To nearly everyone's surprise, the actor Mahershala Ali didn't take home a Best Supporting Actor Golden Globe last night for his stirring performance as a a drug dealer turned father figure in Moonlight. In fact, many felt both he and the film, which was nominated in six categories and took home only one statue—admittedly, it was for top prize Best Drama—were snubbed over the course of the evening. Ali, though, just misses playing the breakthrough character that may define his late-blooming career. Here, he looks back at his beginnings as an actor, and even further back at his first kiss.
What was the first professional job you auditioned for?
The first job I auditioned for was [the play] The Great White Hope, playing a version of [the boxer] Jack Johnson—but [in the play he was named] Jack Jefferson—at Arena Stage right out of school. I got that [part].
Had you been a boxer?
No. But I wanted to play him desperately, and I knew quite a bit about the play.
Did you see James Earl Jones do it?
Not at that point, but shortly after that I watched the film. And Arena Stage, where I did it, was where the play originated. They were doing it for the 50th anniversary of the theater, in 2000.
What was the first movie you auditioned for?
A film called Pig Music, which later got changed to Making Revolution. The director Dan Klein, a friend, wanted me to go in for this character Malik, a smaller character that popped up a few times. I remember I called him up and said, “Man, look, Malik’s cool. But this guy Mac—he’s amazing.” He was the lead of the film. He was like, “Yeah, but he’s white.” I said, "Yes, Mac is white. But his sister is adopted and she’s Indian. I could be adopted, too." Dan thought about it and he was like, “All right, come in tomorrow.” I went in the next day and auditioned. He called me later: “Man, you got the part.”
How did Moonlight come about?
I was in L.A. for a few days, and at my new agent’s office. And one of the agents walked up and said, “Hey, Mahershala, you gotta read this movie Moonlight. It’s amazing.” And my manager had just said something to me about Moonlight, like, 10 minutes earlier. And then we’re having a meeting, and my agent brings it up. So it came up three times in about a 45 minute period, and that has never happened before with any project. The buzz for this film that had [a budget of] a bag of nickels was pretty amazing—it preceded me actually getting to read it. And I was absolutely blown away by it. It brought me to tears several times.
Did you have to audition?
You never know how things are going to come your way, because Moonlight was one of those projects that I didn’t have to audition for. I shot a small film in 2014 called Kicks. And I remember when I got the offer on Kicks, I was in season three of House of Cards. I was so blessed to have a job on a series, but also there’s a danger in doing a series that I’m sure a lot of actors would share with you, which is that once you’ve been on a series for a few years you can get typecast. When you’re on a large show like House of Cards, and you have acting ADD like myself, you just want to keep it moving. So I got really hungry to do other stuff at a certain point, because I’m a young, hungry actor—well, not young, young enough. And so I got this offer to do Kicks, which was a character that was really surprising to me because I hadn’t shown up to that point that I could play a character from sort of an urban world, especially being known at that point for House of Cards. And I had a great time working on it. A year later, [the producer] Adela Romanski, who has been an extraordinary ally for me, mentioned me to Barry [Jenkins, the writer-director of Moonlight]. He was like, “Eh, he’s a little straight-laced for Juan.”
Because of House of Cards.
Exactly. And she was like, “Well, let me show you something.” Adela showed Barry my two scenes from Kicks, and I got the offer. That was my audition, having already played someone of that world. Barry needed to see me where I didn’t have a suit on. Remy [my character on House of Cards] is a very smooth, clean, suave dude. I think those scenes helped give Barry the confidence to make me Juan.
You’re really wonderful. Almost all your scenes are with Alex Hibbert [who plays young Chiron]. How old was he?
Probably nine or 10. Alex, that kid is a gift. He is such a beautiful little being. You know, I’ve been acting for 23, 24 years. And you know, maybe I have something to say to a young man like Alex who is now 11, I think. But the flip side of that experience is you can forget to be a student. Because you’ve done it so much, you can get lulled into believing that you know what you’re doing. So when you get around a young boy or girl, they have an exuberance and capacity to take in information with such a strong degree of excitement and curiosity, and on top of that have this purity, that for me it became a reminder to work not to work—to try not to act, to just trust and let it go. Just try to be. That quality is something that is easy to lose, at a certain point. To work with a young actor like that, I really do believe I got more from working with him than I could really give him.
And then Janelle Monae, as well—and it being her first acting experience. Maybe I was just more open on this particular gig, but I learned so much from working on Moonlight. I was invested in a way that I can’t say I’ve ever been. I want to be that invested on every project, but I would leave working on Moonlight to go work on something else—I was working on several things—and I would really miss Juan. I would miss Barry. It would kind of ache in a way that I wasn’t accustomed to. I missed being out there and staying in his skin. I definitely mourned saying goodbye to Juan.
Who’s your cinematic crush?
Tough question. Um, I really love Don Cheadle’s work. That brother is so good to me. A friend of mine who is extraordinarily good is Tessa Thompson. I can’t wait for her to be seen more. She’s extraordinary. I got to work with her on a play. Seeing anything Meryl Streep has done. There are so many people that I’m blown away by... Gary Oldman, that dude is a genius.
What is your favorite Gary Oldman performance?
The Professional, which I saw as a kid. Oh, Jeffrey Wright; I love Jeffrey Wright. I saw Jeffrey Wright on Broadway in, like, ’91 or ’92, in Angels in America, then later on in Basquiat. I have always wanted to see him get to do more. He’s one of those brothers that go way, way back that I really appreciate. I’m also really inspired by Andre Holland, who’s in Moonlight. Andre is one of those dudes who I think is gonna be around a really long time. He’s got something to say, the way he processes character and puts them together. I can go on.
Where was your first kiss?
I was in like fifth grade, in Hayward, CA. I was coming back from school and, you know, kids doing that whole, “Are you gonna kiss? You’re not gonna kiss her! You’re not gonna kiss!” So I think we were in someone’s backyard or something. Jennifer McKissack was her name, actually, funny enough. Isn’t that crazy?
And did you make the first move or did she?
I think it was kind of a mutual first move. It was, like, talked about: “So we’re gonna kiss today after school.”
How was it?
It was cool. I have a better story, actually. I was in first grade and I went to this school that had, I don’t know, maybe 200 people. And this girl, Kelly Creighton, was so cute. She was a year older than me, so she was in second grade. We were in a class together. So I get this note in class—it says, “Hey Hershel,"—they called me Hershel back then, don’t you dare—"will you go with me? Check yes or no.” So I’m like, "Oh, yes." I send the note back to Kelly. And I’m like, "Me and Kelly are going together, me and Kelly are going together. Me and Kelly are going together." I’m sitting there, geeked. And then I get a note. I’m like, "Oh, it’s from my girlfriend." I open it up: “I want to break up. You talk too much.”