Oscars: Mahershala Ali on First Nomination, Dream Roles He'd Like to Play

Courtesy of David Bornfriend/A24
Mahershala Ali in 'Moonlight'

"Marvin Gaye and Jack Johnson, but I really just want the opportunity to go on the hero's journey. I've never done that," the 'Moonlight' actor tells THR.

Ali made waves in Hollywood on Jan. 29 with his tearful SAG Awards acceptance speech. In urging viewers to be more tolerant of people who are different than themselves, Ali commented on how his character tells a young gay boy "that he mattered, that he was OK." Admits Ali, "I didn't know what I was going to say, but when my name was called, I felt like it was important for me to share a couple of things that I learned from my experience working on Moonlight." Although he's only in the first third of Barry Jenkins' adaptation of Tarell Alvin McCraney's play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, Ali has gained frontrunner Oscar status for the emotion he injected into Juan, a drug dealer who shows compassion and fatherly protectiveness toward Little (Alex Hibbert). Ali recently spoke with THR about his awards season experience so far.

What has been the reaction to your SAG acceptance speech?

It has been really overwhelming in the most positive sense. I've learned more from this film than any other project I've ever had the opportunity to be in. The topic feels so timely and socially relevant that it has a different capacity to touch people in their deepest places. I find myself having conversations frequently with people on the street. In coffee shops or anywhere I go, I get stopped. People tend to have something to say about the film.

What are they saying?

In some ways it's a conversation about representation, in that there are so many people out there, in so many communities — people from different walks of life — who traditionally don't have their day in the sun or don't have an opportunity to be a part of the conversation or see themselves reflected in film or in any narrative. There's a sense of relief, appreciation and validation for a story that reflects the experience of the "others," people who identify as something or someone who is not traditionally respected in the same way as other people.

What were your first thoughts when you read the Moonlight script?

I knew it was going to be a film that was going to touch people. I didn't know it was going to be a film that would touch as many people as it has. It was good on the page, and if you start with a great script, you have a good chance. It's hard to put these things together — for all of those dominos to fall properly into place to be around for awards season and be recognized and acknowledged the way Moonlight has been. I did know from the first time I read it that it was special. I've been working long enough to know when something feels special on set. I sincerely mean this, from top to bottom — from our executive producers, with their energy and their approach, all the way down to the production assistants — everyone felt passionate about being there. Nobody was in Liberty City because of the money! (Laughs.) Really. We were all there to do an art piece that had something to say and had the potential to connect with folks.

What was the most challenging aspect of playing Juan?

It was getting past my idea of what the expectations of a drug dealer were. A big challenge was to ignore a lot of that and follow my instincts and some of the cues that Barry laid out in the script. What I needed to embrace was his humanity, which is revealed through how he sees Little.

What other movies have you enjoyed this awards season?

I was blown away by Neruda. I really respond to things that are a little quirky. I have a real affinity for the smaller projects that are done on a really high level.

This is your first Oscar nomination.

It's funny to hear you say that! It's just strange hearing that. I've been working so long, and this is a totally different experience than what I'm accustomed to. There's no time to take it in. Next thing you know, you've got 200 text messages, 60 emails and 20 phone calls. It's positive, but it's so overwhelming, you don't get the time to really take it in and properly be grateful and reflective. It's still something I'm trying to wrap my head around. I know it's a big deal for actors and people in our industry to be in the conversation for anything in awards season, especially the Academy Awards. I know I'll understand it better when it's all done. But right now, I can say that I'm just really grateful.

Who are you most looking forward to meeting on Oscars night?

Denzel [Washington], for me, is my Michael Jordan. That's Muhammad Ali for me! I got to meet Denzel a couple of weeks ago, and that was really moving. I've grown up looking at him and aspiring to do work of that caliber. He's such a phenomenal actor. I would love to meet Meryl Streep. Who wouldn't? I still haven't met Forest Whitaker. That's my dude. (Laughs.) He produced a film that I did, Roxanne Roxanne, this summer. I did my first day of work and went back to this Airbnb I was staying at in Brooklyn. I got a call, and there was no number, so I let it go to voicemail. I didn't know who the heck it was! Forest Whitaker left me a message! (Laughs.) I wish you could have seen my face. I almost had a heart attack. I saved that message.

You’re currently shooting Alita: Battle Angel. Can you talk a little about the project?

Very little! I want to make sure I get paid! I’m still shooting it, talking about it might freeze my check! (Laughs.) It’s based on a graphic novel. I play a villain, not that I can really allow myself to think of him as a villain. It’s with the extraordinary Christoph Waltz and Rosa Salazar, who if you don’t know you will know, she’s terrific. I’ve gotten to work a lot with Jennifer Connelly, she’s been great. James Cameron is producing it so you know just because of that how epic in scope the project is. Robert Rodriguez is directing, and it’s my first time getting to work with him as a director. He has such wonderful energy. It’s a 3D project and looks amazing. I’m having a good time. It’s really different than anything I’ve done. I had a great time working on Mockingjay with a lot of great people, but that franchise was already up and running and I came into the third installment of it. This is fun building this from the ground up with them, and I’m really curious about how it ends up turning out. What I’ve seen so far, I’ve seen a couple of things 

What's another type of project would you like to tackle next?

I’ve never been on the hero’s journey! Not one time. I’ve had the opportunity to support that journey, but I don’t know what that is to go on the hero’s journey and to carry a story. I would love to know what that is. There are so many wonderful characters out there. He is somewhat of a tragic figure, but I would love to play Jack Johnson. I would love to play Marvin Gaye. Marvin Gaye and Jack Johnson are my dream roles, but I really just want the opportunity to go on the hero’s journey. I’ve never done that. 

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