‘Swan Song’ Leading Man Mahershala Ali Doesn’t Leave Anything to Chance

Filling the spaces and silences in his roles has distinguished this actor, who talks to IndieWire about his latest role in the Apple sci-fi drama.

"Swan Song"

Mahershala Ali’s breakout year in 2016 marked his departure from David Fincher’s Netflix series “House of Cards,” to open up more time to shoot such new projects as Marvel gangster series “Luke Cage” (Netflix) and Oscar contenders “Moonlight” and “Hidden Figures.”  The college basketball player who earned a Masters in acting from NYU had deliberately weighed every choice in order to get to a place where he could gracefully transition from theater and television into film roles. (That included shortening the Bay Area native’s first name, Mahershalalhashbaz.) The doors swung wide open, from James Cameron’s “Alita: Battle Angel” with director Robert Rodriguez, to premium limited series “Ramy” and “True Detective.” And he soon followed his “Moonlight” Supporting Actor Oscar with a second, for 2019 Best Picture winner “Green Book.”

It’s hard to believe that family drama “Swan Song” (Apple TV+) marks the lauded actor’s first leading film role — and his first feature as a producer. His juiciest role so far was as New York jazz musician Don Shirley in “Green Book.” The movie was such a two-hander that Ali had to wrestle with whether to compete with his costar Viggo Mortensen at the Oscars. “He has 20 minutes before I’m in it,” he said. “You see into his life personally; you don’t see Don Shirley’s world without Tony Lip’s character. You do get a sense of what his life is like without Don Shirley. It’s a lead. [Don] comes into it later, he’s not carrying it. He’s such a phenomenal actor: I don’t want to be up against Viggo where there’s more runway for him!”

After Ali’s manager at Anonymous Content sent him the “Swan Song” script from Irish Oscar-winner Benjamin Cleary (short “Stutterer”), Ali was surprised. “Usually stories that have a sci-fi backdrop tend to go dark,” he said. “There are hints of that, but it felt fresh. It stayed about character, his humanity, love, loss, and family, the attributes that made it too human stayed the point of focus.”

Mahershala Ali is starring in Marvel's "Blade"

Mahershala Ali is starring in Marvel’s “Blade”

Michael Buckner/Variety

Television gives actors time to explore the arcs of a character, but the grind is limiting compared to film. “TV doesn’t allow for that type of time and nuance. There’s such a pressure to have to fit into a 52-minute format,” said Ali. “Films use a different dialect; there can be a consistent silence, and voids become your responsibility to fill. You only get to do that if you practice it. There’s responsibility to carry the beats, connect the dots through the silences. My work with Barry Jenkins and Derek Cianfrance was great training ground for that.”

In terms of film, this is the first time it’s been on Ali to carry the story. He movingly nails the complicated journey of Cameron, a man in the near-future who is diagnosed with a terminal illness and gets an offer from a scientist (Glenn Close) to clone himself. “He’s going through a probationary phase of processing,” said Ali. “Does he trust this? He’s managing his discomfort around not being able to communicate to his wife Poppy, played by Naomie Harris. He isn’t able to get her feedback. He’s conflicted on this journey toward whether to clone himself or not. Is it OK morally?”

Ali felt strongly that as long as he was playing a part that was not written specifically for a Black man, that he should add some depth to it. His two characters, Cameron and his clone Jack, would know, he said, “that intense fear around leaving your child without a male figure and father in their lives, to help be able to raise them in a healthy way.”

Mahershala Ali as Don Shirley in "Green Book"

Mahershala Ali as Don Shirley in “Green Book”

Universal Pictures

He figured the way to distinguish the two identical men was to make the ill Cameron older and slower and Jack younger and more spry. “I thought of it that way, looking at twins, where the power in the room had to go to Cameron,” said Ali. “He must be the older brother so to speak, while Jack was always in the subservient position asking for permission to everything. That’s in his body language. He’s humbling himself to Cameron, which was necessary for Jack getting what he wants.”

Ali’s stature in the Hollywood pyramid has been hard-won. Step by step, from small roles in studio films like Fincher’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” to indies like Cianfrance’s “The Place Beyond the Pines” and Barry Jenkins producer Adele Romanski’s “Kicks,” Ali made sure not to jeopardize his chances to land bigger quality parts, aware that the clock was ticking. “I said ‘no’ to things I didn’t feel were right,” he said. “I made the best choices given the opportunity, aware of where I wanted to be. I was conscious that anything I said ‘yes’ to would impact my ability to move over to the spaces I wanted to be. It’s not like I felt I’d have gotten a lead any earlier. As the years started passing by, I didn’t want to miss that window.”

Mahershala Ali and Alex R. Hibbert in "Moonlight"


David Bornfriend/A24

It’s long been frustrating for Ali and other minority actors to read characters who aren’t close to being dimensional. “Who is making the decisions impacts how the stories feel,” he said. “It’s equally important who is executing the decisions, how to texture the rooms so that certain things don’t make it into production. An actor or performer doesn’t want to feel like they’re teaching all the time, to explain nuances to people who don’t carry an awareness of everyday life, are not hearing a house full of Black and brown folks talking about specific things in our culture. That awareness is a necessary tool in creating art, content, and films that [reflect] our world.”

With his growing clout, Ali is finding more ways to push for inclusion behind the camera. “We have to have people in producer, department head, and studio positions,” he said. “So that it doesn’t fall on actors to authenticate stories for a whole demographic. It’s changing, it’s getting better. If you’re the lone Black actor or Black producer, you’re the one responsible. That’s problematic. You’re only being paid to act in it, but you know if this doesn’t go well, the movie can be hurt by it. You’re carrying the baggage out there in the world, because you’re the face of it.”

Next up: more leading roles. Ali is getting into the best shape of his life to star in Marvel’s “Blade,” taking over the Wesley Snipes role. He’s starring in Sam Esmail’s family drama “Leave the World Behind,” based on Rumaan Alam’s apocalyptic novel, with Julia Roberts. And there’s another book adaptation, “The Plot.” And he’ll take on the first Black heavyweight champion of the world, Jack Johnson, for HBO’s unlimited series “Unruly.”

And more than ever before, there are more rising Black actors ready to jump on whatever he’s turning down.

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This Article is related to: Awards Spotlight Winter 2022 and tagged , ,

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