Maher-shalal-hash-baz is the longest name (and word) in the Bible; it's also the perfect namesake for actor Mahershala Ali, with his righteously commanding presence and a film and television resume of biblical proportions. After attending St. Mary’s College on a basketball scholarship, the Oakland native gradually abandoned his athletic interests as he found his creative appetite whetted by the seductive world of the stage, landing an apprenticeship at the California Shakespeare Theater where he was able to sprout his thespian sea legs.
Ali’s professional acting debut was a 19-episode arc as Dr. Trey Sanders on NBC’s immensely popular medical mystery Crossing Jordan in 2001. Since then he's been unstoppable, lending a character actor’s versatility to a murderer’s row of movies and television series, including, *takes breath*: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Predators, The Place Beyond on the Pines, Law & Order, HBO’s Treme, SyFy’s Alphas, and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay 1 & 2. And that’s just scratching the surface.
2016 alone has proven to be a bumper-crop of a year for the 42-year-old Ali. Six months into the year, he’s already reprised his role as the scrupulously scheming lobbyist Remy Danton in season four of House of Cards. Today, you’ll get to see him revolt against Confederate oppression alongside Matthew McConaughey in the Civil War epic Free State of Jones. In September, he'll appear in the highly anticipated indie Kicks. And finally, Ali will bookend the year with yet another Netflix outing, starring as the big-bad Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes in Marvel’s Luke Cage.
Mahershala Ali took some time out of his insanely prolific schedule to talk to Complex about Free State of Jones, Luke Cage and normalizing diversity in Hollywood.
House of Cards. Free State of Jones. Kicks. Luke Cage. Is 2016 the beginning of the Mahershala Ali takeover or what?
[Laughs.] I hope so! I was supremely fortunate to do several projects that I’m really excited about. So within all that, there’s a lot going on this year. I’m excited about 2016.
Free State of Jones is based on a remarkable true story—one that I was completely unfamiliar with. It’s puzzling that, within all the historical texts and Civil War films we’ve already seen, a story as epic as Newton Knight’s (Matthew McConaughey) armed rebellion against the Confederate Army remains a quiet footnote.
I never heard the story, either. That was refreshing because anytime you pick up a script or you go see a movie about the Civil War, you always feel like you know the general story, like how it’s gonna work out with the Emancipation Proclamation being signed. Free State of Jones went beyond that. It got into how the South wasn’t as homogenous as we thought it was—or even the North for that matter, where we like to assume everyone wanted to free the slaves and they were all abolitionists. It actually shows how complex these ideologies were on both sides.
It’s almost impossible to watch Free State of Jones and not see the parallels to our current political climate, especially as Trump continues to promote division and exploit his base’s ignorance.
The political climate right now is extremely divisive. [But] as much as there’s a lot to be improved upon right now, I can’t help but see and feel a lot of the improvement and progress that we made. While I was studying and researching the era going into making the film, I found out that there were tens of thousands of African Americans that were lynched, I think in 1870, for just attempting to register to vote. Just for trying to go in and have a voice. I just feel like I have so much access and liberty—[but] yeah, I could still get pulled over tomorrow for just Driving While Black.
That’s a depressing truth. But you sound relatively optimistic in spite of it all.
When I was growing up I was told you could be anything you want to be, but I didn’t really believe that because you couldn’t be president. Like, I knew that; we never had a black president. Now, being one who lived in the era of Obama, there are so many markers of improvement made. It’s hard to be mindful of that, in the same way you’re going, “Oh everything’s cool now!” and it isn’t. But I try to be mindful of how much of an improvement there has been because that gives hope. You need hope. I need hope!
Your character Moses evolves into a political activist and helps register his fellow newly freed slaves to vote after the war ends. Do you see echoes of that movement, and that personal engagement, in the activism of today?
It’s been truly inspiring to me to see people like Black Lives Matter [activists] mobilizing for such righteous causes. How this generation aligned with social media to change people’s ability to be linked together and to create these online villages for people to talk and communicate and spread information is incredible.
The youth have been very savvy about coming together and mobilizing with a cause, and it is cool to be awake and aware. I love that this generation is very much the driving force behind a certain degree of consciousness.
Your high-profile role of Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes in Netflix’s Luke Cage—a Marvel superhero show with a predominantly African-American cast and an African-American showrunner—will mark a major milestone this fall. What do you think sets it apart from Jessica Jones and Daredevil?
If you are a fan of the Marvel world at all, you will be blown away. I think this series will be more in line with the Complex audience, more than the Jessica Jones or even the Daredevil series, because of the way in which showrunner Cheo Coker is able to very organically incorporate “urban culture.” It’s done in a way that feels about as real as you’re gonna get.
From watching the first episode, it’s instantly apparent that music is really going to impact the storytelling of the show. Is that something we can continue to expect throughout the series?
You got composer Adrian Younge and [A Tribe Called Quest’s] Ali Shaheed Muhammad doing the music and soundtrack throughout the whole series. There are Wu-Tang samples here and there. The way in which the show was layered musically, I don’t think other shows would access the gatekeepers and bastions of hip-hop to create a sonic character through the piece. Because Cheo’s done that, it just makes the world so rich. The way the story moves, it feels a little Shakespearean in some ways: These larger themes about family and jealousy and loyalties and all that. I think it’s really gonna blow.
We need a #LukeCageSoLit hashtag to go along with Black Panther. As an actor, how do you see the entertainment industry addressing the demands for inclusion?
I’m so happy knowing that project is even in production and that Ryan Coogler is involved. All the actors are going to be terrific in it. I’m excited to see that there are people of color, whether they be black or otherwise, having more opportunities to be present in the fantasy world. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t exist in these alternate universes and in the future and what not, especially when you have all these epic fantasy tales and nobody of color in there. [Laughs.] It’s exciting that in those worlds, whether it’s the heroes and villains in the superhero world, or the fantasy or the magic realism films and what not, there are openings for people of color to be present in that—and not just be in it, but to have leading parts. That’s when you get true equality.
You have to cultivate the palate of the audience so that those become commonplace, so that it isn’t such a big deal to see a movie with a black lead in it or a Hispanic lead or an Asian lead. Those things need to be commonplace. That’s the world we live in.