THE past few weeks have been extraordinary for Mahershala Ali. His new movie, Green Book, has scooped accolades and acclaim aplenty, establishing him as very much the man of the moment. But behind the searing story of a divided and bigoted America — one which won Ali best supporting actor at the Golden Globes as well as snagging the film five Oscar nominations — lies the star’s own remarkable story after his conversion to Islam in 2000.
‘It’s not easy being a Muslim in America,’ Ali says with a wry smile as we meet in a London hotel. ‘The government stopped us from buying a house in Los Angeles because we’re Muslim so they needed to check us out a little more. We were buying a rental property and they stopped it. The bank had to report it to Homeland Security because of a Muslim making a certain type of purchase so they had to get itcleared. For me, it’s about how I react to it. I just really don’t want somebody to have that type of control over my well-being or over my relationship with the world.’
Born as Mahershalalhashbaz Gilmore in Oakland, California, Ali has been surrounded by wholesome influences his whole life. Raised by his mother, a Christian minister, he also cites his grandparents.
‘They were the strongest example of consistency and reliability for me,’ he says. ‘They were real rocks and cornerstones in my upbringing. They were consistent, supportive, absolutely loving — not at all judgmental. They were just real guardian angels for me.’
While his father was an actor who left home for a Broadway career, Ali studied acting in the Bay Area and New York. By 2000 he’d become a Muslim, changing his name to Ali in the process. He encountered various issues post-9/11, not least discovering his name was on a watch list for air travel. But like his Green Book character, Ali learnt to react with dignity. ‘I just try to be true to myself,’ he says.
In the 1960s-set Green Book, he plays real-life musician Dr Don Shirley, a highly educated, classically trained pianist who hires a gruff Italian-American bouncer, Tony ‘Lip’ Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), to drive him across the racially segregated Deep South. A real odd-couple tale — the precious ‘Doc’, the prejudiced ‘Tony Lip’ — the two men learn to overcome their differences. But Green Book is also a frank portrait of a divided America and Shirley, who refuses to be beaten down by the bigots.
‘I think the dignity he carried himself with was par for the course at that time,’ Ali says. ‘I think that was a way in which many African Americans carried themselves and responded to complicated, disheartening situations and circumstances. I feel like we really need to connect with hope right now. In some ways that’s why this movie is speaking to people.’
With Ali and co-star Mortensen both up for prizes, it might just be the feel-good film of the year.
‘Let’s make a new term,’ says Ali with a smile. ‘Feel-great.’
It’s an apt description also for Ali’s current state of mind. Two years ago, just as his wife, artist Amatus Sami Karim, was giving birth to their first child, daughter Bari, he collected a best supporting actor Oscar for playing a drug dealer in Moonlight. It was enough to turn him from TV regular on shows like House Of Cards into leading man. Alongside Green Book, he’s also fronting the third season of True Detective. Speaking methodically, with an aura of calm, there probably isn’t a more humble man in Hollywood.
‘I’m really fortunate to be here today… I’m not just saying that,’ says the 44-year-old. ‘To have an opportunity to be a lead in a film after working professionally for 20 years, that doesn’t happen to a lot of people.’
But for this courteous man, it’s a success richly deserved indeed.
Ali: ‘I love the Beeb!’
Mahershala Ali is a secret BBC drama fanatic…
‘Those are all my favourite shows, like The Fall and Happy Valley,’ he says. ‘A lot of those BBC detective shows. I loved Luther when it came out.’
Though when we meet, he hasn’t seen — or even heard of — BBC sensation Bodyguard. ‘Is it on Netflix?’ he asks.
BBC drama turned him on to playing Detective Wayne Hays in the new True Detective. ‘I was really looking for an opportunity to play a detective,’ he says.
An ardent admirer of the Nic Pizzolatto-created show, ‘True Detective was one of those that spoke to me in the deepest way,’ he says. ‘It set the barometer for what I wanted to do in TV.’
Oscar Ali’s top 5 rivals for Best Supporting Actor
Richard E Grant — Can You Ever Forgive Me?
The Withnail & I actor had, incredibly, never won a solo award. At 62, he’s suddenly got 20 wins. Bet on him to snaffle the Bafta from Ali. Odds to win 4/1
Adam Driver — BlacKkKlansman
Will the Force be strong with him? The Star Wars star has been nominated multiple times for best supporting role for BlacKkKlansman but not yet won. Odds to win 20/1
Sam Elliott — A Star Is Born
The Big Lebowski’s cowboy is so essential to A Star Is Born that Bradley Cooper dropped his own voice an octave just to convincingly play his little brother. Odds to win 7/1
Sam Rockwell — Vice
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri scooped him pretty much every best supporting gong going in 2017. Only fair to let someone else have a turn? Odds to win 20/1
Timothée Chalamet — Beautiful Boy
Bafta, Golden Globe and SAG-nominated for playing a junkie in Beautiful Boy. No Oscar nod but in this year’s race anything could still happen… Odds to win 500/1
■ Green Book is in cinemas from today