Mahershala Ali’s Journey from Oakland to the Emmys: ‘At Any Moment Something Was Going to Pop Off’

The Emmy-nominated House of Cards standout discusses his pair of hotly anticipated indie films and starring role as the villain of Netflix’s Luke Cage.

Rich Fury/AP; Photo Illustration The Daily Beast

Mahershala Ali is on the verge of owning 2016, so it’s time you learn his name.

The 4400, Treme, and House of Cards alumnus has a monster September ahead in some of the most anticipated film and television projects of the year—the payoff of leaving Remy Danton behind, even while vying for his first Emmy for his turn as Frank Underwood’s conflicted former Chief of Staff.

“The more you work and get known for something, sometimes things begin to narrow a bit and your opportunities get more… specific,” Ali told The Daily Beast from Los Angeles, expressing gratitude for a nearly two-decade career which also included supporting turns in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Place Beyond the Pines, and the two-part blockbuster finale The Hunger Games: Mockingjay.

But after three seasons and change on House of Cards, greater opportunities called. Next month Ali will enjoy the fruits of branching out as he debuts three very different projects: The indie sneaker drama Kicks (Sept. 9), Barry Jenkins’s Toronto Film Festival entry Moonlight, and Marvel’s Luke Cage (Sept. 30), in which the versatile actor plays the Marvel Comics villain Cottonmouth opposite Mike Colter’s eponymous superhero.

Ali’s take on Cottonmouth already promises to reflect a contemporized version of the Harlem supervillain first introduced in 1974 and frequently depicted as a nefarious drug lord and pimp. “He’s definitely involved in some type of criminal activity,” Ali confirmed, “but he’s in the process of being guided toward turning the business more legitimate because of some of the input of his cousin Mariah, played by Alfre Woodard. He’s from a family in Harlem that’s built their humble empire off of, to some degree, legitimate and illegitimate activity.”

He paused, searching for more details to reveal, ones that might skirt those airtight Marvel NDAs. “I’m looking for words because Marvel is on us about what we share and don’t share,” he laughed.

The 42-year-old actor more readily weighed in on what the Netflix series will mean for Hollywood—both in front of and behind the camera. Luke Cage premieres on Netflix at a critical moment in the cultural conversation around diversity, inviting heightened scrutiny and perhaps optimism as the first black superhero series to hit mainstream episodic programming with an African-American lead cast and an African-American executive producer in Cheo Hodari Coker.

“It’s getting a certain type of attention because it’s in the hero genre, which is obviously a rarity, and that’s important,” he said. “But I think equally important, and I would even say perhaps more important, is the fact that there’s an African-American showrunner and that there are producers involved and people on the below-the-line side of it that really don’t get those opportunities.”

“It’s one thing [to have a POC cast] in front of the camera, but you don’t see black DPs or directors or writers,” he continued. “I’ve been working almost 20 years and I think I’ve worked with maybe one black director of photography in that time. Maybe two women directors or DPs. Maybe. And I’ve done a lot of TV. That’s a lot of people I’ve worked with. I’d never been around or seen a black showrunner, and in some ways you wish that it wasn’t a big deal. It really isn’t. So I’m welcoming of that change, that diversity, and you just hope it becomes a reflection of the world we live in. That’s all it’s about.”

One need only look to Ali’s upcoming slate for a glimpse of what inclusivity in storytelling looks like—namely, a breadth of stories, characters, and experiences told from POC perspectives. The Oakland, California, native left the West Coast after playing basketball for Saint Mary’s College, did Shakespeare, and earned his master’s from NYU’s acting program. Years grinding away in television and film paid off with that House of Cards gig, which also provided an impressive point of reference when he caught wind of a modest independent drama set in his native Bay Area about a teenager who embarks on a quest for justice after getting jumped for his Air Jordans.

His first conversation with Kicks director Justin Tipping happened over Skype shortly thereafter. “I was like, I get to meet Remy?” Tipping remembered. “We spent an hour talking about growing up in the Bay Area and sharing experiences, talking about what it means.” Tipping cast Ali in the deceptively complex role of Marlon, the hardened ex-con uncle of Kicks protagonist Brandon (Jahking Guillory), who gives his headstrong nephew a lesson in the consequences of inner city retribution.

It’s a performance anchored by Ali’s riveting, soul-blazing charisma, and one that throws ice-cold realism onto Brandon’s youthful macho delusions. “I love the story and the script overall, but it was an opportunity to play a character I hadn’t seen and that hadn’t come my way,” said Ali. “I’m not saying those characters don’t exist, but I hadn’t had those types of opportunities—and I was a little surprised when they offered me the part because they knew me from House of Cards, which is the polar opposite from that character in a certain way.”

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Ali, who grew up in neighboring Hayward, praised the authenticity with which Tipping and co-writer Joshua Beirne-Golden’s script captures the voice of a San Francisco East Bay culture seldom seen in film.

“Between Richmond, Oakland, San Francisco… they’re really different people,” Ali offered. “I’ve tried to explain how you’ll meet someone from San Francisco and they’re different from Oakland people, or even folks in Berkeley and all the way out to Richmond. There’s this sense that, ‘Oh, those brothers over there are CRAZY in a way,’ but brothers from Oakland might feel the same way about folks from Richmond.”

In Kicks, the coming-of-age journey is kick-started when pint-sized Brandon decides to leave the relative familiarity of his Richmond neighborhood to venture along the BART line to Oakland, a 15-minute ride that transports him and his two best friends to the unfamiliar streets where his uncle Marlon lives, and new excitement and dangers await.

“These were folks like my family in Oakland, if I went and spent time with them,” said Ali. “It’s like five miles from where I lived in Hayward to East Oakland—but the difference, the shift in mentality, I remember feeling. I remember going to visit cousins for a weekend or a summer and going to house parties, little picnics, going to sideshows. I remember this element of danger. Me, personally, I wasn’t ever able to relax, because you always felt at any moment something was going to pop off. Something was going to happen.”

He paused. “Now that I think of it, I have a friend doing life. I had a few friends within a certain group where that element is a very real thing. Going into [Kicks] I felt I knew who this guy was because I’ve seen enough of it and I felt like I had enough knowledge of it to really go on that journey and explore and find that character.”

Kicks in turn led to another of Ali’s highly anticipated 2016 projects: Moonlight, the sophomore feature from writer-director Barry Jenkins (Medicine for Melancholy). Adele Romanski, who produced both films, recommended Jenkins look at Ali for his adaptation of Tarell McCraney’s play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, a coming-of-age/coming out story of an African-American man told over three time periods.

Jenkins, Ali raves, “is absolutely brilliant. It’s rare that I read a script and have an emotional response to it, but I really did with that script,” he said. “It’s beautiful. I was getting calls about it! I was at my agent’s office running into people going, ‘Hey Mahershala—you’ve got to read this project.’ I literally heard it from multiple people. Once I read it, I saw why. That’s usually not the case for something that’s still only on the page. But the way that project was being supported quietly… it’s a difficult piece, and a beautiful piece at the same time.”

The film world-premieres next month at TIFF and is already setting off the radar of Oscar pundits. “I think Moonlight is one of those projects that really pushes that conversation forward, and it’s not a film that constantly says, ‘This film is a statement about this aspect of our culture’—it just really exists in its own specific, unique way,” praised Ali. “I think people will naturally put that on it, but I don’t think that’s what Barry was attempting to do. He just found a story that really spoke to him on a deeply personal level.”

Ali’s already filmed work on two 2017 projects of note including Hidden Figures, a fact-based drama about the unsung African-American women who made indelible contributions to NASA’s space race to the moon. “These African-American women worked for the space program and the vast majority of people don’t even know that it happened! There are so many women who contributed in a very real way in pushing for the space program during the time in which there was a lot of competition to get into space first, and to know that there were African-American women who were integral in that success is pretty phenomenal,” he gushed. “And I get to play the love interest to Taraji Henson.”

He also just finished shooting Roxanne, Roxanne, a 1980s-set film about teenage rap prodigy Lolita Shanté Gooden, the 14-year-old girl from NYC’s Queensbridge Projects who recorded the iconic track “Roxanne’s Revenge.” Hip-hop fans know her by the name with which she shot to fame before retiring in her twenties: Roxanne Shanté.

Roxanne, Roxanne will defy most hip-hop heads’ expectations of a rap biopic, Ali said. “Usually when you look at hip-hop films and biopics you think, this is a story of this album or how so and so came up in the business,” he explained. “But it explores why she kind of disappeared and got derailed, to some degree. I believe that’s going to be a film that really grabs people as well because it’s very nuanced compared to a lot of music biopics.”

For now, high-profile trailblazing projects like Luke Cage will be a good start to the conversation on inclusion, Ali said, “because it can’t be the answer. It has to be another tile in the mosaic, and that’s what it’s about for us: Being able to have a diverse range of projects and opportunities for people of color, and being able to go from being the supporting character or the friend or the characters who kind of pass through into being the ones carrying the stories.”

“If that becomes somewhat of a foundation as we move into this time where there is an opening for more diverse stories—not just African-American but Latino, Asian, etc.—and how those cultures all mix together to make the world we live in, then I think we can go deeper and get more nuanced,” he added. “I am excited.”