Oscar winner Mahershala Ali doesn't seek fame, but he does appreciate it
The 'Green Book' star chats to Margaret Gardiner about everything from his detail-orientated approach to acting to being humbled on the red carpet. What WON'T he talk about? Diversity
UPDATE | Since this article was originally published on February 24, Mahershala Ali won the Best Supporting Actor award at the 2019 Academy Awards for his role in Green Book. The film itself was won the Oscars for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay.
Oscar winner Mahershala Ali doesn't lean in. He holds himself with dignity, a little apart, like a man who has been underestimated, but knows who he is. He lets people find him, but he is keenly observant. (When I do a video interview with him and ask the cameraman to stay on a wide shot due to a cancer scar on my nose, when action is called, he ignores the prompt and takes the time to ask if I'm okay.) When he speaks, it's with consequence, rather like the character he portrays in Green Book.
The 44-year-old has been sweeping the award circuit, taking home statues at the Golden Globes and Baftas for Best Supporting Actor. He is likely to pick up the Oscar tonight for the role of Renaissance man Don Shirley, a celebrated musician who is invited to tour with his classical quartet in the Jim Crow South.
I can see eyes dulling over at a repeat of a version of a film we are all tired of seeing, but Green Book is a crowd-pleasing delight with unexpected humour, humanity, and none of the stereotypes we have come to expect from a film about friendship across colour lines.
Peter Farrelly (Dumb and Dumber, There's Something About Mary) directs difficult topics with a light touch and elicits nuanced performances from Mahershala — and Viggo Mortensen as the brash Italian driver/bodyguard who navigates the highlights and pitfalls of finding lodging (listed in the title's Green Book) for people of colour travelling through the segregated South. It's kind of a reverse Driving Miss Daisy and you exit the film feeling uplifted and smiling.
Prepping for the role, the father of Bari Najami, who married Amatus-Sami in 2013, notes that he can be "fairly meticulous in creating a character. I like to get caught up in the tiny details and Viggo is worse." He smiles like the sun emerging from clouds, his eyes disappearing in delight.
"I can get on people's nerves because of my ideas of how something works and Viggo's attention to detail is heightened compared to mine. We allowed the specificity to inform and bleed into the characters. I loved working with him and learned a lot and took that with me when I worked on True Detective."
The California native, who graduated from the prestigious NYU Tisch School of the Arts , is no stranger to television. Fans of House of Cards, Treme and Luke Cage will recognise him from the small screen, while movie goers will recall him from Hidden Figures and the Oscar-winning Moonlight.
Despite that acclaim, Mahershala knows what it's like to be pushed aside so a more instantly recognisable face can be interviewed. Again the gentle laugh: "I'm just so glad when I step on a red carpet, and the cameras keep flashing a little longer now."
He cocks his head and chuckles, looking down at his large hands, fingers interlaced on the table in front of him. "I remember so many times I'd get on that red carpet and b-r-r-r-r-r-r, (the sound of) cameras lighting up" (taking multiple shots) — he raises his hands next to his face and re-enacts the flashlights going off, "and they'd get to me, and its like: click - (done)."
His mouth smiles. "'Alright, you can move along.' And, like, you know, you're looking at Julia Roberts and there's like flashes everywhere, and you get next to it and it's like "Click, click. (Done.)" (Laughter) It's really humbling."
You get the feeling that he chooses humour to deflect hurt.
Another humbling moment was when La La Land was announced as winner of Best Picture at the 2017 Oscars and the cast was already on stage when they had to recall the announcement and give it to the rightful winners, Moonlight, for which Mahershala had already picked up a Best Supporting Actor Oscar.
"When we did win, we were happy. But it was a little bit mixed because our joy and our moment felt like we were taking something away from someone else, because they were in the middle of their celebration. I think it was complicated for all involved. Like, we couldn't just celebrate [because] they were on stage."
He pauses, the eyes disappear and the lips smile, letting the awkwardness register. "No, sincerely though. Those are real people with real feelings up there, that had reached the pinnacle for what people are striving to achieve. I'm not saying that everyone's up here trying to win Oscars, but to be recognised on that platform and on that level, it's a long journey to get up there. So to have that moment and then suddenly you're not having that moment, I felt bad for them, you know?"
And where is the Oscar? "It's bubble-wrapped right now. I just moved, so I haven't put it out yet."
ASK BLACK ACTORS ABOUT THEIR WORK
What he does put out there is the challenge for people of colour when talking about their work.
In interviews, he's "spending time talking about religion, or racism, or discrimination. While my co-stars get to talk about transformation. It gets old because you do that with every project, even if it has nothing to do with race, you're talking about diversity. White actors are not asked about diversity.
"I saw one person, one writer, asked Viggo about diversity. That is the first time I've ever seen that in my life. I was like wow! I've never seen a white actor have to answer that question. I answer it every single interview. It takes away from people understanding how to experience your work."
Mentored by Muhammad Ali, Mahershala (pronounced, Ma-HER-shala), became a Muslim at the age of 25, and is aware that people struggle with the pronunciation. "My wife never says my name. If she does, I'm in trouble," he confesses with the soft humour that washes through our conversation.
Known for his fashion sense, when complimented on his intricately patterned Etro jacket, he deflects with: "I was going for the peacock look."
STRIKING A BALANCE
One thing he is very serious about is his role as father and husband. He now strives for a holistic approach to life and work.
"I no longer value working continuously because I don't think it's healthy. With what a job requires, I take off three or six months, and get some new information, absorb some new things, learn different skills, something that you can add to your repertoire. Just live and be with your family, your child, and then step into that vortex of work. You have a fuller experience. I've said no a lot, just so I could protect balance in my life for my overall health, the health of my own personal life and health of my family."