Mahershala Ali has always been busy. In 2016 he starred in four films and two TV series, alone. Post-“Moonlight,” however, his career has taken him to a completely different level. After winning the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for Barry Jenkins’ masterpiece, he landed the lead role in the long-awaited third season of HBO’s “True Detective” and now he’s earning more Oscar hype for his performance in Peter Farrelly‘s “Green Book.” And that means you’ll hear his name called next month when SAG Award and Golden Globe nominations are announced.
Set in the early 1960s, the drama centers on Frank (Viggo Mortensen), a New York bouncer who is hired to drive and protect a famous pianist, Don Shirley (Ali), on a tour of cities in the deep south. The true story’s title comes from the name of the guide which provides safe lodging in highly segregated cities. Frank and Don’s relationship is cold at first, but a series of experiences on the trip form what became a lifelong bond. Ali does a wonderful job of channeling Shirley’s creativity and simmering anger at the systematic racism his performances are attempting to make a statement against.
Ali jumped on the phone a few weeks ago to discuss his portrayal of Shirley and give a little hint about how the latest iteration of “True Detective” will forge its own identity.
The Playlist: I know you’ve already been asked this question three thousand times, but what made you want to take this role?
Mahershala Ali: Three thousand and one, now. [Laughs.] No, I’m kidding. No, you know what? I like that question, honestly. I think Don Shirley is somebody who we haven’t seen on screen. And just reading the script, I really feel like he just jumped off the page to me. He just is such a dynamic and complicated person and character. I really wanted to sign up for the responsibility of bringing that character to life. It was something that scared me. It made me nervous, like, several elements that were required in bringing that character to life. And usually, when I feel that way, I know that’s the direction to go. I feel like that’s always where the direction of growth is, for me. Just as an actor and artist.
I talked to Viggo a few weeks ago and he said that when he got the script he also was nervous about it. And it took him a couple days to agree to do it. Did the fact he’d already come on board make your decision easier?
It definitely made my decision easier, but honestly, if you’ve read that film from the jump I would have signed up for it anyway. Unless they had made some strange choice in the casting for Tony Vallelonga, I would have stayed onboard for it. But the fact that Viggo was cast in it first made my decision much easier. And it also allowed me to imagine Tony Vallelonga while I was reading the script, which always makes a difference. When you have a sense of how something is cast, you can imagine yourself in the part, and you don’t have to do as much work imagining the other character, as you’re, you know, getting to know the story and the characters.
Viggo also had Tony’s son and family to provide him with more backstory. Did you have anyone who could provide the same sort of first-person accounts for Don?
I just approached it really different. And honestly, even though he’s deceased I had more information working on Don Shirley than I had with any other part I’ve ever done. He appeared in a documentary, “Lost Bohemia,” about the artists that lived on top of Carnegie Hall. And so, I could kind of get a sense of his behavior and tensions. I got a sense of his rhythms and how he spoke and how he would gesture. And I got to see him play the piano a little bit. So, I pulled a lot from that. And he doesn’t appear in it long, but long enough for me to sort of get a glimpse at the essence of the man. And I really spent quite a bit of time with his music and listened to his music basically every day. And the little bit that I could read on him. I heard some audiotapes, on Nick Vallelonga speaking about their relationship and that journey. And even heard some, later on, heard some audio recordings of Don Shirley as well, speaking about the experience.
The chemistry you and Viggo share on screen is key for the film to work. Did you guys hang out beforehand? Was there a good amount of rehearsal?
I don’t know. That’s the hardest question to answer. Because if there’s an answer to it, then I think more people would do it. You know, because films definitely all benefit from chemistry. I think we just had a lot of love and respect and admiration for each other. I think we listened to each other. We rooted for each other. I think our approach to the work is really similar. Viggo has more experience than I do and has been, you know, carrying this type of load much longer than I have if you look at his career. But he always treated and approached me as an equal. And I always had equal input to him. And we wanted each other to win. We wanted each other to succeed. And I think that’s always a good thing for chemistry and love. And we still have that, to this day. And Pete played a big part in that, as well. From him opening the doors, creatively, of the set before we shot one take. He says to the entire cast and crew, “Anybody have a better idea or see something that they think is problematic or not right, please, by all means, speak up. Let me know. I don’t know everything. I want to make a great movie. And we all have a place and a voice.” And I kid you not, Pete said that the first day of filming. Never seen that in my life. And I think that set the tone for what was to be a really extraordinary experience.
The movie has won the Toronto People’s Choice Award and I know that it’s gotten incredible reactions at other festivals around the world. And everyone I know in the industry who’s seen it loves it. I actually can’t find anyone who doesn’t which is a huge compliment. You’ve been part of a movie previously, “Moonlight,” that meant so much to people. Do you feel anything similar in what you’re experiencing in terms of what you get the feedback for “Green Book”?
Good films are good films. Regardless of genre or director or aesthetic. You know, I think that for what “Green Book” is, it’s a really good film. For what “Moonlight” is, it’s an extraordinary film. And I think the comparisons sort of stop there. But I’m glad that people are able to look at the film and accept it for what it is and enjoy it and get something from it. I’m so glad that people are responding to the direction and the writing and the performances. And that’s all you can do on any movie whether it’s “Wreck-It Ralph” or “If Beale Street Could Talk.” I think you want a great script, you want great direction, and great performances.
Can you just tell me what your experience was like on “True Detective” season 3 and what people can look forward to just in terms of the tone of this season?
That’s a big answer. I think “True Detective” was an extraordinary experience shooting that project. I’m really excited to share it. Nic wrote an amazing season. And one that I couldn’t be more thrilled to be a part of. I think it’s dark. But I do feel that there is a light and a hope in this season that, I think, goes beyond the other seasons.