Mahershala Ali finally got the leading role he wanted

In a fairer world, Mahershala Ali, one of America’s most gifted actors, could have starred in at least a dozen films to date.

He certainly paid his membership dues and then some. Over the past two decades, the 47-year-old actor has starred or starred in prestigious series (“HBO’s True Detective”), sci-fi series (“The Hunger Games”) and thrillers. the network-defining political freak (“of Netflix” The Bookmaker). In 2017, he won his first Academy Award for his performance in “Moonlight” a master class of what you can do with just 20 minutes or so on screen and two years later a second Oscar for his performance in “Green Book.”

So it might come as a shock to learn that Ali had never starred in a feature film before, until his stardom became the star of a sci-fi movie. “Swan Song,” currently streaming on Apple TV+.

“I’ve always felt like a latecomer,” Ali said.

On a recent morning, during a wide-ranging video interview from his home in the San Francisco Bay Area, Ali, dressed in a black jacket over a white shirt. Team Ikuzawa The T-shirt is about “Swan Song,” the debut play by Irish director Benjamin Cleary.

As if to make up for lost time, Ali plays not only one main character in the sci-fi movie but two main characters: Cameron, a husband who is terminally ill and the father of a 5-year-old son. age; and Jack, the perfect clone of himself – with all his memories – whom Cameron’s wife and children don’t know, will soon take his place to relieve them of their sorrow and pain. to watch him die. In some scenes, Ali shares the stage with Ali, with only himself to fight back. “It’s fun after hard work,” he said with a smile. “Have fun after you overcome difficulties.”

It’s a tortuous life journey that brings him to “Swan Song,” with stops and starts and moments of doubt along the way. Like the time he was in his sophomore year in New York University’s prestigious graduate acting program and considered giving it all up to go back to work as a deckhand in San Francisco. “I’m still in the union,” he said, “and it’s a good amount of money.”

Or another time, during his acting career, when he took a year and a half off from work to take care of his ailing grandfather. “He had a stroke in 2010, and I almost dropped everything,” he said. “I’m living in Las Vegas and taking care of him, just me and my grandmother.”

And there are other reasons why the actor is currently only starring in his first film. He explained that the industry was a lot different when he first started – more stratifying between feature films and series, making feature film roles, let alone feature film leads, more harder for television actors like himself. People who start out in television are considered only TV actors, and so his goal is just to be the best TV actor he can be. He did well into the third season of his third series, “The 4400,” before he was finally asked to “step into Brad Pitt’s character” (a monstrous child whose character of Ali actually came across in a nursing home) in “The Curious The Case of Benjamin Button. ”

Other movie roles followed – in “The place beyond the pine trees“”The Hunger Games”And, in 2016,“Moonlight”—but no leads.

Around the time “Moonlight” was released, a columnist for The New York Times admitted that Ali’s rise was, unlike some of his peers, “unmeasured. ”

“When I look at my trajectory, my start is a bit slow, if you think about where I am at the moment,” Ali said.

Even so, many of the supporting roles he gets are roles that any actor would kill, like Juan in “Moonlight“, A tough-looking drug dealer bursts with love for a young criminal. “I’ve never seen that character,” he said. Or Don Shirley, the African-American pianist in biopic”Green Book“Who hired an Italian-American janitor, played by Viggo Mortensen, to be his servant in the Deep South. “He was the most graceful rebel type you could be,” Ali said of the musician. “Someone very clever and cunning found a way to tweak the system by hiring a white guy to carry his bags in and out of the hotel and act as his bodyguard, 1962? I thought it was genius.”

“Swan Song” came to Ali in 2019, after he read the script and asked to meet Cleary, its writer. Cleary won an Oscar for his 2015 short film,”Stuttering person, ”But never directed a feature film before. After a “really great conversation” between the two, Ali said yes to the project. “It was one of the best moments of my life,” Cleary recalls.

Scoring Ali at the top 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 together on “Moonlight,” was cast as Poppy Turner, Cameron’s wife. “I worked for Moonlight for three days, and with Mahershala maybe 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 more time on “Swan Song,” Harris discovered that she and Ali approached acting in very similar ways. “We both really didn’t like the rehearsals,” she said. “We just love to do our own thing, then dive in and see what happens in the moment. A lot of actors don’t really enjoy working like that, so it’s a blessing that he likes to work in exactly the same way. ”

Awkwafina (“Crazy Rich Asians,” “The Farewell”) was cast as Kate, a fellow patient Cameron befriended during the cloning process. Like Cameron, Kate is dying and creates a clone to care for her mother and young daughter. “This particular experience was so intense for me, because I lost my mother at a very young age,” she said. “It took me into a very strange kind of mind space.”

With this theme in mind, it helped Awkwafina have Ali appear steady on set – even as he was also playing a character struggling with the terrible prospect of not being able to say goodbye to the people he lost. dear and die alone. “He’s a really strong actor, but he also has a really calm energy when playing his co-stars,” she said. “It was probably one of the best experiences I’ve had on set.”

Ali’s performance on “Swan Song” was met with critical acclaim (The Times praised his “focus and presence” and “exquisitely refined talent”). And not surprisingly, there are several other main roles in the works. In the coming months, he’ll be making a biopic about legendary boxer Jack Johnson, whose story inspired the 1970 classic “The Great White Hope,” starring by 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 lead role in the upcoming and highly anticipated Marvel Comics film “Blade,” which was introduced at the end of “Eternals”; Ali, though, won’t say a thing about it because Marvel won’t let him. “It’s like when women are in their first trimester,” he says.

So will all these leads be somehow sweeter because of the wait?

“It never happens to some people, you know,” he said. “And so when I look at it, I’m going to accept and accept that it took 21 years to happen.” He added that he has long tried to use every moment on set or on screen as an opportunity to learn. “I think things happened at their right time for me.” Mahershala Ali finally got the leading role he wanted

Fry Electronics Team

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