• Golden Globe Awards

Nominee Profile 2022: Mahershala Ali, “Swan Song”

Truth be told, 2016 was a good year for Golden Globe nominee Mahershala Ali. He had been playing the role of President Francis Underwood’s press secretary on the Golden Globe-winning series House of Cards for three seasons. In 2015 he was given the role of Cornell ‘Cottonmouth’ Stokes in the Marvel series Luke Cage, which came out a year later. More importantly, a young African American director named Barry Jenkins offered him the part of Juan in a little movie he had written called Moonlight. Ali was filming Moonlight and Hidden Figures back-to-back. Both films ended up with Golden Globe nominations. The actor received a nomination and Moonlight won the Best Motion Picture Drama award.
Born in Oakland, CA as Mahershalalhashbaz Gilmore, he was a college basketball player before earning a MA in acting from NYU and starting his career on the stage. He broke into screen acting in the series Crossing Jordan, followed by several other ensemble roles in everything from CSI and NYPD Blue to The 4400 and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. Director Gary Ross hired him for The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Parts 1 and 2. He acted in the TV series Treme, again for Ross, in Free State of Jones.
By the end of that wonderful year 2016, perhaps due to his success in Moonlight, Ali had become a household name. He cemented his fame in 2018 and 2019 when he played the real-life New York jazz musician Dr. Donald Shirley in the Golden Globe winner Green Book. On TV he starred in True Detective. Ali also worked with Robert Rodriguez’s Alita: Battle Angel. His acting in Green Book won him his first Golden Globe. Now, at only 47, Ali has won 80 acting awards and has been nominated for another 85.
Throughout it all, he has never just looked for a big payday but has chosen his roles very carefully. This is what he said when meeting with the Hollywood Foreign Press team of journalists: “I really only want to work when I have something to say. That’s when I know I’ll really wake up and be up for the challenge.” And he added this: “I know that, if I’m saying yes to something, it’s probably something I’m a little uncomfortable with.”
It is precisely this discomfort and this keen interest in the story and character that drives his choices. He accepted the part in the television series Ramy because he felt, as a Muslim himself, that “any time you can make something that people haven’t seen enough of – and sort of make it less exotic, make it more human, more palatable – I think is important.”
Ali also notes the shift in opportunities for people of color who normally do not have a voice in Hollywood: “Look at Moonlight. Film has changed because of Moonlight in terms of some of the Black voices getting opportunities that are not strictly in a super narrow frame from what we were doing before Moonlight…”
Swan Song is a departure of sorts for the actor. He plays Cameron, a man in the near future who is diagnosed with a terminal illness and decides to become the test person for a scientific cloning experiment. Ali carries the entire film. The actor says that the story, unlike so many other sci-fi films he had come across, felt fresh because it was about the humanity of this man.
In the coming year, Ali will start shooting Sam Esmail’s family drama Leave the World Behind with Golden Globe winner Julia Roberts. He will also take over the lead in Marvel’s Blade.