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Mahershala Ali is best known to audiences for going toe-to-toe with Kevin Spacey as Remy Danton on House of Cards.
Now he’s tackling blockbuster territory with a role in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 1, in which he plays Katniss’ (Jennifer Lawrence) protector Boggs. He has a number of key scenes in the film with the late Philip Seymour Hoffman (Plutarch), whom he says paid more attention to the details than any other actor he’s worked with.
“What blew me away, is he would have something really simple, and every single take he would do it differently,” Ali tells The Hollywood Reporter. “He could do 1,000 and he would find 1,000 ways to do one line. I was unbelievable. Every single take was fresh and he would find a new way to do it.”
Ali also had a few teases to share about the upcoming season of House of Cards.
“I will say that this year is unique in that Remmy has landed a really great job, but it’s different than what we’ve seen before. It’s not without complication,” he says. “He’s in an emotional transition for most of the season, which is great because the character kind of deepens. He’s more three-dimensional and you learn more about his life outside of the work this season.”
Read our full conversation below.
What did they tell you about the role before you signed on?
[Director] Francis [Lawrence] shared with me that Boggs was going to be commissioned with protecting Katniss. He is a grounding force in her life and he needed to feel connected to her. He enters into the relationship being a little but upset that he has been tasked with protecting her because he feels like he is babysitting. But later he grows to appreciate and understand and respect her because of the way in which she is able to unite the people in the fight against The Capitol.
How does this compare to doing another action-heavy film you’ve done, Predators?
The issues in this project feel very current in the way the film captures some of the things we’ve been experiencing as a culture for the last 15 to 20 years. The reality TV aspects of life, the voyeurism, some of the more overt and extreme propaganda. Not to say Predators wasn’t current, but I feel like this speaks to the world in a different way — in a very deep way, and to so many parts of our world community.
What is something you learned from working with Philip Seymour Hoffman?
I got to see someone who’d been working for decades and still had this excitement and joy for the work that felt really young. I had never seen anyone work in a way that was that thorough. Every single detail. All the I’s were dotted and the T’s were crossed. He and Francis and [producer] Nina Jacobson along with screenwriter Peter Craig — sometimes they would have to stop and tear some things apart to put it back together. Not to say he would change that much, because the essence of what was written was maintained, but he just needed it to make sense in a certain way. I got to witness someone in a very academic way pick something apart so it could resonate as truthful to him, which in turn makes it more truthful and believable for the audience. His attention to detail was unparalleled in my experience — and I’ve worked with a lot of wonderful actors. What blew me away, is he would have something really simple, and every single take he would do it differently. He could do 1,000 and he would find 1,000 ways to do one line. I was unbelievable. Every single take was fresh and he would find a new way to do it.
Is there any relationship between Hunger Games and your character in The Place Beyond the Pines? Both seem like good men who watch out for a younger character.
They would be the most similar of anyone I’ve played. He’s a good guy, and I think Kofi was about the right things. Their spirits are similar. As far as articulating how — Kofi was a family man, and even though he had a very complicated family situation, Kofi is one of those people who do exactly what they say they’re going to do. I think Boggs is a family man. We don’t see his family. For my own backstory, there was an epidemic in District 13. It’s mentioned in the film that President Coin [Julianne Moore] loses her family, so I wrote my own backstory in that Boggs lost his family as well. So that community is who Boggs connects to as his family. I allowed myself to have feelings for Katniss that were fatherly. I think that comes through more in Mockingjay — Part 2.
[Warning: spoilers ahead for season two of House of Cards]
What was your reaction when you found out the big twist for the season two finale of House of Cards?
I’ve enjoyed witnessing, at least creatively, the entertainment value of watching someone move through the ranks the way Frank has, which has been dramatic and really juicy. So I was a little surprised. I really appreciate working that show, with such great writers. If I wasn’t on the show, I would definitely binge, because it’s a little addicting. I wish we got to shoot more episodes, because you watch them all at once then you have to wait a year. I feel like this season is going to be tight.
What can you say about Remmy this season?
I will say that this year is unique in that Remmy has landed a really great job, but it’s different than what we’ve seen before. It’s not without complication. He’s in an emotional transition for most of the season, which is great because the character kind of deepens. He’s more three-dimensional and you learn more about his life outside of the work this season.
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