Mahershala Ali on Challenges With 'Green Book' Role, Creating Onscreen "Magic" with Viggo Mortensen

Photographed by Miller Mobley
"I feel that Dr. Don Shirley always saw more for himself than the world did and thought more of himself than those who were less informed about his experiences and his intelligence and his talent," Ali said of what he hopes people take away from 'Green Book.'

The supporting actor nominee also talks about the impact the film will have on audiences and what he's looking forward to at this year's Oscars.

Mahershala Ali received an Academy Award in 2017 for his performance in Moonlight, but fast-forward less than two years and the actor is already a contender for another golden statuette, for his role as famed pianist Don Shirley in Peter Farrelly's Green Book. Ali, 44, spoke with THR about creating onscreen "magic" with co-star Viggo Mortensen and taking on the story of a pioneering prodigy.

Congratulations on your Oscar nomination! How did you react and/or celebrate after learning you were nominated?

It’s moments like this that make you stop and you have to take a moment and just sort of breathe and let it all settle on you so you can really embrace it and enjoy it and give thanks and be grateful. So I just found myself just feeling really quiet and reflective and just really humbled by it. I just feel really blessed to have an opportunity to do this with my life and be informed as a person outside of acting by the roles and by the opportunities to have my work positively impact my life and make me think about the world different. It’s just such a gift, and so to get that nomination, with a lot of really positive things going on, it just made me just stop and just reflect. 

In the film, your and Viggo Mortensen’s characters form this beautiful friendship. How did you and Viggo foster chemistry? Did you spend time together before shooting?

We didn't hang out at all, really. Where we did spend time with each other was just at the table reading the script. Just in reading the scenes, we were both hearing what the other person was bringing to the table at that point, and I think it’s like a dance. You want to enjoy working with your partner because that's where you can create magic and do something bigger than you personally when you’re both connected from the right place and working out of a place of love. I didn't feel like it was something we necessarily had to work at or work to generate. We were happy to be there and getting to build and collaborate together, and once Pete [Farrelly] calls "cut," to be able to step back and take a look at that and often feel like we were in a good place.

Despite the film’s heavy subject, there are fun and lighthearted moments throughout. What was a memorable scene from the film for you and why? 

I enjoyed working on the diner scene with Viggo earlier on in our road trip, and Dr. Shirley is talking to [Mortensen's character] Tony, asking him about food and how his food tastes and it ends up finishing with his album cover. You just get a real sense of what we’re about to experience. It’s real clear as to really what their dynamic is. But for me personally, it was our first time actually getting to look at each other because we’ve been working in the car for over a week and just on the road every day, and so I’m looking at the back of his head and he’s staring at the window because there’s no rearview mirror. So, we hadn’t really got to engage with all our senses, and sitting across from each other and really connecting and finding the rhythm and timing. So to have that moment and sit in the diner, I think we both for the first time felt some degree a magic or something in the connection of those characters and how it was already built, and the space that was left for us to bring something extra to the table became apparent in that scene. I think it gave us a lot of energy for the rest of the film just having that as a baseline for how well we could connect and find the rhythm and unique qualities in each of those characters. 

In the film, Don Shirley goes through myriad experiences, both positive and difficult. What was the biggest challenge for you?

I guess the more difficult thing for me about playing Dr. Shirley, a character who's contained, was really locating the trigger or the triggers and really being specific as to what was frustrating him in those moments where he found himself wrestling with his circumstances — and really for myself being able to be specific about that. So I was going beyond playing angry. I needed to be clear on any rage or frustration that he might've felt in the moment. I needed to be clear on what that was so I could cover it.

What do you want people to take from this film?

How you think about people impacts how you treat them, and that is both on a personal level and also just within our society and within our culture, like how different groups culturally think about other groups and how that can end up really affecting people's experiences and their lives and impact whether they're able to reach their potential, holistically, as people. I feel that Dr. Don Shirley always saw more for himself than the world did and thought more of himself than those who were less informed about his experiences and his intelligence and his talent.

Is there something in particular that you're looking forward to at this year's Oscars?

I'm excited to actually get to experience this with my wife this time, my partner. Last time, in 2017, she had just had our daughter. So now this time she gets to go with me, and we just get to share in the experience together. Because she has really been key and has been so supportive of me really getting to do this and continue to press on and push forward. So I'm excited to experience the Oscars with her this time. 

A version of this story first appeared in a February stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.