In a fairer world, Mahershala Ali, one of America’s most gifted actors, would have starred in at least a dozen films by now.
He certainly paid his dues and more. Over the past two decades, the 47-year-old actor has starred or played key roles in high-profile series (“HBO’s “True Detective”), sci-fi franchises (“The Hunger Games”) and thrillers policies defining the network (“True Detective” from Netflix). Card castle “). In 2017, he won his first Oscar for his performance in “Moonlight,” a masterclass in what you can do with just about 20 minutes of screen time, and a second Oscar two years later, for his performance. in “Green Book.”
So it may come as a shock to learn that Ali has never starred in a feature film before, not before his star starred in the sci-fi drama “Swan Song,” now streaming on Apple TV. +.
“I always felt a little behind,” Ali said.
One recent morning, in a wide video interview from his home in the San Francisco Bay Area, Ali, wearing a black jacket over a crisp white Team Ikuzawa t-shirt, talked about “Swan Song.” , the feature debut of Irish director Benjamin Cleary.
As if to make up for lost time, Ali plays not just one main character in the sci-fi drama, but two: Cameron, a terminally ill husband and father of a 5-year-old son; and Jack, the perfect clone of himself – with every memory he has – who, unbeknownst to Cameron’s wife and child, will soon replace him in order to spare them the heartache and pain of having to see him. pass away. In several scenes, Ali shares the stage with Ali, with only himself to play against. “It was fun after being difficult,” he said with a laugh. “Fun after going through the rough.”
It was a winding life journey that brought him to “Swan Song,” with stops and starts and moments of doubt along the way. Like the time he was a sophomore in New York University’s prestigious graduate acting program and was considering giving up everything to return to work as a deckhand in San Francisco. “I was still in the union,” he said, “and that’s a lot of money.”
Or another time, in the middle of his acting career, when he took a year and a half off to care for his ailing grandfather. “He had a stroke in 2010, and I kind of dropped everything,” he said. “I was living in Las Vegas and taking care of him, just me and my grandma.”
And there were other reasons why the actor is only now playing his first leading role. The industry was very different back when he was coming up, he explained – more stratified between movies and series, which made feature film roles, let alone feature lead roles, more difficult. to find for TV actors like him. Those who started out in television were only considered television actors, and so his goal was simply to be the best television actor he could be. He was well into the third season of his third series, “The 4400,” before he was finally called upon to “step on the character of Brad Pitt” (a monstrous child Ali’s character literally stumbles onto in a house of retirement) in “The Curious”. Benjamin Button case.
Other film roles followed — in “The Place Beyond the Pines,” “The Hunger Games” and, in 2016, “Moonlight” — but no leads.
When “Moonlight” was released, a New York Times writer admitted that Ali’s rise, unlike that of some of his peers, “hasn’t been meteoric.”
“When I look at my trajectory, my start was a bit slow, if you think about where I am right now,” Ali said.
Even so, many of the supporting roles he got were ones any actor would kill for, like Juan in “Moonlight,” a tough-as-nails drug dealer brimming with love for his young charge. “I hadn’t seen this character,” he said. Or Don Shirley, the African-American pianist from the biopic “Green Book” who hired an Italian-American bouncer, played by Viggo Mortensen, to serve as his valet in the Deep South. “He was the most graceful type of rebel you could be,” Ali said of the musician. “Someone who was so smart and cunning and figured out a way to get around the system by hiring a white man to carry his bags in and out of a hotel and be his bodyguard, in 1962? I thought that was genius.
“Swan Song” came to Ali in 2019, after reading the script and asking to meet Cleary, its writer. Cleary won an Oscar for his 2015 short, “Stutterer,” but had never directed a feature film before. After just one “really good conversation” between the two, Ali said yes to the project. “It was one of the happiest moments of my life,” Cleary recalled.
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Marking Ali in the lead made the rest of the casting process exponentially easier. “Every actor wants to work with Mahershala,” Cleary said.
Naomie Harris (“Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom,” “No Time to Die”), who first met Ali while working on “Moonlight” together, has been cast as Poppy Turner, the Cameron’s wife. “I worked on ‘Moonlight’ for three days, and with Mahershala for about a day and a half,” she said. “But then we spent seven months promoting the film, and that’s when we really got to know each other.”
With the added luxury of spending time on “Swan Song,” Harris found that she and Ali approached acting very similarly. “We really don’t like rehearsals,” she said. “We just like to do our own thing on our own and then dive in and see what happens in the moment. A lot of actors don’t really like working like that, so it was just a blessing that he likes working the exact same way.
Awkwafina (“Crazy Rich Asians”, “The Farewell”) was cast as Kate, another patient Cameron befriends during the cloning process. Like Cameron, Kate is dying and creates a clone to care for her mother and young daughter. “That specific experience was very intense for me, because I lost my mother at a very young age,” she said. “It put me in a very strange mental space.”
Given the subject matter, it helped Awkwafina to have Ali as a constant presence on set – even though he also played a character who struggled with the terrible prospect of not being able to say goodbye to loved ones and dying alone. “He’s a really powerful actor, but he also has a very calming energy as a stage partner,” she said. “It was probably one of the best experiences I’ve had on set.”
Ali’s performance in “Swan Song” has already garnered rave reviews (The Times praised his “focus and presence” and “incredibly honed talents”). And unsurprisingly, there are several other leading roles in the works. In the coming months, he will be working on a biopic about legendary boxer Jack Johnson, whose story inspired the classic 1970 film “The Great White Hope,” which starred James Earl Jones; as well as an adaptation of Rumaan Alam’s 2020 novel “Leave the World Behind”, in which Ali will star alongside Julia Roberts and Ethan Hawke.
And then there’s his starring role in the upcoming and highly anticipated Marvel Comics movie “Blade,” which was teased in the closing credits of “Eternals”; Ali, however, wouldn’t say anything about it because Marvel wouldn’t let him. “It’s kind of like when a woman is in her first trimester,” he said.
So, will all of these lead roles somehow be sweeter because of the wait?
“That never happens for some people, you know,” he said. “And so, when I watch it, I will accept and understand that it took 21 years to happen.” He added that from the start, he tried to use every moment on set or screen as a learning opportunity. “I think things happened at the right time for me.”