Mahershala Ali is set to kick off 2019 in a big way as the new lead of HBO’s anthology crime series “True Detective,” but he wouldn’t have gotten the lucrative role had he not spoken up for himself. The Oscar winner recently told Variety Season 3 was originally written by creator Nic Pizzolatto with a white male character as the lead. Ali was offered a supporting role, but he refused to settle for the same offer he’s seen throughout his career.
“I could’ve played that second lead, that supporting career,” Ali said. “But in my mind, I was like, ‘I’ve done this my entire career though. I’ve never done that. At that time, I’m 43 years old. If it don’t happen now, it really may not happen.”
Ali decided to pitch himself as the lead for “True Detective” Season 3, which meant proving to Pizzolatto that the show could still work, and even work better, by switching the race of the lead protagonist. Step one for Ali was sending the creator a series of photographs depicting Ali’s grandfather, who served as a state police officer.
“I was like, ‘See, we existed in this space. In the ’60s and the ’70s. State police officers,’” Ali said. “I was like, ‘I think your story would be served, I think the story would be improved in this case, if this lead character was black.’”
Changing the lead character from a white male to a black male would fundamentally change the season, especially because it is set in 1980 Arkansas. Ali told Pizzolatto casting him as the lead would allow “True Detective” to explore topical themes of race by focusing on a black detective experiencing racism in the 1980s.
“You’re asking someone questions, and [you’re] the lead detective. If [they’re] white, they might not look at me. When I ask them a question, they’re addressing [the white detective],” Ali said. “Racism is not experienced as the n-word, all the time. It’s more like, ‘Yo, you wouldn’t even look me in the eye.’ Or I said thank you and he just brushed me off.”
According to Ali, Pizzolatto took a few days to weigh the pros and cons of the pitch. Ali said when the creator called him a couple days later, “He was like, ‘Yo, let’s do this.’” “True Detective” Season 3 stars Ali as Detective Hays over multiple timelines. A tragic case in the Ozarks from Hays’ past resurfaces decades later, prompting him back into the case that’s remaining a mystery for now. The supporting cast includes Carmen Ejogo, Mamie Gummer, and Scoot McNairy.
“True Detective” Season 3 premieres January 13 on HBO. Ali can currently be seen on the big screen opposite Viggo Mortensen in “Green Book.”