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Born in Oakland and raised in neighboring Hayward, Calif., Mahershala Ali received his bachelor of arts degree in mass communications at St. Mary's College. He made his professional debut performing with the California Shakespeare Festival in Orinda, California. Soon thereafter, he earned his Master's degree in Acting from New York University's prestigious graduate program.
Mahershala is fast becoming one of the freshest and most in-demand faces in Hollywood with his extraordinarily diverse skill set and wide-ranging background in film, television, and theater. Last fall, he wrapped Brad Pitt and Adele Romanski's independently-produced feature film, “Moonlight,” and reprised his role in “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2,” alongside Jennifer Lawrence, Donald Sutherland and Julianne Moore.
On television, Mahershala was recently cast in Netflix's “Luke Cage” in the role of Cornell "Cottonmouth" Stokes. He can also be seen on the award-winning Netflix original series House of Cards, where he's reprising his fan-favorite role as lobbyist and former press secretary Remy Danton.
Here, Mahershala talks about acting in “Free State of Jones,” a Civil War saga co-starring Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Keri Russell.
Kam Williams: Hi Mahershala, thanks for the interview.
Mahershala Ali: Thank you, Kam.
KW: What interested you in “Free State of Jones”?
MA: The story, first off. I had never heard of Newton Knight. So, the narrative as a whole was really attractive to me because it was a refreshing departure from the homogeneous depictions of the Civil War where the North wanted to abolish slavery while the South wanted to keep it intact. Here, you had an example of a Southerner who spoke out against slavery during the war and who later became an activist for Civil Rights and this new idea of equality for all people regardless of one's skin color, race or creed.
KW: What interested you in playing Moses?
MA: I had never seen a character in this time period who had such agency and mobility for someone living in the South. He had run away with a group of former slaves and was really living life on his own terms in the swamps. And he was determined to be pro-active in his people's emancipation. Also, seeing his evolution over the course of the narrative really inspired me. He's a disenfranchised, runaway slave with no education who learns to read and write and really becomes a leader and an active participant in the democratic process who mobilizes others. His were big shoes to fill, but they were ones that I was very excited to step into.
KW: How was it working with such an accomplished cast that included Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Keri Russell and Brendan Gleeson?
MA: It was very inspiring and also humbling. It was a difficult shoot, being in the swamps in both the heat and the cold for four months, but everybody arrived ready to go, all-in and totally committed. It all started with Matthew and Gary [director Gary Ross] who had a wonderful energy and approach to the work every day that trickled down to the rest of the cast and crew. Everyone was aware of and inspired by the importance of the story we were telling, and that was another added layer that contributed to the focus that everyone had.
KW: And how was it being directed by a four-time Oscar-nominee in Gary Ross?
MA: Pretty phenomenal, starting with the audition process. He was very curious about my ideas in terms of fleshing out the character, and he also wanted to know my perspective as an African American and whether I felt it reflected the African American experience. And it was mind-blowing and empowering how Gary wanted to portray African Americans participating in their own liberation. So, I would work with him again at the drop of a hat.
KW: What message do you think people will take away from the film?
MA: That the struggle for freedom continues. And if you're a person like Newt, it becomes your responsibility to empower those in close proximity to you.
KW: Harriet Pakula-Teweles asks: With so many classic films being redone, is there a remake you'd like to star in?
MA: “The Great White Hope.” I would love to redo that film in a way where it would be more focused on Jack Johnson.
KW: Larry Greenberg asks: Do you have a favorite movie monster?
MA: Terrence Stamp as General Zod in the1978 version of “Superman” starring Christopher Reeve.
KW: What is your favorite dish to cook?
MA: I'm not much of cook, but I cook a mean bowl of oatmeal.
KW: Ling-Ju Yen asks: What is your earliest childhood memory?
MA: I remember choking on the core of an apple while being bathed in a large sink by my dad. He slapped me on the back until I coughed it up.
KW: Who loved you unconditionally during your formative years?
MA: My parents and my grandparents. My mom was extraordinarily present, but I'm so appreciate of all of them.
KW: Was there a meaningful spiritual component to your childhood?
MA: I grew up in church. My mom's a minister, and my grandmother was an ordained minister. I was always very mindful of the presence of a greater being I call God.
KW: How were you affected by the passing of Muhammad Ali?
MA: I was very affected by it. He was my first hero. I was mesmerized by his photos and his presence, even though he was retiring around the time I was becoming conscious of him. He was 100 percent my first hero and idol.
KW: Sherry Gillam would like to know: what is the most important life lesson you've learned so far?
MA: Hold tight to the mentality of being a student, meaning hold on to curiosity and approach life as a student.
KW: What was your very first job?
MA: Working at Kentucky Fried Chicken. I was apple to save up and by my first car over the course of that summer.
KW: What's the craziest thing you've ever done?
MA: Commit myself to this journey of becoming an actor. It takes a lot of love and support and wonderful allies. But I don't necessarily recommend it.
KW: Is there any question no one ever asks you, that you wish someone would?
MA: No one ever asks me what inspires me. What inspires me today is a desire to get closer to an understanding of what my artistic capacities are with the hope of organically sharing my gifts with an audience in the most heightened way I possibly can.
KW: What is your guiltiest pleasure?
MA: Granola. I never grew out of the cereal thing. As an adult, I could eat granola three times a day, if it didn't have so much sugar in it.
KW: Judyth Piazza asks: What key quality do you believe all successful people share?
MA: They tend to believe in themselves and to be really impassioned. The people that I admire have a wonderful balance of self-belief and humility.
KW: What advice do you have for anyone who wants to follow in your footsteps?
MA: To really be conscious of how long the journey is, be patient, push yourself, persevere and always be working on your craft while waiting for your break. That's what I'm still working on, having done this for 20 years now.
KW: The Tavis Smiley question: How do you want to be remembered?
MA: I guess as someone who was always looking to grow and improve in all the aspects of my life, from acting to being a good family man to embracing the spiritual tenets that I choose to practice. I always hope to be a better person tomorrow than today.
KW: Finally, what’s in your wallet?
MA: [Chuckles]I don't have a wallet. I carry my driver's license and a couple of credit cards in my phone. That and a money clip.
KW: Thanks again for the time, Mahershala, and best of luck with the film.
MA: Thanks, Kam.