By Jack Wellington
Irrespective of the fact that Mahershala Ali won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance as Juan in Barry Jenkins’s magnificent Moonlight in 2017, many people may not know that he was the first Muslim ever to clinch an Oscar.

In fairness, such a statistic shouldn’t and doesn’t appear high on the list of important things in life for Ali. This is much more a man looking at the present and the future, someone who seems to take life in his stride rather than letting its inevitable baggage slow him down.

Such an attitude has left the 44-year-old universally respected by his peers. Now an in-demand fresh face in Hollywood, he has the third installment of the seasonal anthology series, “True Detective,” alongside Stephen Dorff and Carmen Ejogo, which just started broadcasting in January. Also, he will star in the big-budget collaboration of Robert Rodriguez and James Cameron’s Alita: Battle Angel, due out on Valentine’s Day.

But had he not chosen a change of career in his early twenties, Ali could have made his name on a court instead of in front of a camera. He entered college with a scholarship in basketball and possessed no small amount of talent for the game, but his feelings of indifference towards himself and his teammates helped him to decide on a way forward.

Ali says his real-life experiences feed into every role. His Oscar win with Moonlight focused on the problems and dangers for a character growing up in a violent neighborhood as a gay man, while in the new film Green Book, Ali plays Dr. Don Shirley, a world-class African-American pianist who is about to embark on a concert tour in the Deep South in 1962. In need of a driver and protection, Shirley recruits Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen), a tough-talking bouncer from an Italian-American neighborhood in the Bronx.

Despite their differences, the two men soon develop an unexpected bond while confronting racism and danger in an era of unabashed, unapologetic separation and segregation.
STRIPLV: What did you think of the Green Book script when you first read it?
ALI: I laughed out loud reading that script. I don’t really enjoy reading scripts, and they are usually difficult to read because there is so much description in there, so the rhythm and the flow was constantly being broken in some way, in some regard. I always know if I am responding to a script if I can hear the character, and what I mean by that is if I almost have to hold myself back from reading out loud, if he is resonating within me already. If I’m not responding to it, that’s when I actually may start reading some of the dialogue, and start trying to put something on it to see if I can try to wake it up in some way. But I could really hear these characters talking to each other, and I laughed out loud at that chicken scene. I was like: should I be offended? I don’t know. But I laughed hard, you know.
STRIPLV: How did you approach the character of Don Shirley and what research were you able to do?
ALI: Viggo has had a different type of support but also a different type of pressure, because of the presence of the family. He had the support, the presence and the information from the Vallelonga family, which also puts more pressure on you too because you constantly have these eyes on you like: “My dad wouldn’t do that,” or whatever. But with me, I didn’t have the presence of the Shirley family at that point because it’s hard to find anything on Don Shirley. There is music out there, there are some articles, periodicals but there isn’t any real video or anything. So, that’s where I saw him talking, which gave me an “in” into his sound, his demeanor, his posture. I could tell who he was from the 10 minutes of footage tops, maybe even seven minutes, from that documentary along with audio tapes that Nick Vallelonga (one of the book’s authors), Pete (Farrelly, the film’s director) and Brian (Currie, the other author of the book) of Tony Lip talking about their relationship. That’s something I always do—I always make playlists for every character that I am working on, that are very specific to what they would listen to, what they would be exposed to at that time. That’s kind of the only thing that I listen to while I am shooting. So, I had the privilege of really just going deep into his music during that time and sort of allowing that to affect my own frequency because I feel like music clearly does that.
STRIPLV: What does this story mean to you?
ALI: My interpretation, something that helped me play Doctor Shirley, was this experience of African-American artist or black artists. Doctor Shirley was originally born in Jamaica—having to compromise in order to have a career. If you look at Nina Simone, who wanted to be a concert pianist, she wanted to be a classical musician, a very similar story—we all hear Nina Simone and love her. She went on and moved to Paris and had this extraordinary career. But we see these black artists, and if you really speak to them, if you really hear their story, the version of them that we love is not who they wanted to be, ultimately. And people say: “But Nina Simone is extraordinary,” but you have to really think what it does to that person; how do they feel when they know deep down inside that they also have something else amazing to offer, something that you wanted to choose? But the world, the circumstances chose for you, what it was that you were going to be able to be. No matter how much you do, you cannot explain this to somebody, that they should be happy with what they ended up having an opportunity to do, because they, within themselves feel like they had something else, something more specific, something maybe deeper that they wanted to do.
STRIPLV: Is that a key message in the film?
ALI: Yes, that’s something that we try to address in one of the scenes when Lip says, “But what you do is great, and people love your music, nobody can play what you play.” However, at the end of the day, he wanted to be a classical musician, and he wasn’t able to do that because he was too black for that. Not because he didn’t have the capacity or the ability, it’s just that he was the wrong color. So, therefore, you have to do some other version of something, and so in preparing for him and listening to the music that he would have been drawn to, I tried to really go more in the classical realm, because there were the Little Richards, the Chubby Checkers and the Aretha Franklins of the world. Not necessarily because he wasn’t aware of them, he obviously was, but that wasn’t what he was drawn to.
STRIPLV: So, you entered St Mary’s College in California not with an acting background, but with a scholarship in basketball.
ALI: I wasn’t acting, as I got into it relatively late. I was 22 really when I started acting in a more committed way, and so I think that when I was an athlete, that was a little bit out-of-body, because beating somebody or getting the better of  them wasn’t really what I related to, and it still doesn’t relate to me. I just felt that when I got into the arts, it was more about being your best self. So, looking at Doc Shirley, I think that there was something about him always being in this process of really trying to articulate himself to the world and find where he would fit in, so to speak. And not at all comparing myself to his massive talent and his mind and all that, but I have felt throughout my life, a little bit, sort of in my own place.
STRIPLV: You also might have been a rapper.
ALI: Well, I did have a couple of gigs and a single. Right out of college, I got a job at The Gavin, which was a music industry magazine, and I recorded spins (how many times a record would be played on any given day or week). I would call a radio station and ask, for example: “How many times has Toni Braxton’s Unbreak My Heart been played?” And they would say, “64 times this week.” So, I was doing that, and I had also been recording music for years, and that’s when I got this indie deal, while I was working at the magazine. The night of my second show, we had just got my single pressed up, and this was vinyl back then. That was a hip-hop thing. I literally had my audition for the NYU grad program the very next day. It was about the second week of February, and I had just got this deal, and we printed up this single. But I got into NYU, and I had to call the guy at the record label and tell him that I was going to school instead!
STRIPLV: You also wrote poetry, didn’t you?
ALI: I did, but only sharing it with people who I trusted and also people who I thought would get it and understand. It wasn’t something that I shared with a lot of people. My father was ill at the time, and it was something that I did to cope with that, and I also had really bad insomnia after leaving high school. I would be up all night into the next day. So, I started writing a lot, and I wrote this little book, and I put it together and then I started performing it. My dad was a musical theatre actor, and he did stuff like Dreamgirls, Five Guys Named Moe, in the 1980s. We were never connected in terms of the arts; we had different interests in different fields. But I respected what he saw and the films that he exposed to me and shared with me. I had so much respect for his taste and his talent. But we never felt totally connected because I was really an athlete. It wasn’t until the aforementioned basketball time at St Mary’s, when that wasn’t going particularly well, that we started to connect. I would go and visit him and perform the poetry for him – not knowing at the time that what I was really doing was performing monologues. He was so into [it], and his friends would come around as well, and I would perform for them. Kids are always looking for positive feedback and where to get their cues so that they know which direction to go in.
STRIPLV: How else did your father inspire you creatively after that point when you both felt the connection?
ALI: So, some of the early independent films that I saw were: The Player, Shortcuts, One False Move with Billy Bob Thornton. I also remember being exposed to Spike Lee movies in the late 1980s and early 1990s in the theater. I’m from Hayward, so when you’re going to New York or Broadway, and you go backstage and see people like Jeffrey Wright on stage for the first play that you have ever been to, Angels in America that was, by the way, meeting Savion Glover and all these types of people. My father would take me to museums when I would travel to see him. One of my favorite stories about my dad was in 1993, the year before he passed away and I am in my sophomore year at college. He tells me that he’s not getting me any school clothes that year. That made me excited because my dad had the best taste. So, he said: “I am going to get you one thing, though. I’m going to take you to Barney’s.” I didn’t know anything about Barney’s, but he takes me there and then says, “I’m going to let you pick out one thing.” So, I pick out this beautiful, oversized sweater. Later on, he was almost giving me this lesson in quality over quantity, and I have that sweater to this day. That’s essentially who he was in my life, and I didn’t have a lot of time with him, but I did get enough time with him. You would be hard-pressed to say that a parent did more for me by leaving me than staying, but I truly believe that I got so much more out of my father leaving home when I was three years old and the lessons that I learned from him in his pursuit of a fulfillment that he couldn’t necessarily find at home.