The supporting actor nominee reveals how his "melancholy" upbringing — including his parents' split when he was 3 and growing up around drug dealers — led him on a path to becoming Muslim and speaking out at the SAG Awards in the face of Trump's travel ban.
Mahershala Ali, just a few months ago, was all but unknown outside a small coterie in the entertainment industry. Despite more than a decade of solid credits in movies like The Hunger Games and such Netflix series as House of Cards and Luke Cage, the actor kept a low, paparazzi-less profile.
That all changed with Moonlight, the low-budget drama about an African-American boy's odyssey to manhood, which became a sensation in August at the Telluride Film Festival and is nominated for eight Oscars. Playing the kindly drug dealer Juan, Ali drew notice as the film's breakout star (and further kudos in another best picture nominee, Hidden Figures), earning himself an Oscar nomination and winning a Screen Actors Guild Award for best supporting actor.
It was at the SAG Awards on Jan. 29 that audiences learned much more about Ali as he made a resonant plea for tolerance in the face of President Trump's proposed ban on travel from seven Muslim countries. "What I've learned from working on Moonlight is, we see what happens when we persecute people: They fold into themselves," he said. "When we get caught up in the minutiae and the details that make us all different … there's an opportunity to go to war about it and say, 'That person is different from me. I don't like you. So let's battle.' "
He added, "My mother is an ordained minister. I'm a Muslim. She didn't do backflips when I called her to tell her I converted 17 years ago. But I tell you now, we put things to the side and I'm able to see her, she's able to see me, we love each other, the love has grown."
Sitting with The Hollywood Reporter for an extensive interview in Santa Barbara a week after his speech, Ali, who turns 43 on Feb. 16, spoke about his mother and his own path toward manhood. "I would love to not talk about Trump; I don't have anything positive to say about him at all," he says, going into detail for the first time about his past, as he and his wife, artist and music producer Amatus-Sami Karim-Ali, anticipate the imminent arrival of their first child. "I'm even excited about being tired," he says.
The Venice, Calif., resident admits he's still coming to terms with being in the public eye. "I'm used to answering questions about what it's like to work with Jennifer Lawrence," he jokes, flashing a rare smile. That smile doesn't mask his fundamental seriousness. "He's extremely, extremely soulful," says Barry Jenkins, director of Moonlight (whose distributor, A24, counts as an investor the owner of THR)
Here, in his own words, Ali reveals his personal journey from childhood upheaval through near-depression, discovery, religious conversion and finally contentment in his life and career.
'HE'S GONE. YOUR FATHER'S GONE'
My birth name is Mahershalalhashbaz Gilmore. In the Bible, that's the name of the prophet Isaiah's second son. He was instructed to write the name in capital letters on a rock, and it means "divine restoration" or "speedy to the spoils." My mom, Willicia, had a dream about it and felt very strongly it should be my name.
I was born Feb. 16, 1974, in Oakland, Calif., I grew up 5 miles from Oakland, in Hayward, and they're different. Hayward was safer — it was working-class, blue-collar, but you had a bit more peace.
My grandmother, Evie Goines, was an ordained minister in Hayward Baptist Church. She was the assistant pastor until she died, and [years later] my mother became an ordained minister, too. I grew up in a prayerful home; I never remember not praying — I prayed every day of my life, and that was instilled in me as a kid, and as I've gotten older, that's just matured in me.
My parents were in high school when I was born. My mom was 16, my dad was 17. They were kids, at the very beginning of coming into their own and finding themselves.
My father, Phillip Gilmore, was very talented. He was getting seriously into dancing. He was on Soul Train and won $2,500. But the Bay Area was too small for him. I don't think he had the space to do what he needed to do. He went off to New York and got into the Dance Theatre of Harlem and immediately started working and traveling with the companies of the larger shows. They split when I was 3. I remember clearly my mom's reaction, one of the first things that felt traumatic in my life. She was leaning on the dresser, crying, and I said, "Mommy?" I asked her what was wrong. She told me that my dad had left, and I started crying. Just seeing her, I understood the weight of what was happening. She said, "He's gone. Your father's gone."
After that, my uncle has told me, and even my grandmother, I went into a depression. I was borderline depressed for years. There was a sadness over me, a melancholy. That's always been a part of me — those are some of the things that lead you to the arts. It's something I still think about, not that it brings me sadness at this point; it's a void or fracture that happened so early that now I have to address it in the healthiest way. We're affected by things, but 20 or 30 years later we can choose to feel different about them. I understand: My mom and dad were kids. And I know that they loved me and did the best they could do.
My mom was finishing high school and finding her way, and she graduated from beauty college and went to work cutting hair and did that for many years. She had four sisters and no brothers, and my mom's sisters took care of me, they babysat me. I remember clearly when I was about 4, my Aunt Linda said, "I'm not babysitting him no more. He's bad." It was one of the first conscious shifts I remember making. I decided, "I'm going to be good now."
I started traveling by myself as early as 5 to see my dad. I'd go to Toronto or Los Angeles, depending on what show he was doing, but most often New York, and we would hang out, and he'd take me to museums and Broadway plays. The ones that had the biggest impact on me were the George C. Wolfe productions. I saw Smokey Joe's Cafe, Angels in America, Spunk. But I never thought I could do that. If anything, it made me feel like I couldn't, because they were so great.
My dad was in Dreamgirls, and I was just so happy to be in his presence, I was ready to jump in, whether in the summer or Christmas break. He did much more for me by leaving than he would have done by staying. He gave me so many more tools because he chose to go on the adventure he went on.
Out of everyone in my life, my grandmother, Mamie Gilmore, my dad's mom, had the most influence. We spent so much time together. Every Thursday, she would take me to Lucky's grocery store, which was about a block away from her house, and I remember her putting me in the shopping cart. She would push me around the grocery store, getting her bread and whatnot, and on Fridays we'd go to McDonald's. And while I ate my fries and my burger, she would tell me that I was handsome, that I was intelligent, that I could do anything I put my mind to. She said, "You can be happy or miserable. It's up to you." She was teaching me to think a certain way, and that has really served me, because at a certain point you believe it enough, where it's not something that you wear as arrogance or armor. There's times when you need to pull that out to encourage yourself.
'I WAS NEVER GOOD AT JUST TAKING NO FOR AN ANSWER'
I have always been athletic, so I was running around, jumping. I started [bicycle] racing when I was 4. My cousins got me into it. The challenge for me was having the courage to be aggressive when it was time to be aggressive. I had a cousin who was older than me, and he had turned pro. He was aggressive to the point of being a daredevil, but seeing that — and seeing the results of an approach that felt hypermasculine — scared me. I found myself frozen between those two places [aggression and restraint], trying to find the balance.
My stepfather came into my life when I was about 9 or 10 years old. Kids get used to the relationship they have with their parents when they grow up in a single-parent home, and there is a real adjustment period. Very quickly it became about getting me up to snuff. My stepfather recognized I had to be disciplined in order to stay out of trouble.
All of it felt abrupt. It felt abrasive to me.
But the real positive of that relationship was, here is a man who is 6-foot-6 and a very large figure who loomed over my life. He put a stop to the notion that I could do whatever I wanted, and that kept me from getting in trouble.
My mom and stepdad were strict. I couldn't date, I couldn't go out. And I was a kid who was never good at just taking no for an answer. I needed to understand why. And sometimes they weren't interested in explaining.
Like so many families, we were dealing with limited means. We weren't poor at all, but we had some challenging times financially. When my stepdad got laid off — he was a sandblaster for the Oakland Alameda naval base — my mother had already had one of my two younger brothers, and she wasn't doing hair the way she used to, and we were really trying to find our footing for a couple of years.
As I got older, I started seeing things happen to people. I started seeing cousins go to jail for armed robbery, drugs. My friend's mom was a drug dealer, but I didn't know she was a drug dealer. Drugs were a way for people to support themselves without advertising it. It was done covertly. Today, we are used to seeing all these chains and these cars, when a lot of times it was done discreetly and to support someone's income.
They were normal, solid, good people who had this compartmentalized criminal element, but I saw the repercussions. I had a few friends killed, not in Hayward but in Oakland. It was tough. I saw so many people who had some form of genius that I admired, athletic or academic or artistic. And in the circumstances of life, they embraced a path that guided them to some form of mediocrity. And that scared me, to see guys five years older than me, that I totally looked up to and admired, and then at some point they were still hanging out at the high school, not really doing anything.
But what affected me more was, because my dad was in musical theater in the '80s, I saw a lot of guys die from AIDS, people I was close to. I've seen more people die from that than from gun violence. Every year, there were friends that my dad had, 28 or 29 years old, who died.
I would stay up and think about [that and] what I wanted to be until 2 or 3 in the morning. Almost every night, I would just lay down and think about different options. I was always in my head. I had insomnia, and I would stay up all night and write poetry. I started reflecting on my past and looking toward the future and thinking in a way that was aspirational. I spent a lot of time having to put that on paper. It allowed me to get my thoughts out in a way that felt therapeutic but also had an artistic quality. And that was really my first relationship with the arts.
At a certain point, my mom just didn't know me. There were years when we didn't talk. There was a period, off and on, starting when I was around 18. I had expectations — maybe all kids do — of how I wanted to be supported, [whether in] athletics or what I wanted to become or just [in] our spiritual practices. I wanted a bigger, fuller experience. I moved into my grandparents' home when I was 16. It's not that [my parents] didn't believe in me; they didn't understand. It all goes to trying to accept each other's points of view and coexist.
My father was an extrovert, but I'm not — I mean, I find myself in situations where, to survive the situation, to feel comfortable, I have to force myself to be more present, otherwise I cave in to myself. I was always a bit of a loner. When I graduated from high school, I didn't go to a party. I was by myself that night. That's a big thing. I just remember how lonely that night was. I graduated and I was by myself. I never found my tribe.
'THAT WAS THE TRIGGER FOR ME: WHEN I FELT ACTING WAS THE ONLY THING I COULD DO'
I won a basketball scholarship to Saint Mary's College in 1992, and then I found acting. I had a professor there, Rebecca Engle, and she approached me about doing Othello. That scared me, but it let me know what she thought of me. I ended up doing a different play, Spunk, which my father had taken me to see. It was standing-room only, standing ovations every time we did that play. It was borderline revolutionary for us to do a black play in a college that was 90-some-odd percent white, and here's this white woman who was a Berkeley hippie, embracing of all people, whatever their walk of life.
That was the trigger for me: when I felt that was the only thing I could do, and if I did anything else I wouldn't be on track. It was therapeutic to get down to the seeds of other people's dysfunction, with the goal to crack it open and shed light on it. That's what led me to graduate school [at NYU] and to follow acting, like my father.
My father died in 1994, when I was 20. He passed after a long illness. I remember waking up in California, and I got up and spoke to one of my dad's best friends on the phone. I called her and said, "Have you heard anything about my dad?" And she said, "Oh, you haven't heard yet?" And she said, "Yeah, yeah, baby, he passed away." I got off the phone, and I made a prayer and asked God, "Help me not mourn right now," because I felt that would make it much harder on my grandparents. I needed to be strong. But after my father died, I felt defeated.
When I moved to New York, that's when his death really struck me. I was where he lived, I was in his town. I finally had something that he could deeply connect with, where there would have been a real sense of pride, and he never, ever saw me act.
When I was around 13, I'd started asking him questions specific to Christianity. I was going to these church camps as a kid. I was in New York, visiting him, and I wanted to know what he believed. And he stopped me and made it clear that he didn't believe that Jesus was God, and that there was a difference, that God was God. He was agnostic and really embracing of other faiths.
Then at a certain point in grad school, being in that city and exposed to all these different ideas made me start questioning what I believed.
'I WAS TRYING TO FIND OUT WHY I BELIEVED WHAT I BELIEVED'
I was around 23 or 24 years old when I couldn't ignore it anymore. I was going back in time and trying to find out why I believed what I believed, and it always ended with my mother, and with what I was told — not my own epiphany or studies.
I started reading a few books on everything from reincarnation — The Seat of the Soul by Gary Zukav — to As a Man Thinketh [by James Allen], to The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran. I was taking in information that was beyond the canon of literature that I had been exposed to, to really take some ownership of my spiritual beliefs.
When I was in grad school, I met Amatus, who later became my wife, though there was a [period of 12 years] when we weren't really in contact. She's artistic, extraordinarily independent, very straightforward, very intelligent, kind. She's really high-functioning — morally, ethically and socially.
She was in undergrad, studying acting at NYU's Experimental Theatre Wing. She was coming to terms with whether she even wanted to be Muslim, because her father is an imam. And I was looking for my anchor or the thing to bring structure to my spiritual walk. She was almost coming out of it, and I was going into it.
So I went with her and her mother to the mosque in Philadelphia. I remember watching the imam give the khutbah, or sermon, and then we're making the congregational prayer. And I started crying. I didn't quite understand why I was crying, because the prayer was in Arabic and I couldn't understand Arabic. And I'm just crying in a way that I hadn't quite experienced before.
A week later, it was Christmas break for school, and I just happened to stay in New York. It was Dec. 31, 1999. I woke up and thought, "I have to go to the mosque," and I go to this mosque in Brooklyn, and it's packed. It's multiple stories, and I'm all the way in the back, and they do this sermon in English and in Arabic, and they go to make the prayer — "In the name of God the gracious and the merciful. All praise is due to God alone" — and the same thing happens to me, and I just start crying. I couldn't wrap my head around it. It was beyond explanation. There was this connection that pierced through it all for me. And I felt like I was in the right place. And this guy touches me on the shoulder and says, "Are you Muslim?" And I say, "No." And he goes, "Do you want to be?" And I said, "Yes." So he took me up to the imam, and I made my pledge.
When I told my mother, it was a little bit clumsy. I got on the phone and she wasn't excited about that, in large part because at that time she believed there's only one route to heaven, through Christianity. It probably took 10 or 12 years until she really embraced it. My mother is as spiritual as she is religious. She likes to have a good time, but she has an extraordinarily serious quality about her. She lives with the awareness that we are spiritual beings having a physical experience, that everything is about the next life. She basically told me she accepted that was my path, and she's been really supportive of that choice. We are in an extraordinarily positive place today.
Now, I'm just dealing with the things that all men and women deal with when we recognize our faults. We all have to do work to be our best selves, to civilize ourselves in the way we see fit. I'm dealing with the things that keep me from being the fullest person I can be.
This story first appeared in the Feb. 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.