How Mahershala Ali Became a Virtuoso Pianist For His Golden Globes-Winning Green Book Role

Whether he's playing a Florida drug dealer with a moral compass in Moonlight or a slick Capitol Hill operative in House of Cards, Mahershala Ali possesses a dignity and elegance that's all too natural to him. That poised sense of self truly shines when playing Don Shirley, a virtuoso pianist who had to perform his way through the Jim Crow South in Green Book, which won Best Comedy or Musical at the 2019 Golden Globes on Sunday night—and of course, Best Supporting Actor for Ali's performance. The road trip buddy movie (which costars Viggo Mortensen as Ali's considerably less elegant driver and occasional bodyguard against the open racism Shirley encounters in the Deep South) has seen its share of controversy of late—some of which Ali addressed backstage at the Globes—but that shouldn't take anything away from a wonderful performance. Here, the actor reveals exactly how he got into character, not to mention his other secret talents.

So when you first got the script were you familiar with Don Shirley?

Dr. Don Shirley. The man with three doctorates. [Laughs.] No I wasn't. I wasn't aware of a Don Shirley, and so immediately I start looking for his music on iTunes, and digging to see what I could find. I found him in a documentary called Lost Bohemia. It was the only real footage I could get of him. And that's where I sort of began to get ideas and sort of discover his rhythms and just how he carried himself. But you see someone on video, you can kinda get a sense their essence or something behind the eyes, and get in touch with the something beyond even their personality. And so in seeing him on tape there was something that I got to latch onto or connect with, which was a huge help.

Is this the first time you've played a real person?

Pretty much. Yes. You know, there was a smaller film I did, like a TV movie I did many years ago, a solitary confinement story about a gentleman who was still alive, but this is my first feature, I believe.

Was that nerve-racking or was that exciting or did that enter into it at all? Because you have to go with the parameters of who he really was, which is different than just—

Creating something out of thin air. Yeah. There's a healthy pressure there that exists to, I don't wanna say, "Get it right," but to get it true. And so I did the best that I could, as I always do the best I can.

Mahershala Ali wears a Prada suit; his own top and bracelet. Amy Adams wears a Givenchy dress and belt.

Photograph by Tim Walker; Styled by Sara Moonves.

Well, you were amazing. And did you know how to play the piano?

Well, thank you. [Laughs.] I didn't know how to play the piano. I took some lessons with this brother, this gentleman by the name of Kris Bowers. We worked for about three months going into it. The goal, honestly, was not to learn how to play Chopin in three months. That's not happening. [Laughs.] But it was to give myself an opportunity to really sit at that piano and discover how that would inform the rest of my performance. And to embrace the dexterity of the instrument, knowing that once we start shooting, and I'm having to pretend to be playing the piano, that I still have to know where I am in my character arc, because every time I play the piano he's in a different moment.

Right. What I also loved about your performance was there was such a joy and a sense of control when he's in the position of being the musician. You can feel his sadness, his fear, his isolation a little more. The minute he's with his band in even the most bigoted environments, he feels there's a sense of control and a sense of empowerment.

And there's like this therapeutic space for the music in his world. We come off the tale end of an event, and it leads right to this one moment in the film where there's an anger in the playing that you can't necessarily express verbally.

Yes.

He's not in a position where it wouldn't benefit him to yell at someone or to hit someone or what have you. But that's his relationship with his instrument, though. Like, he can do all that there. And so I think that there has to be a peace in knowing that. That's the place where you get to work your things out, where you get to express yourself, where you get to communicate something on a vibrational level. Whether people understand that or not, who are experiencing that in the audience, it's still him getting to release that. So I do think that, you know, he existed in his fullness when he's at the piano, at least in our story.

Well, you're such a naturally elegant person, but even when you're sitting there, naked onscreen, he looks completely beautiful and elegant.

Ah, well, thank you. [Laughs.] You know, one of the first things I did, especially upon the little bit of footage I saw of Doctor Shirley... he almost was like a dancer, the way he moved, so the first thing I did, I had to open up my chest and make sure that my back was not only straight, but maybe at least for me it felt like it was sort of swooping back. And so that was one of the first things I did, which at a certain point all the muscles started, like, hurting in the back. And I worked with a woman by the name of Denise Woods, who's a speech and dialect coach, and I just wanted to make sure that I was able to sort of capture this more nasally sound and a higher pitch and let the voice and the body inform each other.

Was there a particular item of clothing or something that gave you a key into playing him?

The ascot. The ascot. [Laughter.] The ascot to me spoke... there's something about that, like, once [costume designer] Betsy Heimann and I locked in on that. To me it felt like it helped the character just kinda pop into alignment. And I can't explain why. But there's this beautiful blue suit that he wears, and between that blue suit and that ascot, like, something about that, like, the characters sort of clicked for me in my mind.

After you won the Oscar for Moonlight, how did your life change? You also had a child.

Yes. I mean, that, my life definitely... I think we can all look back at periods in our life, and relative to whatever it is that we do we can say that, "Hold this right here, this is when there's a significant shift in my life." And you hope that that's positive, and sometimes it's more challenging than what people would like to think. But for me that was a really positive time, and it has remained positive. It was dense going into [the Oscars], my wife having just given birth a couple of days earlier, so I'm already all foggy, and then my name was called. I didn't have a speech going there in case I won, so I'm just nervous in general all around. And so it was just all... I've watched [the speech] back a couple of times and I can remember it as I watch it back, but just thinking to myself and sort of digging in the recesses of my mind, like it was just, it's not really there. It just happened so quickly and it was so full that it was just a crazy experience, especially with Moonlight

The ending.

It was just all a little confusing. [Laughter.]

Sometimes I forget that you guys won Best Picture.

Exactly. Sometimes someone would say congratulations to Moonlight winning, and I was like, "Oh yeah, that did happen." Because it felt like La La Land won, and so many of those guys are friends of mine as well, so you're happy for them, but then they said, "Hey, actually Moonlight won," and then you're happy but you're kinda like, "Ooh, I don't really feel like I can celebrate because it was just announced that our friends won," so it was such a convoluted win. [Laughs.]

I love the movie—you know how I feel about Moonlight—but would you ever have dreamed when you read that script that it would end up where it ended up? It's so amazing. It kinda makes you believe in anything.

Yes and no. And the reason I say that is because it was the best thing I had ever read. And so for someone to say, "Hey, I'm gonna hand you the script and this is gonna win you the Oscar for best film..." I could read that script and say, "I see how that would happen." Because it was that good. But going back and coming off of what Barry [Jenkins] was coming from and the producers and whatnot, it was all so small and intimate. Like, we didn't really have trailers, the wardrobe and costume department and actors, like, we were all getting dressed in one tiny trailer and every department is in one trailer. And we're sittin' on, like, the icebox or the cooler, like, there's no real chairs. Everybody is just made the movie with a couple of bags of nickels. And Naomi [Harris] came in and shot the entire film in three days, you know, it was all a little wild, so, in its execution it felt crazy. But it also felt clear to me that we were doing something special. Everyone would have legitimately done it for free.

I want a prequel. Let's have a prequel.

Yes, yes.

All right, so let's ask you some questions about yourself. What is your secret skill? What are you good at that people would be surprised that you're good at?

I used to be a barber.

You used to be a barber?

Yeah. I used to barber. I started barbering when I was 12.

Wow. Who taught you?

My mom was a hair stylist. I taught myself, actually. My mom did, like, perms. She used to work in a shop and then eventually she got remarried and had one of my brothers—I have two brothers, they're much younger than I am—but so she started working out of the home so my house in the 80's smelled like perm. Every weekend she had people coming in and out. But, you know, I hit that junior high age, and I wanted to start looking cute for the girls, you know, and my generation is a generation that got super conscious with, like, hair, lining, blinds, and flattops and gumbies and all these cuts. And my mom wasn't really cutting my hair often enough, it was kinda like a once-a-month thing and I kinda wanted my hair cut like every week or every two weeks, and so I just started playing with it and doing stuff. So I started cutting when I was about 12.

And then people would come over and you'd cut their hair?

Mmhmm. By the time I was, like, 13, I was cuttin' other people's hair. I still cut my hair most of the time.

Really? So you can do a gumby?

Mmhmm. I could do all those.

Could you do a jheri curl? Or one that involves chemicals.

That's chemicals, that's product, and knowin' all that. My mom did that back in the day. I didn't do that. I just barbered.

That's a fantastic skill. Sometimes when you're on set it must come in handy.

I did it until Green Book and True Detective. I did my hair for every other project. Didn't help. But I have input on the characters, so like with True Detective a lot of it for me was like... it's a funny thing with the work. With doin' the work you have to sort of release and let go of your vanity. You gotta, like, fight yourself because you're like, "This wig looks crazy on me, it looks terrible." But then you also have to go, "But that's great, because that creates the character," so you let that go. On the flip side, in championing these projects and promoting them, you have to sort of embrace the vanity aspect of it to tell people about how you weren't vain. [Laughter.] It's an interesting thing.

Right. Well you got on a lot of Best Dressed lists, so something must be going right.

Thank you. I always loved to get dressed. I was a kid who picked out my clothes the night before, and then wake up in the morning and be like, "Ah, this don't feel right," and you go off and you find the other thing, or whatnot. But I always enjoyed puttin' a outfit together as a kid.

Did you have a particular favorite outfit as a kid?

No, because it was always, you know, anything you start the school year out with. So you do the school shopping and you excited 'cause you got the new what have you, and you wear, like, something that's not even... because these clothes gotta last you at least till Christmas, until you get, like, a new influx of some clothes, right? So it's California, the Bay Area, and it's September 3rd, you're goin' to school with, like, a turtleneck on, with like some sweater on over it just because I like that outfit. [Laughter.] I'd be sweatin' and whatnot, but you look good.

I want to see pictures.

What we do to suffer for our beauty.

Yes. Do you have any fears? Fears of insects? Fears of heights?

Oh, rats. Oh, I'm not good with no rats. No. That's my thing, rats. Mice, no.

Have you ever had to act with mice or rats?

Uh, yes. In the new season of True Detective. There's a scene that... Stephen Dorff and I both are not big fans of rats and so we both, you know, we got to lean on each other to manage that moment. It was originally supposed to be many [rats], and they got that down to a couple, and took care of us. So, yeah, that's my thing. Rats.