“My goal is to be a transformational actor,” says Mahershala Ali, star of Apple TV+’s Swan Song. “What I mean is, somebody who feels distinctly different in each part. I would hope that my career spans many decades, and looking back, I would hope that people will feel like there’s a unique character in everything that they saw me in.”
Ali has starred in two Best Picture winners, 2016’s Moonlight to 2018’s Green Book, and earned his two best supporting actor Oscars for his roles in those films. He has always sought out roles that challenge and inspire, without ever playing similar characters. His first major feature film role was in 2008’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and he continued his long run of cinematic successes with 2012’s The Place Beyond the Pines and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 and Part 2. His acclaimed television roles have ranged from Chief of Staff Remy Danton on House of Cards to Detective Wayne Hays in True Detective to crime boss Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes on Luke Cage to Sheikh Malik on Ramy.
Now he’s joined the Marvel Cinematic Universe as Blade, the vampire hunter previously played by Wesley Snipes. And he stars in Apple TV+’s Swan Song in which he plays a man whose terminal illness inspires him to experiment with a futuristic technology that has the potential to radically alter his family’s fate.
Below, Ali reveals his philosophy and secrets. —M.S.
As told to Margeaux Sippell
1. Be very conscious of your ego. The ego is the enemy of your growth. I think the best actors are the ones who are not worried about how they look — and I’m one of those who does — the best ones are the ones who have been able to really just give over and go there and do whatever the job asks of them. The thing that keeps you from doing that is usually the little voice in your head that will question if you need to be doing that. I just think it blocks the ears; it keeps you from listening. The best way to experience this work is for you to listen on every level of your being, and I think ego gets in the way of you being able to listen on the deeper levels that end up triggering your instincts.
2. The best filmmakers work well from the heart space. In order to do that, we probably all have to practice forgiveness and embrace the growth that comes with that, and I think in some ways, that will allow you to see characters and stories in a more holistic way and allow you to understand why people make the choices they make, whether or not you agree with them.
3. If it’s our job to reflect the truth and to tell those stories as deeply as possible, then I think we have to, in our own lives, really work to be whole. That’s lifelong work—there are no oracles out there in filmmaking. But I do think that the lesson is that, at least for me, to improve in the work, I have to improve in my life. There are moments in my life where I feel stagnant—that’s where I also feel stagnant in my work. And if I begin to till the soil a bit or do some work in my own life, to take stock and inventory what’s going on with me and begin to work on those things, then it frees me up artistically.
4. Your talent doesn’t know if you’re making $5 or $500,000. It does know if the muscle is being worked, though. The main thing with filmmaking is you just need to be in the environment. You need time. You need to understand the language. You have to immerse yourself in it so that you can become the filmmaker that you need to be.
5. Immerse yourself in it—making your own stories as best you can. This is the time in which you can do that. I don’t care if you’re doing it with iPhones or what have you, it’s putting in your 10,000 hours so that you can begin to be fluent in the dialect of filmmaking. And that might not necessarily be the same as people who had traditional paths, who went through NYU or AFI or you name the school, but I do think that it’s proof in music and in film — there are just people who are picking up cameras and doing it enough where eventually you watch it and it feels like they know what they’re talking about. It feels like they have something to say. I love that we live in this time where there’s space for more voices.
6. From filming to the edit of the film to even the marketing, always try to make sure the story is right. The story of the trailer, even—the story that got greenlit that you started filming. There are all these things that can start popping up, whether they’re related to budget or time or whatever— there are things that can jeopardize the story or compromise the film in a way, and so throughout, you always have to prioritize the story and make sure that it’s clear and on track and that the arc of the story has been protected and nurtured throughout.
7. “It’s not the size of the part, it’s the size of the actors” — I don’t think that’s true. I think that could be true in moments, but the size of the part impacts what you can do as an actor. If one person has 100 yards of runway and someone else has 10, who do you think is going to fly? I get the spirit of that, but I don’t think that’s true. If you’re not the lead on a television show, it’s just the nature of TV, you’re just not getting a lot of direction. You’re shooting five scenes in a day, and if you’re not the lead, you’re popping in for your scene-and-a-half or whatever and they’re just kind of moving on. And then they just print that and they put it out, and they’re hiring capable actors who can do a good job that they don’t have to over-direct. So that’s part of why you have the job. But I just really learned with Molly Parker from House of Cards how proactive one really needs to be in really helping to bring those scenes alive beyond just getting off book and trying to be prepared to shoot that day—but really thinking things through and being as detailed as possible and using that time that you have on camera and on set as wisely as possible for the good of the story and your character.
8. I make playlists specific to every character. I always, essentially at this point, almost meditate with the character or pray for him, so to speak. I do those things just to connect myself in the deepest way possible with the character.
9. If it’s a comedy, you hope that the laugh is a deep laugh. And if it’s a drama, you hope that the experience could be a cathartic one, potentially. I just want to make sure that I do everything I can to bring my best energy and all of myself to a role.
10. Every character should be specific and unique, and your work shouldn’t necessarily be bleeding from one character to the other. I wouldn’t want anyone to be able to necessarily imitate me as an actor. That would not be a good thing, if someone says ‘These are Mahershala-isms.’ I’m sure that there are those, but I just want to be able to be different in every part.
Hip-hop influenced me as an artist, just because hip-hop is a space where everybody was encouraged to be creative in every aspect of your being—from how you dress to how you talk to whether you make beats or write rhymes or DJ or dance or what have you. For my generation, it was really liberating to have a place that was valued and where your creativity, your intellect were recognized and appreciated in a way that the rest of the world would not appreciate. And so I think I was just able to apply some of the tenets of that school.
This story originally appeared in the Winter Issue of our print magazine, on newsstands Feb. 8.
Main Image: Mahershala Ali in Swan Song courtesy of Apple TV+