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Interview: Mahershala Ali Talks ‘Hunger Games,’ ‘House of Cards,’ Dream Role, Race in the Industry

Interview: Mahershala Ali Talks 'Hunger Games,' 'House of Cards,' Dream Role, Race in the Industry

In “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1,” Mahershala Ali plays Boggs. He is introduced to us as President Coin’s (Julianne Moore) right hand man. After Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) assumes the role of the Mockingjay, Boggs becomes her personal bodyguard.  

At a recent junket for the film, we spoke with Ali about working on the project, “House of Cards,” his dream role, and race in the film and television industry.

Aramide Tinubu: First, I’d like to say congratulations on all of your success.  I’ve been watching “House of Cards” and I’m obsessed with “The Hunger Games,” like the majority of America.  I’d like to start off by asking how you prepared to become Boggs. At the 2013 Emmy’s, you spoke about working to truly understand the characters that you portray. Boggs has always lived underground. How did you prepare to become him?

Mahershala Ali: One of the first things I wanted to do was change how I felt in my body. I couldn’t change my look because I was finishing up “House of Cards,” so I couldn’t grow out a beard, or grow hair or anything like that; which I would have ideally loved to do. It felt appropriate for the character at the time. So, the best thing I could do was begin to lift weights a little. I had worked on slimming down in the last couple of years just to be able to look like a businessman in a suit for “House of Cards.” So now, I wanted to feel a little bit more present and just different in my body, so I picked up like five to seven pounds, so I was working out quite a bit. And then, going to work, I kind of just changed the environment for myself, sonically. There were a couple of albums I would listen to in my trailer to put me in the headspace of District 13.  So I was listening to this Method Man album “Tical,” which came out in like ’94 or ’95.  It just sounded appropriate for the piece it sounded like “District 13” to me; in that time, and in this building rebellion.  So then I just build. The work that I do with all of my characters is have some sense of where they come from.  I kind of create my own story for myself. What’s going on with my parents, are they alive?  Or family, do I have children?  Do you see those things or not? All the mental work that I have to do to be present and give off a sense of truth that can connect with the audience.

Aramide Tinubu: I think that’s amazing. What I would like to know is because Boggs has always lived underground how does he envision a free Panem? What does that mean to him? Were you able to see that far in the future for him?

Mahershala Ali: You know I think I felt with Boggs, what I felt myself connecting to, was the reality; the idea that he actually may never live above ground. Knowing that the revolt is coming and to see your parents live and die underground. I’m forty years old, so obviously Boggs is near or around my age, so I just imagined being born and raised underground for forty years and you imagine your parents doing that as well. So living above ground is not a reality that he knows. Just like my grandfather living to see a Black President before he passed away. That’s something that he would have always wanted to see happen but, did he really expect that to happen?  So in that way it’s not dissimilar in that you’re fighting for that, you’re hoping for that, and trying to create that reality and carve out that freedom for yourself. It was something that I found myself hoping for, but I wasn’t necessarily stuck on that revealing itself.  So if anything, more so living and believing that I’m going to die fighting for this. That was more so what I found myself resolving.

Aramide Tinubu: So he’s a true soldier?  

Mahershala Ali: Yeah, so if I survive this, great! But expecting almost to die fighting for this cause. Which is what he already knew, and which is where he comes from.

Aramide Tinubu: Going back to what you were saying about having a Black grandfather who never thought he’d see a Black President. After the casting was announced in the first film, there was a ton of backlash because Black actors had been cast even though it was in accordance to their character’s descriptions. Your character is described as having light hair and blue eyes. How did that affect you? In an interview with The Root, you said that people are still afraid to talk about race. Do you still believe that?

Mahershala Ali: You know its funny; until you brought that up just now I’d almost kind of forgotten about it. And that’s not to say that it’s not something that I think about, or that I don’t deal with in some way every day. But, I just got so invested in the character and what his agenda and objectives were. I think it’s important that we have to find a way to keep fighting for those opportunities. I think the people in the position to make those creative choices have to be open-minded. And I really appreciate that they approached it that way; where they were thinking outside the box. They said, well this character can be any color. He can be Black, he can be Asian, he can be whatever. So, to get the opportunity to [play the role] was a two way street. I really appreciate the opportunity to play someone who doesn’t look like me on paper. But, at a certain point it doesn’t really matter. Sometimes things matter, because the story is about a girl who is white and both of her parents need to be white. But sometimes it doesn’t matter so it’s nice when people recognize that and give the right actor the opportunity; someone who can carry the essence of that particular character and bring it to life.

Aramide Tinubu: “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Pat 1” is extremely dark, much more so I think than the past two films. Did the tone of the film affect the mood onset?

Mahershala Ali: If it did I wouldn’t know. We laughed between every take, we had such a blast; a great time. What was really impressive to me was to see Jennifer, who is such a young and dynamic actor to play and laugh and joke around, and then as soon as Francis called action to drop in and be exactly what she needed to be to tell Katniss’ story. That was new. I hadn’t been around people who played and laughed that much. And that’s not always appropriate for every movie but, they had their thing worked out to a really tight nit, close group. From the top down everybody was light on their feet, and it made it a really fun set. And I think maybe it needed to be that way because the subject matter is so heavy and it’s such a dark turn in that trilogy. And you are spending eight months with people, day in and day out. You have to have a good time, and we did every single day.

Aramide Tinubu: Speaking of multicultural casts, despite having been in the business for well over a decade, “House of Cards” has really made you a household name. Has your role as Remy Danton reaped any unexpected benefits?

Mahershala Ali: I don’t think I would have gotten this (his role as Boggs in Mockingjay Part 1 and 2) if it wasn’t for “House of Cards.”  It definitely puts you in the conversation for all of the right jobs. That’s an important thing for an actor, momentum. The really special thing about that show is that you can have a show that thirty million people watch but it terms of getting your next job, the right people might not watch that show.  And you can have a show one million people watch, the viewership for “Mad Men” is not necessarily all that big, but the right people watch that show. “House of Cards” is a show where, even though we don’t know the metrics on it, (because they won’t release those) but I have a feeling that a lot of people watch it. Also, what’s unique about it is that all the right industry folks watch it, so you’re in the conversation, whether you get the job or not.  Whether you’re right for that project or not, you’re still in the conversation. You can’t really ask for more than that as an actor. You might get to a place where you’re getting offers left and right but, where I find myself at right now in my career; that’s the best that I can ask for right now, is to be in the conversation. So, I have an opportunity to take a meeting. or I have an opportunity to put myself on tape and really be taken seriously for that next part.

Aramide Tinubu: So what is your dream role?

Mahershala Ali: My dream role is Jack Johnson, the first Black heavyweight champion.

Aramide Tinubu: Wow, that’s Amazing I can definitely see that. I know that you probably can’t reveal much about “House of Cards” and where Remy’s going to be. He is very much a man without allegiance now. He’s screwed over both Underwood and Tusk. Where can he go from there? Can you give us a hint about where we may find him in Season 3?

Mahershala Ali: I will tell you this; he has landed somewhere. He’s got a new job and he will be present in the new season trying to wheel and deal a little bit.

Aramide Tinubu: Fantastic, thank you so much this has been great.

Mahershala Ali: Great to meet you it’s been a pleasure, and I like you all’s site I peek on it sometimes.

“The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1” comes to theaters on November 21.

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Aramide A Tinubu has her Master’s in Film Studies from Columbia University. She wrote her thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a Black Cinema geek and blogger. You can read her blog at: www.chocolategirlinthecity.co   or tweet her @midnightrami

This Article is related to: Interviews