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What A Character: Mahershala Ali

Diablo caught up with the Hayward–raised actor to talk about his role in Marvel’s new Luke Cage series and what he binge watches on Netflix.


by Nathaniel E. Bell

We can’t take our eyes off of Mahershala Ali.

Born in Oakland and raised in Hayward, Ali has become one of Hollywood’s go-to character actors thanks to his remarkable range, which lets him play everything from gentle and introspective (closer to his real-life personality) to chillingly evil.

Recently nominated for an Emmy for his role as icy-cool political insider Remy Danton on the groundbreaking Netflix series House of Cards, Ali has put together an impressive résumé of high-profile projects—appearing with Brad Pitt in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button; Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay movies; and Matthew McConaughey in this year’s Civil War–era drama, Free State of Jones.

Ali’s exploration of character started early. He says as a child, he felt different from his peers, and would lock himself in a bathroom and stare at his reflection in the mirror, asking, Who am I? He continued that introspection by performing at poetry slams as a youth—and received an introduction to acting and storytelling. He ultimately decided on an acting career after receiving rave reviews in productions at Saint Mary’s College in Moraga. He also apprenticed at California Shakespeare Theater (playing Montjoy in Henry V) before going on to films and television.

This month, Ali debuts two high-profile projects. Netflix and Marvel Entertainment just started streaming the new series Luke Cage, in which Ali plays the deliciously wicked drug kingpin “Cottonmouth.” On October 21, Ali stars as Juan in Moonlight, an indie drama that examines the war on drugs in 1980s Miami.

Diablo caught up with Ali in May, when he returned to Saint Mary’s to deliver the commencement address. We talked about working with the Hollywood elite, how he got into character for his new Marvel series, and what shows he likes to binge watch.


Q: What was it like to work with A-list actors and actresses on a Hollywood blockbuster like The Hunger Games: Mockingjay?

A: What I observed was how humble those folks were: Jennifer Lawrence, Woody Harrelson, Julianne Moore, Jeffrey Wright—they were humble, gracious, professional, really good. They could have a great time and laugh between takes, but when it was time to start working, they were extraordinarily professional.


Q: You’ve played a wide range of characters. What do you look for in a project?

A: I’m looking for three-dimensional characters with enough space where I can step in and be believable. I hope every character [I play] is different. The parts that come to you are in some ways a symbol of what you need to learn at that time. Performing a commanding character for 15 hours a day for three months changes how you move through your life.


Q: What have you learned from acting over the years?

A: The biggest thing I learned coming right out of [grad school at New York University] was how quickly you had to be believable and make adjustments to deepen a character. The speed at which you had to drop in—that was a shock to my system. I figured it out on the fly [by] committing quickly, not trying to be too precious about my choices.


Q: Two years ago, you said that Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight fighter, would be your dream role. Is that still the case?

A: It’s something I’d be excited to play, but Marvin Gaye would be an amazing part to explore and play [as well]. I don’t know if I really have a dream role: I just want roles that I can really flesh out and go deep—and to improve, and to work with wonderful writers, directors, and actors.


Mahershala Ali as Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes in Marvel’s Luke Cage. // by Myles Aronowitz/Netflix

Q: Your character in Luke Cage, Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes, is an intimidating villain. How did you get into character?

A: That world is influenced by music and hip-hop. That pulse, that beat and rhythm are clearly a backdrop and another character in the show. I had to craft a soundtrack to sonically clue me in. I’d listen to it before I started working and even between takes. It would keep me in the zone and dictate my energy for that day.


Q: How does the dramatic arc of a series based on comic books compare to the sweep of the Shakespearean work you did with Cal Shakes?

A: The Marvel cinematic universe can take on a Shakespearean quality because [it contains] large stories or narratives. But at the root, they really just get down into family loyalties or treason, jealousy, love, trust, heartbreak. What Shakespeare does is make those things both very grand and very intimate. I think we are able to achieve some of that and approach the telling of Luke Cage in that way.


Q: Do fans ever confuse you with your characters, such as political insider Remy Danton in House of Cards?

A: House of Cards is really intelligent and savvy about the way it addresses political issues and things that are relevant to what’s going on for us in the world right now. And people do assume that I am some kind of voice of reason or expert. I’m not.  

I can’t really say how realistic some of the viewpoints are, but I’ve heard [from] different politicians and gone to White House Correspondence dinners, and they seem to love it—so maybe that says something in and of itself.


Q: House of Cards is the Netflix series that started the expression binge watching. What is it like to be part of such a phenomenon?

A: [Binge watching] has shifted [television’s] paradigm. People get to consume it as they please. In some ways, they’re more satisfied by it because they don’t have to wait another week—you can take in a season’s worth of material in a couple of days. It’s exciting to be a part of that.


Q: What shows do you binge watch?

A: I definitely binge watched The Fall with Gillian Anderson. She’s phenomenal. Another, a BBC show called Happy Valley—I think that’s terrific. I was late to Breaking Bad and didn’t start until season four. That was the first show I took in over the course of two to three weeks. I was totally blown away by it.


Ali with costar Matthew McConaughey in Free State of Jones. // STX Productions

Required viewing: Five Ali projects to watch now.

1. Luke Cage
Ali describes his character for this Marvel Television series (which debuted on Netflix on September 30) as a “Godfather-type villain.”

2. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Parts 1 and 2
Ali appeared as a rebel military leader working with Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss in the final two films of the blockbuster young-adult series, which grossed well over a billion dollars worldwide.

3. House of Cards
Ali plays political insider Remy Danton in this acclaimed Netflix drama, starring Kevin Spacey as a Machiavellian politician from South Carolina. Ali was recently nominated for an Emmy for the
fourth season.

4. The Place Beyond the Pines
Ali appears in this indie drama, which tells the story of a motorcycle stunt rider turned bank robber over a 15-year period and costars Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper.

5. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Director David Fincher’s Oscar-nominated fantasy features Ali as a man who takes in an abandoned baby born as an elderly man who ages in reverse.

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