up when he was 3, could never have predicted Oscar glory. After all, he came to campus on a basketball scholarship and once harbored dreams of playing professional ball.
Ali, however, discovered a love of theater while appearing in two student plays (“He was a chameleon even then,” Engle says). After graduating in 1996, he apprenticed at the California Shakespeare Theater in Orinda and went on to earn a master’s degree from New York University’s acting program.
It was at NYU that he met his soulmate and future wife. Ali married Sami-Karim in 2013, after a long stretch of years when they fell out of contact with one another. Her pregnancy coincided with his career advancement. “She’s been a soldier throughout this,” he recently told People magazine.
Since landing his first screen role in 2001 on the NBC crime drama “Crossing Jordan,” Ali has enjoyed plenty of steady work in both TV and film. But too often he found himself craving meatier roles.
“I’ve kind of been asked to do the same thing over and over to a certain degree,” he recalls. “You find that there are actors who are being asked repeatedly to change water into wine. So you do it and you receive some positive feedback. But instead of rewarding you with a vineyard, they just give you more water.”
His role as savvy political operative Remy Danton on the political drama “House of Cards” did earn him an Emmy nomination and boost his profile. But again, the character had its limits, and after playing Remy for four seasons, Ali sensed that he needed to move on.
“I realized that there’s a difference between being grateful for a job and being fulfilled,” he says. “I had to leave (“House of Cards”) in order to have a shot at other opportunities.”
His exit strategy immediately paid off with a breakout year that put his multitasking skills to the test. In addition to “Moonlight” and his final scenes in “House of Cards,” Ali made a big splash as the comic book villain Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes in Netflix’s “Luke Cage.” He also appeared in “Free State of Jones”; the Bay Area-set “Kicks”; and another best picture nominee, “Hidden Figures.”
“It felt good to be associated with projects that resonated with people and had a real cultural impact,” he says. “That’s not always the case.”
It certainly helped that 2016 was a year in which Hollywood was more open to African-American themed movies. After a two-year diversity drought, the motion picture academy has showered a number of nominations on black actors and filmmakers.
“We’re not looking for an imbalance in things,” Ali says. “We’re just looking to work on projects that represent our stories, the culture and the areas we live in.”
His stereotype-shattering turn in “Moonlight,” as a warmhearted drug dealer who takes a painfully shy young boy under his wing, is a prime example. The role has already resulted in several honors, including a Screen Actors Guild Award. In accepting the SAG prize last month, Ali further endeared himself to millions of viewers via an emotional speech in which he touched upon his Muslim faith and issued a plea for tolerance in the face of President Donald Trump’s proposed travel ban.
Ali, who lives in Venice, admits he’s still coming to terms with being in the public eye. He’s now appearing on talk shows and magazine covers while joking that he no longer has to answer questions about what “it’s like to work with Jennifer Lawrence.”
It’s a huge adjustment for a man who cherishes his privacy. On the other hand, he’s enjoying the professional perks that come with additional exposure.
“I’ve spent so much of my career chasing parts and going on auditions,” he says. “It’s a much different experience when you suddenly have choices — when people are coming to you with projects that are in alignment with how you see yourself.”
As for future endeavors, Ali just finished shooting on “Alita: Battle Angel,” a dystopian sci-fi saga. In addition, he’ll appear in “Roxanne Roxanne,” about hip-hop pioneer Lolita “Roxanne Shanté” Gooden. He is also in talks to star in “Triple Frontier” with Channing Tatum and Tom Hardy.
Engle is looking forward to seeing where Ali’s career goes from here.
“I want the big-money people in Hollywood to give him a shot at being a leading man,” she says. “Put that guy on the screen and let us watch him for two hours.”
That opportunity could be coming. But for now, Ali, who returned to Saint Mary’s College last spring to deliver a commencement address, finds himself reflecting on the friends, family members and various supporters who helped him along the way.
“There are many people who have yearned for me to get here,” he says. “It might be my name on the nomination list, but it’s like ‘we’ got the nomination. A lot of their energy is invested in this. It has been wonderful for all of us.”