"I'm excited about this opportunity in my career to really grow and almost get my second wind," the actor Mahershala Ali tells me as we sit down at the Empire Hotel in New York to record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter's 'Awards Chatter' podcast. Ali is in town for the U.S. premiere of Barry Jenkins' indie drama Moonlight, in which he plays a drug dealer who becomes something of a father figure to a sexually conflicted young boy, and for which Ali - a 42-year-old heretofore best known for playing the slick political operative Remy Danton on Netflix's House of Cards - already has received some of the best reviews of his career. "I'm so appreciative that people have begun to recognize my work in a way where it can afford me more opportunities," he continues. "I've felt like I've been holding in a sneeze for 20 years, and now I have the chance to let it out."
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Ali was born to teenage parents - his father went on to become a Broadway actor and his mother an ordained minister - in a working-class section of Oakland. An athletic prodigy in multiple sports, he won a basketball scholarship to Saint Mary's College of California, where his focus shifted greatly: Under the tutelage of the late Brother Ray Berta, he began crafting poetry-slam compositions. "We would kinda work on the pieces, almost like monologues, and I kinda started performing," Ali recalls. "Then I would come back every semester when he got to that point in the curriculum and would present them - and almost workshop them - so that the rest of the class could see how to take this part of that assignment. That was really my true introduction to acting."
After graduating from SMC, Ali was one of 18 accepted to NYU's MFA acting program, where he honed his skills to the extent that he subsequently was accepted into "Cal Shakes," the Bay-area California Shakespeare Festival, and ultimately relocated to Los Angeles to pursue opportunities there. After doing some episodic television, he was cast in a small part in David Fincher's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which he looks back on as "the big break, though it wasn't a breakout part," since it established relationships that would later prove valuable, but didn't immediately boost his career. Fun fact: During the lean years thereafter, he was called in - but had "a horrible audition" - for a part on HBO's Game of Thrones.
It's a good thing Ali didn't land that part, though, because it would have precluded him from landing the part that did prove to be his breakout: Remy, the ambitious political operative who succumbs to love, on House of Cards. "It was the end of pilot season in 2012," he recalls. "My manager called me and said, 'Hey, there's a series at Neflix.' I'm like, 'Netflix? Oh, boy.' At that time, it was just a strange thing to hear. It's like going, 'There's a series at Blockbuster.'" But it quickly became apparent that House of Cards was the real deal, with Fincher directing the pilot and Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in the leads, so Ali was thrilled when he learned he had been cast. Ali was Remy for the show's first four seasons, the most recent of which was unveiled earlier this year and resulted in him being nominated for an Emmy for best guest actor in a drama series. "I really loved playing him," he says.
Even while doing House of Cards, Ali made time to act in films, as well. He says he learned a lot playing rebel leader Boggs in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1 (2014) and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2 (2015), which afforded him the chance to work with Jennifer Lawrence, Julianne Moore, Woody Harrelson and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. He paid homage to his ancestors playing an escaped slave in Free State of Jones (2016). And, in Moonlight - on which he worked for just eight days, shuttling between the sets of House of Cards, Luke Cage (another Netflix series in which he's now appearing) and another project - he had "if not the, then one of the, best experiences of my life" working with Jenkins, he says. "I don't know if I've learned as much on a project as I did working with Barry."
Ali says he recognized something special about Moonlight from the moment he first read the script. "I just got it," he says. "I understood it, and it intimidated me to some degree, but it was the most beautiful script I'd ever read. I cried reading that script." His character, a Cuban immigrant named Juan, becomes a role model for the young boy, conflicted about his sexual identity, at the center of the film. And although Juan has limited screen time, his influence is felt throughout.
In the meantime, as glowing Moonlight reviews pour in from film festivals around the world ahead of its Oct. 21 release, Ali is charging full steam ahead. He'll soon be seen in the Christmas release Hidden Figures. He's just signed up to play a major part in the James Cameron-produced/Robert Rodriguez-directed film Alita: Battle Angel. And, on Luke Cage, he's helping to bring to life a form of entertainment he never thought he'd live to see: the story of a black superhero (Mike Colter's eponymous character, whose nemesis is Ali's Cottonmouth). "When I was growing up, in the '80s and '90s, I just never really saw myself reflected in the things that I had a liking for," Ali acknowledges. "It makes a difference."