After Moonlight won the 2017 Oscar for Best Picture, director Barry Jenkins paid a visit to Mahershala Ali. Ali and his wife, Amatus Sami Karim, were still living in an unassuming bungalow in Venice, California—by all measures modest for a man who had just starred in the breakout film of the year. As Jenkins looked around the house, he saw photos of family and the Moonlight cast and crew, and a few other awards, but not Ali’s Best Supporting Actor statuette. Finally, he found it in the kitchen, sitting up high on a back shelf. “He saw me looking at it,” Jenkins recalled. “I asked him why he kept it up there, and he said, ‘No totems.’”
“He didn’t want to be beholden to it,” Jenkins told me. “It was this thing that he did because he had to do it. He felt compelled to bring that character to life.”
This is, perhaps, the type of actor story that’s often told to signal humility, seriousness, and dedication to the craft. But it also gets at something about Ali, which is that he’s the rare performer with the chops to be a great character actor who actually became a star. It can be easy to still think of him as an up-and-comer, but you’ve got to have Oscars before you can hide them in the kitchen. The fact is, every Ali project since Moonlight has been an event: another Supporting Actor win for Best Picture Green Book in 2018; the rescue of HBO’s popular but controversy-mired True Detective with a superb lead performance in 2019; a cool extended cameo in the second season of Ramy, Hulu’s award-winning series about Muslim-American identity, in 2020.
Now there’s Swan Song, an Apple TV+ movie produced by Ali that looks set to put him in the Oscar conversation again—he’s already nominated for a Golden Globe, alongside Denzel Washington and Will Smith—and that technically represents his first true leading role. “I’ve never carried a movie,” Ali told me when we met up recently in New York. “When I look at contemporaries who do the type of work that I do, they’ve been leading movies for 15 years. Anthony Mackie. David Oyelowo. Idris Elba. I always wanted to have a character and have the space and have the arc, and the responsibility of carrying that, because I’ve always witnessed other people do it. And so I just wanted that shot to get to do it.”
Swan Song is set about 20 years in the future, and Ali plays Cameron, a terminally ill man who has to decide whether or not to be replaced by a clone after he dies. The catch: Neither his family nor his friends will know that he’s been replaced. The role entails that recent hallmark of actorly ambition: playing across from yourself, thanks to the magic of studio trickery. Refreshingly, race is never explicitly mentioned—it’s not a Black story, but a human one, told by Black performers.
When I asked Ali whether fame has changed him, he replied quickly. “I hope so,” he said. “I never liked that thing when people say, Yo, if you blow up, don’t change. I think that is the stupidest thing anybody can say.… If it’s 80 degrees outside, and it was 20 degrees the day before, and you don’t get rid of those layers, you’re going to burn up, right?”
This doesn’t mean Ali has enlisted an entourage, stays out late partying, or drives around in a supercar. Stardom has made him more protective, and even more deliberate. He knows that his words now carry weight, and an errant comment about a colleague or a political issue can inadvertently drive a news cycle. The public is fascinated by his private life, making it even more important that he guard it.
“There’s certain things my wife and I can’t do anymore. You can’t have an argument at Starbucks outside, in front. You have to be aware that the entire environment around you has changed,” he said. “If you pretend like your responsibilities have not changed, I think you’re setting yourself up for failure. So it requires your awareness to expand. You still have to be the same person you are in your essence, but it requires you to change.”
Ali found himself on the business end of a news cycle with Green Book, which was based on the true story of Don Shirley, a Black concert pianist who toured the South in the 1950s with his white bodyguard and driver, Tony “Lip” Vallelonga, played by Viggo Mortensen. While both men were on the poster, Mortensen’s character had 20 more minutes of screen time. “Dr. Shirley, you always see him from Viggo’s perspective,” Ali said. “Other than one moment in the movie. And the only reason that moment is in the movie is because I pitched the moment in the movie.”
Green Book was based on a narrative Vallelonga had passed down to his son, a producer on the film, and several members of Shirley’s family were insulted by the way Shirley was portrayed. Ali ended up calling the Shirley family to apologize. Though he didn’t want to discuss it at length, it’s clear Ali is still stung by the way that all went down. “I’m a sensitive soul,” he told me, noting that the same empathy that drives his work makes him take criticism and controversy to heart. “I don’t think you could touch people unless you are sensitive, in some ways. And so I just think the person that I am, it’s sometimes challenged by the abrasiveness of our culture.”
“It’s just always fascinating how things have a life of their own, a story of their own,” Ali added. “That was the first role I had after Moonlight. It’s like, What is due diligence? And beginning to understand, like asking questions and doing your due diligence,” he continued. “There’s a lot to appreciate about that situation. Good, bad, and in between. And I think it’s a circle. It’s a situation that led me to wanting to produce, is what I will say, because then you have a seat at the table to understand how things are being done, because whether you’re producing or not, as the face of any kind of project, you are going to be impacted by it.”
Becoming the face of projects has changed the work too. One of the first things Ali noticed about being a big-deal actor is that he now spends significantly less time acting.
“Starting out professionally, it feels like you have a significant amount of time to just sort of focus on the acting work, right? And when you do get it, you have a decent amount of time to just work on doing a good job on that. I think as you get busier, what I’ve found is that it feels like you act less,” he told me. “The best way I can think of it is, I think early on in a fighter’s career, especially if you go back years, they could be fighting once every couple of months, or something like that. And then at a certain point, it feels like a Floyd Mayweather thing, where you might fight twice in a year.… And so now I just feel like I’m fighting less, if that makes sense.”
Ali took a few years away from the big screen for True Detective and Ramy, in which he was supposed to guest-star for a few episodes but ended up staying for the better part of a season. “His level of curiosity, and his level of care, it felt like he was making the show with me; he had as much on the line as I did,” said Ramy Youssef, the show’s co-creator and star, who told me he’s still surprised Ali was willing to take the part. “He’s coming off of two Oscars, and he’s coming to do a Hulu show.”
Ali is a pioneer of the streaming era—his first big role was on *House of Cards—*and he says “it has allowed people to have careers who otherwise just wouldn’t have found a way into the business.” It’s hard to imagine a show like Ramy being greenlighted by a traditional television studio: It’s an irreverent comedy about an unlikeable Muslim man-child who’s searching for his faith and seeking his identity, seemingly by making all of the wrong decisions. Ramy swears off sex, and then sleeps with his cousin. He recruits a war veteran to his mosque, but lies about the man’s ongoing PTSD, an omission that turns deadly. He marries the daughter of his sheik, played by Ali, only to break her heart—and earn the sheik’s enmity—by disclosing, after their wedding day, the aforementioned sex with his cousin.
Ramy depicts a Muslim family and community with a complexity that’s rare for post-9/11 Hollywood. In that sense, it was a perfect fit for Ali, who, after converting in adulthood, is the industry’s most prominent Muslim. “There’s something about Islam, it’s really complicated for people for whatever reason,” Ali told me. “My relationship to it, how I’m changing and evolving, has become something I’m more conscious of protecting. It’s something that ends up tying in so deeply with my work.… My personality, who I am, and how I act, I don’t think it’s separate from my faith in any way.”
There’s another reason that Ali has been picking his projects sparingly lately: a hesitancy to be away from his wife and four-year-old daughter. Ali said he and his friends, many of whom are first-time fathers themselves, often discuss how to be present in ways that their own fathers sometimes weren’t. “I think that there is a deep, subtle consciousness for a lot of Black men in this country,” he said. “An awareness of the importance of being present fathers.” During the making of Swan Song, he says, he talked with director Benjamin Cleary about “this idea of, as a Black father, this great responsibility you feel in response to the stereotypes, and in response to the toxicity of the ’80s, and the things that had happened to Black families,” Ali told me. “We talked at length about this pressure that, I believe, Black men feel.”
Ali’s parents split up when he was just three years old—his own daughter is already older than he was when he stopped seeing his father daily. After that, Ali would usually see his father, who died when Ali was 20, for a few weeks each year. But even if the interactions were relatively rare, they were meaningful. “When I was with him, he was very present. Energetically very present,” Ali said. “I really appreciated how aware and locked in he was when we were together.” Ali is deliberate about making that time for him and his daughter, and being fully present himself in those moments.
“I want my daughter to be able to grow up and be 18 and say, ‘Yeah, my father was busy, but he was present too,’ or ‘He found a way to always stay connected with us and me,’” Ali said. “I also have the belief that if I’m whole in these other areas, I will be a better actor as a result of having spent time and played hide-and-seek with her last night.… I have to do those things in order to stay connected to the truths in life, the deeper things in life. It’s actually good for my work, in a way, to be a whole fulfilled person.”
Each new project, Ali knows, means time away from home, disruption of his family. “And so I think the jobs have to matter, they have to feel important,” he said. Swan Song felt important, in part because it is a story about fatherhood itself. If you could spare your wife and son the grief of your death, would you do it? What if the best way to shield your family from harm was to give them to someone else? Ali and his costar, Naomie Harris, discussed the premise at length on set.
“As horrific as grief is, and I really can imagine nothing worse than losing someone whom you truly love, there is also a gift in that pain,” Harris told me. “I think there is a gift in everything in life, and by robbing someone of the gift of grief, you have robbed them, in some ways.”
Ali is inclined to agree. But for now, he’s uncomfortable thinking about it too much. He likes to believe he’d accept death if it came, but he’s focused on living. “I think one of the things that attracted me to Swan Song was the idea of really trying to be present and awake in life,” he said.
Styling by Tori Leung
Hair by Frank Crosby for SixK.LA
Skin by Simone for Exclusive Artists using Augustinus Bader
Tailoring by Marius Ahiale at Lars Nord Studio
Set design by Jenny Correa at Art Department