2019 Oscar Best Supporting Actor Front Runner Mahershala Ali shares his Inspirations & Aspirations

2019 Oscar Best Supporting Actor Front Runner Mahershala Ali shares his Inspirations & Aspirations

Bay Area-born Mahershala Ali is being called the new Denzel Washington for his impressive acting chops and diversity of choices. He was the first Muslim to win an acting Oscar (Best Supporting) for his evocative performance in the powerful coming-of-age story, Moonlight (2016).

Legendary actor Washington, who won his first Oscar for his similarly emotional performance as a black soldier in the Civil War, has a memorable scene in Glory (1989) when he courageously faces up to a military flogging, as tears stream down his eyes — reflecting all his anger and fear, as each lash brings back the sting of the injustices he has endured as a former slave. Ali has a similarly memorable scene in Moonlight where his drug-dealing yet paternalistic man reaches out to a bullied youngster, teaches him to get over his fear and float in the water, and then counsels him with “at some point you gotta decide for yourself who you gonna be.” 

And, now at the 91st Academy Awards this upcoming Sunday in Hollywood, Ali has been nominated for his second Oscar for his co-starring role in Green Book, which has been nominated for 5 overall awards. Ali plays musician Dr. Shirley opposite Viggo Mortensen as the white driver who chauffeurs him during a concert tour of the Deep South during segregation in the 1960s. Ali enthuses, “The script’s characters stood out for me, as I could hear their voices as I read it. I also felt deeply connected to Dr. Shirley, an archetypal character, and I so wanted to be involved.”

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Credit - HBO

Ali is presently appearing in the third season of HBO’s mesmerizing crime drama, True Detective, and he humbly suggests “I feel blessed for the opportunities I’ve had." So, who and what has propelled Ali into his present interstellar career path?

Q. What role models inspired you as a child growing up in San Francisco Bay Area?

A. My father had moved to New York for his career, so I grew up with my grandparents, who were extraordinary, loving people. Grandma always told me I needed a plan. Plus, three options, I know right?! I went to college on a basketball scholarship, but while there, I considered being a writer. I also thought of studying for my LSAT and becoming a lawyer. And I also thought I’d give acting a shot. So like my grandma advised, I had a few options in mind. I come from a working class family, people who busted their tail to have what they had. My grandparents sold their house, moved and bought a big house in Vegas with a swimming pool they never got in. But it was their little dream.

Q. How did your performer dad get onto a famous dance show?

A. Not many know that my father, Philip Gilmore, won a national contest on television’s revolutionary Soul Train in 1977, which was sponsored by Johnson Products. He won $2500 and this red, Starsky and Hutch-like sports car, and they sent him a letter suggesting he be responsible with his earnings. He ended up performing on Broadway and touring in shows like Dream Girls, and he was always a dancer first. He died early, at age 38, but he traveled the world and lived two lifetimes. He dropped all these life lessons on me. But, he was like a shooting star that blazed through and then went out.

Q, It’s said, the light that burns twice as bright lasts half as long. So, tell us about some of those lessons?

A. Growing up, I spent summers with him in New York, and picked up on the arts through him. My own tastes were informed by him taking me to see movies by Steven Soderbergh, Spike Lee and Robert Townsend. He had very broad eclectic tastes. [laughs] When I got back to the Bay, I’d then go out to see the big blockbuster flicks with my pals. My father never saw me act but before he passed, he knew that I’d performed in my first play (House of Blue Leaves), and he was telling his peeps that “my son has the bug” — he knew I had it. But there was one other thing, after he passed. I found a photo he’d sent to my grandma, saying, “Hey ma, I’m still trying to be a leading man.” That photo inspired me, and I hope I’ve realized what he wanted for me.

Q. When did you start using Mahershala for your stage name as opposed to your longer given name?

A. My full name is Mahershalalhashbaz, and at 18 letters, it’s one of the longest Bible names. Mahershala is my nickname. And for the first few years of my career, with TV shows like Crossing Jordan, Threat Matrix, and The 4400, I wanted to own my full name, so I used it. But over time, I got to thinking, my family and friends don’t call me by full name, I don’t want to limit my experience as an actor for just a few syllables. I had said what I needed to say. But now I needed something else. My assessment of the business, going on shows, was that they got to be able to say your name, so that all contributed to making that edit. “Mahershala” Ali ended up on the poster for The Place Beyond the Pines with Ryan Gosling, and I’ve stayed with it since.

Q. Did you always want to be a leading man like your father wished?

A. To be honest, as a young man, I wanted to be Denzel (Washington), a leading man. I never intended to be just a character actor. I’d watch Denzel playing great characters in movies like Glory, Hurricane, and Training Day. But then at other times, he’s the man, carrying the story. I remember at the 2016 Golden Globes, watching a compilation of Meryl Streep’s roles, and how different they all were, and I got it, she is an amazing character actor. But I’ve always wanted to transform myself, to dig deep. With HBO’s True Detective, I so enjoyed having the time to develop a character over several hours — aging, going back and forth in time, changing your look and attitude. I got to go in and transform myself.

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Credit - HBO

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  • Ashleigh Campbell

    He was so good in green book.

  • ashley collie

    In reply to: Ashleigh Campbell

    Ashleigh, thanks for checking in, I met and interviewed him and was impressed by his focus and humility.

  • Kevin Riddoch

    Mahershala is really handsome!

  • ashley collie

    In reply to: Kevin Riddoch

    Just an outstanding character, who's multi-talented.

  • Stephen Elliott

    He just seems like such a cool guy.

  • ashley collie

    In reply to: Stephen Elliott

    Thanks, for commenting, Steve. A totally cool dude!

  • Lucy Chapman


  • ashley collie

    In reply to: Lucy Chapman

    Lucy, do you mean Green Book or True Detective, or just Mahershala? Thanks for commenting.

  • Eduardo Vargas

    Well he might win another Academy Award for best supporting actor, but I thought he was the lead in the movie.

  • ashley collie

    In reply to: Eduardo Vargas

    Yeah, Eduardo, strange how that is. But sometimes, their reps ask for them to be considered in a Supporting Role. And he might just well score his second Oscar. But he'll win Best Actor TV awards for True Detective later this year. Thanks for commenting.

  • Kate Bell

    The man is already a legend

  • ashley collie

    In reply to: Kate Bell

    Yes, indeed, Kate, thanks for commenting. When was the first time you saw him perform?

  • James Pyman

    I don’t know what it is about him he’s just so intriguing. Wish you all the best and waiting for true detective to premiere!

  • ashley collie

    In reply to: James Pyman

    James, where are you located. TD-3 finishes up its run this weekend, 8 episodes. Tremendous acting by all three leads, and spooky music!

  • Alex Benjamin

    If he wins that 2nd Oscar, he'll become the black Christoph Waltz.

  • ashley collie

    In reply to: Alex Benjamin

    Hahahah, good one, Alex. I think now Mahershala will get a leading role in a movie and then he'll be up for that. Cheers!

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Ashley Jude Collie

Entertainment Expert

Ashley is an award-winning journalist/author/blogger who has written for Playboy, Toronto Star, Movie Entertainment, Sports Illustrated, Maclean's and others. He's interviewed various "leaders" in their fields, including: Oscar winners (Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Lawrence, Alicia Vikander, Jane Fonda, Mira Sorvino, Geena Davis, Anthony Hopkins); Grammy winners (Bruce Springsteen, Paul McCartney, Ice Cube, Pete Townshend); MVPs in sports (Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Wayne Gretzky, Kobe Bryant); and, business leaders (Amazon's Jeff Bezos). He has an upcoming novel, REJEX, coming out on Pulp Hero Press. And he has written several episodic TV shows, appeared on CNN, and blogged for Mademan, Medium, GritDaily and HuffPost.

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