The past year has brought Mahershala Ali a rash of fame after nearly two decades spent toiling away as what you might call a blue-collar actor. A four-season run on House of Cards may have elevated Ali to minor renown, but it was his performance in Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight as Juan, a drug dealer who takes a vulnerable child under his wing, that launched him into the stratosphere.
Like many actors, he is charismatic and clever and easy to talk to. But perhaps more than most, he is thoughtful. He wants to say what’s on his mind, and he wants to say it correctly. He is a black man who has been navigating America for 43 years. He wants to choose his words carefully, so that when he talks, you don’t get it twisted.
“When suddenly you go from being followed in Barneys to being fawned over, it will mess with your head.” He remembers being on subway trains and seeing people hide their rings from him: “those experiences that you have from age 10, when you start getting these little messages that you are something to be feared.”
“I think African-Americans have a very convoluted relationship with patriotism,” he says. “The fact is, we essentially were the abused child. We still love the parent, but you can’t overlook the fact that we have a very convoluted relationship with the parent. I absolutely love this country, but like so many people have some real questions and concerns about how things have gone down over the years and where we’re at. And that’s from a place of love, because I want the country to be what it says it is on paper.”
Believe it or not, Mahershala is a nickname. His given name is Mahershalalhashbaz, which also, believe it or not, is not a Muslim name but a Hebrew one. It is the longest name in the Old Testament, belonging to the second prophetic son of Isaiah, and it means “Hurry to the spoils!” or, in other words, “Look at all this good shit here!”
It also means that after 9/11, Ali found himself on a terrorist watch list. “They would be like, ‘Yeah, your name matches the name of a terrorist,’ ” he told Fresh Air’s Terry Gross. “I was like, ‘What terrorist is running around with a Hebrew first name and an Arabic last name? Who’s that guy?’ ”
He converted to Islam in 1999, after attending a mosque with his future wife. His faith, he says, has helped him become a better actor: “It benefits me from the standpoint of really creating empathy for these characters that I try to embody, other human beings with issues as deep and personal as my own. Because of Islam, I am acutely aware that I am a work in progress.” The daily practice of the religion, he says, “puts a healthy pressure on you to be your best self, beginning with your own spirit and how that feeds into your actions.”