Mahershala Ali backstage at the 2017 Academy Awards

February 27, 2017

by Carla Hay

The 89th Annual Academy Awards took place on February, 26, 2017, at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles.

MAHERSHALA ALI

Oscar win:

Best Supporting Actor

(“Moonlight”)

Here is what this Oscar winner said backstage in the Academy Awards press room.

Mahershala Ali at the 2017 Academy Awards in Los Angeles
Mahershala Ali at the 2017 Academy Awards in Los Angeles. (Photo by Mike Baker/©A.M.P.A.S.)

BACKSTAGE INTERVIEW

You are one of the few Muslim actors to win an Oscar. This says a lot at this particular time in our history. Could you speak to that, please? 

Well, regardless of one’s theology or however you see life or relate to worshipping God, as an artist my job is the same, and it’s to tell the truth, and try to connect with these characters and these people as honestly and as deeply as possible. And so one’s spiritual practice, I don’t necessarily feel like it’s as relevant unless it gives you a way into having more empathy for these people that you have to advocate for. I’m proud to own that. I embrace that. But, again, I’m just an artist who feels blessed to have had the opportunities that I have had and try to do the most with every opportunity that’s come my way.

The material in “Moonlight” is so personal to Tarell Alvin McCraney and Barry Jenkins, who both wrote the script. How much pressure did you feel to get it right?

I think I always want to walk away from any project feeling like the writer, director was pleased with what I had to offer. And considering the personal nature of this project, I think that … there was a need that felt a little heightened to me to get it truthful where they could walk away and feel like I really contributed to their film and didn’t screw it up considering that, you know, I was playing someone who had an extraordinary impact on Tarell’s life, and I’m actually glad I didn’t know ‘til later more the details of that, of Blue or Juan’s contribution to Tarell’s life, but it did. It added a layer of pressure.

First off, what went through your head when you read the script to begin with because it was such a beautiful film?  And what can you say about the Best Picture announcement mistake and kind of what went through your head hearing “La La Land” and then hearing “Moonlight” won after all?

Well, I sincerely say that when I read the script … Look, I don’t get to read everything, because there’s things that I’m just not remotely right for. Ryan Gosling and I read different scripts. It’s just what it is, right? As far as the scripts that I’ve read in my 17 years of doing it professionally, “Moonlight” was the best thing that has ever come across my desk.

And that character for the time that he was on the page really spoke to my heart, and I felt like I could hear him, I could sort of envision his presence. I had a real sense of who that person was, enough to start the journey. And I really wanted to be a part of that project, and I’m just so fortunate that Idris [Elba] and David Oyelowo left me a job.  You know, very, very kind of them.

So yeah, and then the second part of your question, “La La Land” has done so well and it’s resonated with so many people, especially in this time when people need a sense of buoyancy in their life and need some hope and light. So that film has really impacted people … in a very different way than “Moonlight.” And so when their name was read, I wasn’t surprised.  And I am really happy for them. It’s a group of some extraordinary people in front of the camera and behind the camera. So I was really happy for them.

And then when I did see security or people coming out on stage and their moment was being disrupted in some way, I got really worried. And then when they said Jordan Horowitz said, “”Moonlight,’ you guys have won,” it just threw me a bit because it threw me more than a bit, but, I didn’t want to go up there and take anything from somebody, and it’s very hard to feel joy in a moment like that. So, but I feel very fortunate … for all of us to have walked away with the Best Picture award. It’s pretty remarkable.

You used to be on “House of Cards.” What you think your fictional former “House f Cards” boss, Frank Underwood, would have to say about your win tonight and about the way the whole thing ended this evening?

“Bah humbug.” No. Kevin [Spacey], he’s been really supportive.  I think it’s a film that he really loved, and he’s told me. “House of Cards” is the reason I’m here. I’ve been working to that point 12 years, very steady employment for the most part, and then was finally able to be on something that really resonated with people in a way that honestly was a real shift in the culture. “House of Cards” was the first binge‑watched show that was ever binge watched, and so to be a part of that and that being something that feels really authentic for our culture and a real option in how we view and absorb and embrace content, that was that show. And so that’s the reason I’ve been able to put certain things together and even have this moment because of the four years I spent on “House of Cards.”

You seem to have very eclectic taste when it comes to picking your roles. Are you working on a project that you could share with us?

Well, there’s a project called “Alita: Battle Angel: that Robert Rodriguez is directing and James Cameron did in Austin. And I’m really excited about that. I actually play two parts in that film. That was a blast, and I literally wrapped that maybe two weeks ago. But then after that, I’m going to start something in a couple of months, and just honestly excited to read scripts and to have meetings and hopefully work with some more extraordinarily talented people like Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney, and this wonderful cast and crew of “Moonlight” and “Hidden Figures.” So I just feel very, very blessed to have had this award season and this experience.

What would you like to tell your newborn daughter right now in this world, that fatherly advice?

Just pray to be guided to your excellence. That’s it.

And winning an Oscar, that’s a journey that many actors want to be on, and it is a dream, and when they reach that dream, what’s next? So what is next for you?  And also, who are some of your role models that you have idolized?

So as far as what’s next, I think I’m going to try this way. I’m going to just look for material that I am inspired by and that I respond to and just try to do my best work, you know, and keep it about the work, working with great directors and writers and other extraordinary talented actors, because you want to be around people who are better than you and who can lift you up where you have raise your game. And I want to be inspired and just improve and do work that makes me uncomfortable, that scares me because anytime you get into the unknown, you get into that fearful space, that’s when you’re in new territory and you have the greatest opportunity to grow and improve as a talent or as an actor, an artist, and as a human being.

It’s very difficult to separate them for me, you know? So that’s how I would like to approach moving forward. And I think you asked me about who inspired me? Well, look, you know, we could talk about it till I’m some version of blue in the face, but the diversity topic, it’s very real in that when I was growing up—I’m 43 years old; I was born in 1974—and there weren’t a lot of [African-American] people on TV and films. When Billy Dee Williams was in “Star Wars,” like that was a big deal in my house and in my family, and it was somebody who was in the story that I could kind of attach to and say, Oh, wow, we’re present as well.

But for me, that person has always been Denzel Washington because, one, he’s just so damn talented. But, then, two, to see someone who comes from your tribe, so to speak, play at the level of all the other great ones and do it so well and be able to articulate his voice and his talent in a way that was on par with the very best, and he looks like you, too. You know what I mean, in that like, “Wow, there’s somebody who could be an uncle of mine.” Like, those are things that play in your mind as you move forward.

And also what I love about Denzel is not that he’s a great black actor, he’s a great actor. I’ve never looked at myself as a black actor. I’m an actor who happens to be African American, but I just want an opportunity to respond to material and bring whatever I bring to it in some unique fashion, and that’s it. But basically short story long, Denzel.