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Mahershala Ali on Moonlight, True Detective, and what art can say to 2010s America

“I feel like filmmaking is really an opportunity to listen. You have to listen to these characters. You have to have empathy.”

True Detective
Mahershala Ali stars in True Detective season three.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Few actors have had as surprising a past few years as Mahershala Ali.

Three years ago, Ali was best known for his parts on TV shows like The 4400 and House of Cards and in movies like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and the Hunger Games films. But with his 2016 role in Moonlight, Ali suddenly went from steadily working actor to legitimate star. He only appears in Moonlight’s first half-hour, playing Juan, a drug dealer who can tell that a sensitive young boy needs a space to just be himself. But he’s magnetic and warm, caring and thoughtful in the type of role that Hollywood rarely gives much care and thought.

Ali’s performance won him an Oscar for Supporting Actor; since then, he’s charted an eclectic, fascinating course. He’s now getting Oscar buzz again for his Golden Globe-nominated role in Green Book (where he plays the concert pianist Don Shirley, though the film has not been without controversy) and he voices a pivotal character in the highly acclaimed Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse.

Next, he’ll be playing the lead character in the long-awaited third season of True Detective, set to debut on January 13. (I’m sworn to secrecy about my opinion, thanks to a review embargo, but I will say that I watched the episodes HBO sent to critics very quickly.) The role, originally written for a white actor, spoke to Ali, and he convinced showrunner Nic Pizzolatto to reconceive the part so he could play it.

When Ali sat joined me for the latest episode of my podcast, I Think You’re Interesting, I asked just how prepared he had been for this rapid rise to stardom; his story about hoping for a crack at bigger, meatier parts, then feeling stymied over the years, until he reached a breaking point right around when he landed Moonlight, will hopefully speak to anybody with a dream who’s been feeling continually frustrated. So I’ve excerpted that part of our conversation below, with light edits for length and clarity.

89th Annual Academy Awards - Press Room
Mahershala Ali holds the Oscar he won for Supporting Actor for the film Moonlight.
Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Todd VanDerWerff

As I was watching some of True Detective season three, I was thinking about how it uses time, then thinking about how time relates to your own career. If we were talking 10 years ago, you would be in a very different place in your career. You were working consistently in 2008, but now, you’re a star. Did you expect that to happen? Can you prepare for that journey in any way?

Mahershala Ali

For me, there’s a difference in my mind between star and leading man, about carrying story and having an opportunity to bring characters to life, and wanting a certain kind of responsibility, and to be stretched, and feeling like, oh, I feel like I have the qualities or the attributes to be able to do that and figure it out, and hopefully at some point get really good at carrying stories and leading the way.

I said to my manager in 2009, “Carolyn, I really believe I’m a leading man.” Forgive me if that sounds arrogant at all. That’s not my intention. It’s where my vision for my career, my experience, was at. And she said, “You’ve gotta believe it first.” And I did. I just wanted the opportunities to unfold in that way. I never let go of that in my mind.

But around Moonlight is right when that — and I’m talking around shooting it — is when it started to get really difficult. I started to feel the pressure of time. I’m a fairly goal-oriented person, and I also look at setting a goal as a beginning. And I don’t like not finishing things. So for me, it felt like, ahhh, I’m worried about not getting to that place where I get to have a more fulfilling experience.

So for it to unfold the way that it has right at a breaking point for me — sort of in my energy toward the work feeling like I’ve reached a glass ceiling and I just can’t seem to go beyond it — and then just out of the blue, it opened up. So yeah, I did want this for myself.

The celebrity aspects of it, that’s a little bit beyond my understanding, honestly. if it means that you get good parts, then I’ll take it. [Laughs.]

Todd VanDerWerff

The script for Moonlight is brilliant, but when you read it, did you think it was going to be the thing to take you to the next level?

Mahershala Ali

I felt like that film was going to be really extraordinarily special. In terms of awards and all that kind of stuff, I wasn’t doing film like that up until that point. I’d done Benjamin Button and Predators. I’d done a handful — like A Place Beyond the Pines. But a film that’s basically immediately embraced?

We started in Telluride, so you’ve got a world of cinephiles there who are really speaking to how deep and rich that film was. Then we were in Toronto the week after that, and then it just exploded. So to be on that ride and that trajectory with something, I didn’t know how that could work. That was all a mystery to me, how something became a piece that the critics loved and appreciated and then made its way into the lay audience.

But I definitely felt, especially from when I read it and from before I read it — there were agents and everybody; that script, there was a buzz — and then I booked it and we were shooting it, and I was, like, “This is special.” I saw the first screening of it, and was blown away by that. And once it was released, we know what all unfolded. So short story long: Yes. I did feel like it was gonna do something special.

Todd VanDerWerff

We’re in a really fraught time in history, when it feels like we’re shouting past each other a lot. What do you see the role of storytelling and art in helping us through whatever it is we’re going through right now?

Mahershala Ali

I feel like filmmaking, creating content, is really an opportunity to listen. Even from the creative standpoint. You have to listen to these characters. You have to have empathy and listen to somebody’s story. Somebody’s story or experience has to resonate with you, whether it be fiction or nonfiction. There’s something about it where you feel like: This needs to exist. So you need to have responded and heard something in the culture to create it.

Then the audience has to listen as well. They don’t have to, but if it’s marketed right and taps into that right vein, they have an opportunity to listen and to be moved and to be affected, to grow, to be improved by that. That can be a point of conversation. That’s not in all cases. Some things are just really, purely entertaining, and that has its place. People need and appreciate an opportunity to escape.

But there’s also, especially in this time, a real opportunity to carve out space to encourage the process of evolution, to encourage the process of us maturing and growing up as a culture. I think that at this point, if you can recognize that, then there becomes this responsibility to always keep that in mind as you create content for people who are — whether they realize it or not — really looking to continue to grow and improve. That is such an important thing for our culture. That’s the responsibility of art, and it has always been the responsibility of art.

For more with Ali, including an overview of his conversations with Pizzolatto about how to make the role in True Detective acknowledge the issue of race without letting it take over the season, as well as his thoughts on all of the scenes he’s had to shoot sitting in cars lately, listen to the full episode.

To hear interviews with more fascinating people from the world of arts and culture — from powerful showrunners to web series creators to documentary filmmakers — check out the I Think You’re Interesting archives.

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