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Encore: Mahershala Ali Plays An Unlikely Father Figure In 'Moonlight'

Feb 27, 2017
Originally published on February 28, 2017 8:02 pm

Mahershala Ali won the Academy Award for best supporting actor for his role in Moonlight. NPR's Kelly McEvers spoke to Ali in October about his experience working on the film, which won the Oscar for best picture. This story originally aired on Oct. 21, 2016 on All Things Considered.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The first cast member of "Moonlight" to take the stage last night was Mahershala Ali. He won the Oscar for best supporting actor. In the film, he plays a man conflicted about being both a drug dealer and father figure to the story's hero.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Our colleague Kelly McEvers spoke to Ali last fall about how he got into the business and whether he anticipated the limited number of roles Hollywood offers to young black actors.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

MAHERSHALA ALI: My dad had introduced me to indie films. So the stuff that I had a taste for, I'd certainly never saw myself in those parts. So growing up, it definitely affected my confidence or me understanding what could be accomplished because of only seeing myself in a very limited way.

It's been really hard for me to say I want to be a leading man, like to really say that. Because when I was growing up, I didn't see that. But I did see people helping the leading man. And the people helping the leading man always looked like me. And then when you feel it from the inside out, it's a little frustrating, but the industry's changing. So these young men in this movie, they're going to have an entirely different experience than I've had...

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: Right.

ALI: ...Being in this business now for a decade and a half. I've been working for 16 years.

MCEVERS: You know, in the past couple years, you have played a really diverse range of characters - of course Remy Danton...

ALI: Oh, yeah.

MCEVERS: ...Ruthless power broker on "House Of Cards."

ALI: My buddy.

MCEVERS: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

MCEVERS: Your buddy, really. And then of course there's the complicated villain who kind of has a heart, Cottonmouth from "Luke Cage" on Netflix. I don't know, you're just, like, playing, like, this spectrum of, like, black maleness. Does it feel - I don't know, do you feel a - like a weight of responsibility? You know, I mean, there's a lot of complicated nuance in these characters.

ALI: I feel the responsibility to try to do great work. And that keeps me up at night sometime, just, you know, trying to figure out what my in is with these characters and how to really connect to them and sort of lose myself in them for that 16 hours a day. I have no interest in playing myself. I really don't think I'm that interesting.

I think that these characters though, the ones that I say yes to, are really interesting to me. And I respond to the ones where I feel like there's a shaft of light, like there's a little opening there where I can power the entire person through that one little connection. So whether he's a drug dealer or a gun runner or what have you, that if I can just make him human, then that is the goal for me right now.

(SOUNDBITE OF NATIONAL SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF DUKAS' "THE SORCERER'S APPRENTICE")

SHAPIRO: That's Academy Award winner Mahershala Ali talking with our co-host Kelly McEvers back in October.

(SOUNDBITE OF NATIONAL SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF DUKAS' "THE SORCERER'S APPRENTICE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.