Mahershala Ali was director Ben Cleary’s first choice to play the lead in the Apple TV+ drama Swan Song.
“But he didn’t write it with me in mind,” Ali, who starred in the film and served as a producer, told MovieMaker ahead of its Dec. 17 streaming release.
It’s a common practice for screenwriters to write for the character rather than a specific actor. Ali’s role in Swan Song is unique in that he doesn’t just play one character, he plays two. Primarily, he’s Cameron, a husband and father who has a terminal illness and is given the opportunity to participate in a groundbreaking new procedure that could transfer all of his memories to a physically identical copy of himself who — if Cameron chooses to go through with it — would continue living his life in his place after he’s gone. (Don’t worry, we didn’t spoil anything that isn’t in the trailer). Ali plays both Cameron and his double, nicknamed Jack.
But before he began to embody the roles of Cameron and Jack, he and Cleary worked together to modify the script to accommodate actors of color.
“Ben [Cleary] and I, we really had to start talking about how you plug in a person of color in a story that wasn’t necessarily intended to star a person of color,” Ali said. “So with us getting to connect on it, suddenly, you’re having things that aren’t neutral in a story. Like, you can’t necessarily paint all those things in the same way. So we began to have a conversation about everything from the score to wardrobe to the art on the walls in their house to how, if he’s coming from a broken home, we just need context for the split in that relationship. It can’t just feel like he didn’t have a dad around and that was it. There had to be more information about that because it wasn’t a stereotype that I’m interested in feeding into — certainly not without some real context.”
Being a producer on Swan Song, which also stars Naomie Harris, Glenn Close, and Awkwafina, Ali got to have more say in the script than a lead actor might normally have.
“Ben had already had the script, and it was in a terrific place, but then I just got to come in and just sort of curate and help build out moments and sort of question where we should put the emphasis in terms of relationship moments or things between Cameron and Jack,” Ali said. “We got to begin to have really deep, productive conversations some time before we started filming, and that stayed consistent throughout the process even up until now… it’s just been great to have the opportunity to have a voice in the making of the film.”
Ali feels like making script tweaks for actors of different cultures should be a commonplace practice.
“You have to begin to have those types of conversations when thinking about having an African American, in my case, in that part. And if you plug in a Japanese actor or a Puerto Rican actor, I think a lot of those conversations should be the exact same,” he said. “It’s not something that we talk a lot about because when things go wrong, that’s when people think about stuff… when the culture cries out that there’s been something foul, and some of those things can be really addressed in earnest going into a project. So there was a whole range of conversations that just added more specificity to the story and, I think, improved it.”
Swan Song begins streaming on Apple TV+ on Dec. 17.
Main Image: Mahershala as Cameron and Jack in Swan Song, courtesy of Apple TV+