Mahershala Ali
Photo by William Callan

Mahershala Ali: “The stakes were always high”

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Short Profile

Name: Mahershalalhashbaz Ali
DOB: 16 February 1974
Place of birth: Oakland, California, United States
Occupation: Actor

Mr. Ali, what kind of challenges are you facing these days as an actor?

Well, I would say that the older my daughter gets the more difficult it is to be away from home so much. She understands more now. The older she gets, the more I love her, the more our connection deepens so leaving for three months at a time to shoot, or having a 70, sometimes 80 hour a week job… There’s whole swaths of time in her development that I’m essentially missing.

That must be difficult, both for you and for your wife.

It puts healthy pressure on me. It pushes me to really make a concerted effort to have quality time and create rich moments together for her and I and my wife. I’m especially grateful for my wife and my family because I think they help balance some of these reclusive qualities that I think I tend to have…

“I have to work to make myself available to be vulnerable with the community.”

Reclusive qualities?

I enjoy time by myself, so to speak. I’m very comfortable in, not being alone per se, but in really taking the time and enjoying time on my own. I have to work to really insert myself in the community or make myself available to really be vulnerable with the community. I can have a somewhat reclusive nature. In high school, I had a difficult time talking to girls. I was never the best communicator so I think I would do things that would make that easier, try to make myself more attractive by dressing well. I got best dressed in high school!

That is actually not surprising at all!

Thank you! It was always a really natural thing, something I was very conscious of because it would make it a little easier. I didn’t have to put the emphasis on communicating. Choices you make, what you choose to put on it communicates something for you and it takes pressure off of you having to communicate verbally so much.

Is that still something you think about today, or have you found more confidence in yourself?

It’s not something I think a lot about anymore, no. It’s funny, things have changed a little bit now because I think with more of the millennial or hipster generation, at least in the U.S., there’s so much of a focus on fashion — maybe too much of a focus on it. It’s become almost a social requirement to be wearing the coolest thing. That element has always existed but today it feels like there’s more of an emphasis than what there was in years past. For me, I’ve always recognized it as a way to say something about yourself or to help you feel more comfortable in certain environments.

Being on your own isn’t always a bad thing, though. Todd Haynes said that he has to feel a bit alone or isolated in order to be inspired.

That’s true, I mean, with Green Book, I think I definitely connected with Don Shirley from that standpoint. I think that’s what was probably my first point of contact with that character. He had a really difficult time finding a community or a tribe, he didn’t have a place in the genre of music that he really wished to play — I had my own experience of not really fully fitting in.

When did you eventually find your place?

I found my place when I stopped looking for it. Of course, for him, there was a lot of things that contributed to his state of isolation: his sexuality, but also the fact that the type of music he was most passionate about was classical music and that wasn’t a form of music that was ever sold or promoted to African Americans…

Being from California, how much were the issues of segregation and racism that we encounter in Green Book part of your education or part of the conversation?

I’m not that far removed from it. My grandfather was only 42 years older than I am and he went to Crocket Colored High School. I’m 43 years older than my daughter, so to imagine someone who is basically old enough to be your parent having gone to a school that was for blacks only… I was born six years after Dr. King was assassinated. I’ve really benefited from a lot of the work that was achieved during the Civil Right Movement and the work that continued to happen afterwards. The Affirmative Action policies really contributed to me being able to go to college. But you know, a lot of our communities to this day are still very much segregated.

On a more personal scale, how do you experience that kind of discrimination yourself?

Of course it’s not an easy time… Someone calls you the n-word or I’ve had experiences where I’ve been unjustifiably pulled over or questioned or examined. I’ve had several experiences like that. They may not happen as frequently as they once did, but they haven’t necessarily gone away. That’s the celebrity element in it, I think. It’s never easy to respond in a dignified manner, but you can sort of train yourself as best as possible to react that way.

“We always have to err on the side of non-violence because we’re the ones paying the consequences for responding in an arguably justifiable manner.”

Don Shirley, the character you play in the film, is a perfect example of that.

Because for an African American, from the time we came into the country, we’ve had to conduct ourselves in a way that required us to really think through how we respond. The stakes were always so high for us. We always have to err on the side of non-violence because we so often can be in a position where we’re the ones paying the consequences for responding in an arguably justifiable manner. I think in the long run, I think responding with being contained and responding in a dignified manner is best.

I guess the other side of the coin would be Viggo Mortensen’s character in the film, who confronts injustice with hostility and even aggression.

Well, there does comes a point where it may be necessary to take a different tactic. I think if every person were to turn the other cheek every time they’ve been confronted with violent behavior, many of us wouldn’t be here. So, at times, it’s necessary to take a different approach. Countries don’t necessarily turn the other cheek when they’re being threatened a takeover by another country, right? We would have empires all over the world if that were the case. So, you can’t necessarily react in the way that Dr. King or Don Shirley would react 100% of the time, but it should be considered as the first response.