For an Oscar winner with nearly 20 years of screen acting behind him, Mahershala Ali is still strangely under the radar. You probably know him from a fistful of brilliant supporting performances. He was slick DC operator Remy Danton in ‘House of Cards’, charismatic crime don Cottonmouth in Netflix’s ‘Luke Cage’ and, of course, paternal drug dealer Juan in ‘Moonlight’, a performance for which he won that Academy Award. But the killer big-screen role has proved elusive.
At least, it had. Enter Peter Farrelly, co-director of ‘Dumb and Dumber’ and ‘There’s Something About Mary’ and, somewhat surprisingly, the filmmaker behind ‘Green Book’. He’s provided Ali with that chance to shine, opposite Viggo Mortensen, in his chunkiest part to date. It’s a racial drama that tackles very serious themes, but it offered Ali some big laughs to leaven things. ‘You have to follow the fun,’ he says. ‘If something isn’t fun, you move on to the next thing.’ This mantra – advice given to him by ‘Get Out’ director Jordan Peele – is a clue that Ali’s rep for serious-mindedness is more than a little exaggerated.
Opposite Viggo Mortensen in ‘Green Book’
So how is the actor handling the sudden upturn in his career? ‘I have the opportunity to be more deliberate in my choices,’ he says, ‘and to be conscious about the larger social impact of the films I’m in.’ Like ‘Moonlight’ before it, ‘Green Book’ feels like a canny choice. It’s a showcase for his significant acting chops and it offers engaging, important subject matter. As he puts it: ‘Each role is a tile in the mosaic.’
‘It was like working with a first-time director, only with more than 20 years’ experience’
He met his ‘Green Book’ co-star, Mortensen, during the 2017 awards season. Mortensen was nominated for ‘Captain Fantastic’ and the pair bonded on the fringes of all the glad-handing and glamour. ‘We are both happier as observers,’ Ali admits. While on the circuit’s conveyor-belt of lunches and dinners, the two of them would retreat into corners to plot ways to work together.
That chance came with ‘Green Book’. People might be surprised at one half of the directing duo behind the infamous hair gel gag in ‘There’s Something About Mary’ directing a drama about virtuoso concert pianist Don Shirley (Ali), touring the Jim Crow-era Deep South with his Italian-American driver Tony Lip (Mortensen). Ali had no such concerns. ‘Here we have a guy who has 20 years’ experience in filmmaking,’ he says, ‘but hadn’t done this [before]. It was like working with a first-time director, only with more than 20 years’ experience.’
The role itself brought some unusual challenges. Ali spent the first week filming in a turquoise Cadillac: him in the back, his co-star behind the wheel. He can now probably map the back of the Mortensen bonce blindfolded. ‘We didn’t look at each other for a week!’ he remembers. ‘It was a strange way to act.’ Then there was learning to play the piano. He spent three intensive months ivory-tinkling to master at least the basics. ‘We made an extraordinary effort so that the audience is never distracted or taken out of the story.’
Mahershala Ali in ‘Moonlight’
Music is a big part of the actor’s life. He recorded a rap record in 2007 as Prince Ali, is currently working on a new project he’s keeping schtum about and takes the mixtape method approach to acting, creating playlists for each of his characters. For ‘Luke Cage’ it ranged from rapper Big L to the soul tracks of Erykah Badu, but playing Don Shirley took something different. ‘I’d pull from music of the time and make that my world,’ he says. ‘Some classical, like Pablo Casals playing Bach, then Aretha Franklin, Little Richard and Sam Cooke.’
‘There isn’t one black experience. Our experience is so much more diverse’
He also used documentary footage of Shirley to get into character. ‘It allowed me to see his eyes and pull from him. I learn more from documentaries than watching other actors work.’
Does he think ‘Green Book’ will have a positive impact on how people view the black American experience? ‘Our experience is so much more diverse,’ he says. ‘There is no black monolith. There isn’t one black experience. There are African-Americans who are educated differently to others, and we don’t all come raised in low-income environments.’
Earlier this month, he won a Golden Globe for his performance as Shirley. Even if the film’s awards chances seem to be waxing and waning, you’d be rash to rule out a second Oscar for the popular, serious-minded but fun-chasing Ali. He’s a bona fide star – only two decades in the making.
‘Green Book’ is in cinemas from Fri Feb 1