In 'Moonlight,' Actor Mahershala Ali Found Characters He Recognized

Feb 16, 2017
Originally published on February 16, 2017 3:24 pm

In the recent film, Moonlight, Mahershala Ali plays an unlikely father figure to a quiet young African-American boy named Chiron. At school, Chiron is bullied. At home, he is neglected by a mother who is addicted to crack. Ali's character, Juan, is a drug dealer who takes Chiron under his wing in an attempt to provide him with some stability.

Ali, whose performance earned him an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor, tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross that he knew men like Juan growing up.

"Those were the guys who had access and had money, and ... some felt responsible to create opportunity for other people," he says. "When I read Moonlight ... I was blown away by seeing characters from my own life and people that I recognized on the page."

In January, Ali won the Screen Actors Guild award for Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Supporting Role. In a moving acceptance speech, he said, "What I've learned from working on Moonlight is: We see what happens when you persecute people — they fold into themselves."

Though he was never treated the way Chiron was, Ali says he knows what it is to be on the outside. "There were periods of time where I didn't feel understood," he says. "There were very few people around me that I felt like they really got me."


Interview Highlights

On his experience growing up

We were moving around a lot, so I couldn't really hold on to a certain set of friends. That was a little bit difficult, and also ... my father lived in New York. So I was going out there in the summers and meeting really interesting people. ... And so I would go to the big city and watch these people performing on stage and doing television and films and then I would go back to Hayward [Calif.] and it just suddenly felt that much smaller. ... I had this hyper-awareness of how much larger the world was.

On his conversion to Islam

I converted Dec. 31, 1999. It was a Friday. That was my second time going to the mosque. The woman who is my wife now ... was basically raised Muslim — and she was at that point where she was deciding or trying to come to terms with her own relationship with Islam and how to embrace that for herself. ...

I went to a mosque in Philadelphia with her ... and I just had such a strong reaction to the prayer. I felt really grounded at that time, and so to be in this prayer and the imam is doing the prayer in Arabic, and I don't understand a word of Arabic, but I just remember these tears just coming down my face, and it just really connecting to my spirit in a way that felt like I needed to pay attention to that.

On how it felt to be a Muslim American after Sept. 11

You folded into yourself, because people were looking at you and recognizing you as being the culprit, even though — look, I'm American, I don't believe the teachings of Islam justify those actions. I feel like those acts are un-Islamic. So to see that happen and somebody do that in the name of God, and the religion that you practice, it hurts your heart so deeply, because it's such a misrepresentation of the faith. And you're an American, so you're hurt that other American citizens have been hurt. But you end up having to shoulder the shame for something that you don't even believe.

I think that there's this perception that Muslims really do condone and believe that this violence is OK and that the faith teaches it — but it doesn't. So there's a lot of years where Muslims have dealt with having to make themselves very small and not disrupt the flow and make sure you're not noticed.

On his birth name, Mahershalalhashbaz, which is Hebrew

I remember after 9/11 I was working quite a bit in Vancouver, and then I realized I would go to catch my flight and it would take me, like, 20 minutes to get cleared to fly, like every time. ...

Eventually I found out that I was on a watch list. ... This is 2003 [or 2004]. ... After the Patriot Act, I would always get my financial packages in the mail and they would just be opened. It was like, "What is going on here?"... On that watch list they would be like, "Yeah your name matches the name of a terrorist or someone that they're watching." I was like, "What terrorist is running around with a Hebrew first name and an Arabic last name? Who's that guy?"

On playing Division I basketball in college and transitioning to acting

I wanted to get that Division I scholarship and play ball and go to school for free, and I was always about getting to that next step. ... I was always ahead of myself in some way, shape or form, and trying to envision how to get further along and closer to fulfilling that dream of being free and having creative agency, so to speak.

So getting to St. Mary's College was a big deal for me, because that essentially led to me getting to go to NYU. In my time at St. Mary's College[I began] drifting out of sports, because it was something that began to feel really finite. I could see that I didn't have the passion to sustain a career in sports. ...

At a certain point basketball became the thing I was doing most, but it was really in my periphery. It was really a focus on how to, in some ways, keep moving in this direction towards something that allowed me to express myself in a way that sports didn't.

On the roles he played in grad school

When I was in grad school I sort of got lulled into basically forgetting I was black — meaning that everyone you play at a conservatory, 95 percent of the characters are non-black. So, if anything, you're thinking about: How do I transcend this, how do I transform and be believable as Krogstad in A Doll's House or Sir Peter Teazle in [The] School for Scandal, you know? ...

Once you graduate is when you start to find yourself looking at the information in the audition breakdown and it says, "tall, black" or "African-American, built such-and-such" and you start seeing these character descriptions and seeing that, "Oh, you're only going in for the ones that are described as your look." So if anything, in my mind, I never wanted to accept that and so I have always fought against that.

Copyright 2017 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest Mahershala Ali co-stars in two films nominated for best picture Oscars, "Moonlight" and "Hidden Figures." And he's nominated as best supporting actor for his performance in "Moonlight." That performance won him a SAG Award, a Screen Actors Guild Award last month. He gave a very moving acceptance speech in which he referred to converting to Islam. We'll talk about that later.

Ali was in four seasons of the Netflix series "House Of Cards." He co-stars in the Netflix series "Luke Cage," which is an adaptation of the Marvel Comics superhero series. And he played Boggs in the first two "Hunger Games" films. Let's start with a scene from "Moonlight."

Ali plays Juan, a drug dealer who comes across a young boy named Chiron who's being bullied. Juan take Chiron under his wing and becomes a father figure, offering the kind of guidance that the boy's increasingly crack-addicted mother is not providing. In this scene at Juan's house, Juan and his girlfriend are trying to reassure Chiron who is upset because the boys bullying him have called him a faggot and he doesn't know what that means.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MOONLIGHT")

ALEX HIBBERT: (As Little) What's a faggot?

MAHERSHALA ALI: (As Juan) A faggot is a word used to make gay people feel bad.

HIBBERT: (As Little) Am I a faggot?

ALI: (As Juan) No. No. You could be gay, but you ain't got to let nobody call you no faggot. I mean, unless...

HIBBERT: (As Little) How do I know?

ALI: (As Juan) You just do, I think.

JANELLE MONAE: (As Teresa) You'll know when you know.

ALI: (As Juan) Hey, you ain't got to know it right now. All right? Not yet.

HIBBERT: (As Little) Do you sell drugs?

ALI: (As Juan) Yeah.

HIBBERT: (As Little) And my mama - she do drugs, right?

ALI: (As Juan) Yeah.

GROSS: Mahershala Ali, welcome to FRESH AIR. I love your performance in this film. Congratulations.

ALI: Thank you.

GROSS: When I interviewed Tarell McCraney, who is the playwright that wrote the play that the movie's based on, he said a lot of it came out of his own personal experience. You know, when he was young, his mother was addicted to crack. And one of the guys that she dated was a drug dealer who befriended Tarell...

ALI: Right.

GROSS: ...When Tarell was young and became, like, a really important presence in his life and a very...

ALI: Yes.

GROSS: ...A very helpful presence in his life. So that character that you portray is rooted in Tarell McCraney's reality. Was he rooted in your reality? Did you know characters like that? Did you know people like that who were...

ALI: Yes.

GROSS: ...Both, like, drug dealers and could be very ruthless if they needed to be but could also really be just kind of, like, you know, warm and gentle and encouraging?

ALI: Look, honestly, the reality is is that there's a lot of guys like that. And anyone who grew up in the crack era - you know, I grew up in that era - knew that there were also people out - and there are still guys to this day that are out there, you know, obviously drug dealing - but those were the guys who had access and had money. And some of those guys felt responsible to create opportunity for other people and were also aware of the dangers of their work and often aren't really the ones that are encouraging kids to get into drug dealing.

And when I read "Moonlight," Juan reminded me of several people that I knew - at least parts of them, anyway - that I knew growing up. And I was a little surprised at Barry capturing that reality. That just wasn't something that I...

GROSS: Who's Barry Jenkins, the director of the film.

ALI: Barry Jenkins, the director, yes. I was a little bit surprised at actually reading that. I know I was blown away by seeing characters from my own life and people that I recognized on the page.

GROSS: Did the crack epidemic have a direct impact on your life?

ALI: It definitely has impacted folks in my family, most definitely. Look, I think that's true for most, if not all people, regardless of color, that grew up in and around areas that were closer to the nucleus of the crack epidemic. Like, where - like, if you look at, you know, what happened in, say, you know, Baltimore or D.C., Detroit, Chicago, Oakland, like, Los Angeles.

GROSS: What was your neighborhood?

ALI: I was born in Oakland and grew up, probably about five miles from Oakland, in Hayward. And Hayward was OK. Like, Hayward wasn't - very much a working-class area and had definitely went through a decline and is now, seemingly, coming back around, which is nice to see. But Oakland was definitely where that was happening when I was growing up - where that was more of a problem.

GROSS: Did you ever get into any kind of trouble yourself?

ALI: Nothing serious. I was fortunately able to avoid getting into any trouble with police. There was - I remember I was 12, and I did something really (laughter) - a couple of friends, Cinco de Mayo - we were off school, and we saw some people looking like they were having a party. And we had a little bit too much time on our hands, and so we figured, as kids, a great idea would be to throw some things over the fence and hit all these people with stuff, like eggs and everything. Come to find out, it was, post-funeral, people were gathered together. Yeah, hanging out.

GROSS: That's really awful.

ALI: And it was...

GROSS: Yeah.

ALI: And - yeah. So that was the time I got in trouble with the police. We got caught throwing eggs and ketchup on people who we thought were having a party. But it was post-funeral, and that was pretty horrible. But besides that, I've been able to stay out of trouble and very grateful for that.

GROSS: So you won a SAG Award last month for your performance in "Moonlight." I loved your acceptance speech. And for listeners...

ALI: Thank you.

GROSS: ...Who haven't heard it, we're going to play it right now (laughter). It's a short acceptance speech.

ALI: I thought you were going to make me do it again. You scared me for a moment.

GROSS: Yeah, yeah - by heart.

ALI: For listeners who haven't heard it...

GROSS: Please recite it now (laughter).

ALI: ...Say it again.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: OK. So here's a recording from the SAG Awards last month.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE 23RD ANNUAL SCREEN ACTORS GUILD AWARDS)

ALI: I think what I've learned from working on "Moonlight" is we see what happens when you persecute people. They fold into themselves. And what I was so grateful about in having the opportunity to play Juan was playing a gentleman who saw a young man folding into himself as a result of the persecution of his community and taking that opportunity to uplift him and tell him that he mattered and that he was OK and accept him. And I hope that we do a better job with that.

(APPLAUSE)

ALI: You know, when we kind of get caught up in the minutiae, the details that make us all different, I think there's two ways of seeing that. There's an opportunity to see the texture of that person, the characteristics that make them unique. And then there's an opportunity to go to war about it and to say that that person is different from me and I don't like you, so let's battle.

My mother is an ordained minister. I'm a Muslim. She didn't do backflips when I called her to tell her I converted 17 years ago. But I tell you now, we put things to the side, and I was able to - I'm able to see her. She's able to see me. We love each other. The love has grown. And that stuff is minutiae. It's not that important.

(APPLAUSE)

GROSS: That was a really beautiful speech that you gave.

ALI: Thank you.

GROSS: You were really tearing up when you were talking about people who were persecuted by their own community. It sounds like that's something you really personally connected with. Were you thinking of things that happened to you when you said that?

ALI: Well, look, yeah. I just - I've - I have seen it, and I've personally been on the outside sometimes. But I was - I personally was never persecuted especially in the way in which sharing my own experiences. But...

GROSS: I was thinking maybe you felt yourself folding into yourself like you...

ALI: Yes.

GROSS: ...Describe during a part of your life.

ALI: Yeah, for sure. For sure because I think there was - I know there were periods of times where I didn't feel understood, and there were very few people around me that I felt like they really got me. There was one person who was sort of the one in my life that really got me. And he's one of my close - I'm talking like when I was in high school - he's one of my really close friends to this day. But in general, I felt a little bit on the outside and not totally included. There was a period of time when we were moving around a lot. So I couldn't really hold on to a certain set of friends. And so that was a little bit difficult.

And also my experiences growing up - my father lived in New York, so I was going out there in the summers and meeting really interesting people and people having what seemed to me to be extraordinary experiences and really taking advantage of these wonderful opportunities. And so I will go - I would go to the big city and watch these people performing onstage and doing television and films. And then I would go back to Hayward, and it just suddenly felt that much smaller and sort of limiting because I had this hyper awareness of how much larger the world was.

And so I think in some ways, I would go back home, and I didn't really quite fit in and couldn't - didn't have a person to bounce those experiences off of. So I felt a little bit trapped within me, and it made me feel lonely because I really couldn't - the things that were exciting to me, I couldn't really share those with another kid and that other kid understand that.

GROSS: Well, why don't we take a short break here and then we'll talk more? My guest is Mahershala Ali. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ALI: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Mahershala Ali. He's nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in "Moonlight." "Moonlight" is nominated for Best Picture. He also co-stars in "Hidden Figures" which is also nominated for Best Picture. Your parents separated when you were 3...

ALI: Yeah.

GROSS: ...And you said your father moved to New York. You stayed with your mother on the West Coast.

ALI: Yes.

GROSS: So your father was a dancer. He danced on "Soul Train." Was he a regular on "Soul Train?"

ALI: No. They had - there was a period where they did, at least in 1977, they did a national dance contest. And my father won that, and he won $2,500 - I'd recently found his letter from Johnson and Johnson...

GROSS: Oh, gosh.

ALI: ...In my storage - yeah. So he won $2,500, and he won a car.

GROSS: Wow.

ALI: And my parents were - yeah, so they were kids when I was born. My mother was 16. My father was 17, and they got married in high school. And they split a few years later. So - and that's - when they split was when all that was happening also, and he - they were just coming into themselves. But they remained friends.

My dad lived in - he moved to New York after he won "Soul Train" and the car and got settled in out there and was able to step right into Dance Theatre of Harlem and felt like he was in a show called "Omnibus" and "American Dance Machine." And he just started touring and being out a lot and he was in the chorus a lot and understudy for...

GROSS: In the chorus of shows?

ALI: In the chorus like of shows like kind of one of the chorus guys but then also being an understudy for one of the leading parts - or like in "Dreamgirls," for instance, he was on Broadway with "Dreamgirls." But then also in the national tour or one of the international tours played James Thunder Early a few times as well so one of the principals.

GROSS: Well, I could see what you were talking about the difference between spending time with your father who is in the Dance Theatre of Harlem and was working on Broadway shows and international touring productions and then going home to - I forget the name of...

ALI: Hayward.

GROSS: Hayward, yeah.

ALI: The Bay Area basically.

GROSS: Right in the Bay Area. But your mother was involved with the church. She was not living that kind of performing life. You were not surrounded by artisan and performers when you went home, so...

ALI: Right.

GROSS: ...Let's compare your father's life with your life at home and with your mother's life. What was her role in the church? Was she...

ALI: Well...

GROSS: ...An ordained minister when you were growing up?

ALI: No, she wasn't. Her mother was an ordained minister, so her mother was the assistant pastor at Palma Ceia Baptist Church in Hayward - my grandmother, Evie Goines. And so my mother was doing - I remember when my mother graduated from beauty college, so I was about 5, and so I guess she was about 21. And I just remember being there, taking the pictures and seeing her get her diploma and everything. But she was doing hair for many years.

And during that time, she kind of started to discover or tap into her religious studies. It was around the time I was starting to go through puberty and hitting, like, 12, 13. And as a kid, you're starting to grow up and want more freedoms. And - but if - when you have people who are absorbing and adopting religious principles and teachings, they start drawing these lines and creating confines in their life to live within certain lines.

GROSS: Yeah, so what didn't she want you to do?

ALI: So there was things just like not being able to date or - I'm talking like 15, 16 - like just certain things that my friends started to do. Like, they started to get phone calls from girls or like, you know, go and hang out 10, 11 at night, kind of going to the movies. There were just certain things that - it's not that I couldn't do all of those things. It's just that every choice was really deliberate and conscious and thought out and sort of balanced against the religion in a way where I felt - I wasn't necessarily trying to convert at 12 like she was (laughter).

GROSS: Yeah.

ALI: You know? Like, it felt like it disrupted my rhythm in growing up. But I will say that I'm really grateful for her own personal transition. The freedom that I wanted as a kid would - probably would not have been good for me and not in the way in which I wanted it. And so over time, I think how strict my mother's home could be with my mom and my stepfather, there was a fluidity and freedom in my dad's existence that I enjoyed when I was around him, though the responsibility was just different. He expected me to carry myself a certain way without all the rules and confines. And I think my mom gave me the borders, the - gave me a very clear understanding of what the perimeter was. And I had to find my fun within those boundaries (laughter). So yeah - so between the two, it was a really unique upbringing, I think, especially for where I was from.

GROSS: Oh, what two different worlds.

ALI: Yes.

GROSS: So in your acceptance speech at the SAG Awards last month, you mentioned, you know, your mother's an ordained minister and you say she didn't do backflips when you told her you'd converted to Islam. When did you convert?

ALI: I converted December 31, 1999. It was a Friday.

GROSS: (Laughter).

ALI: And I had gone to - that was my second time going to the mosque. The woman who is my wife now - my extraordinary wife - I knew in college. And she had - I was really curious at that time just in general, just studying different things from, you know, learning more about reincarnation. I had read some books on the Baha'i Faith. I had read - I was looking into Buddhism and trying to understand sort of the agnostic approach, so there was just a bunch of stuff I was just looking at. And then at that time we met, she was Muslim and - but was at a point where - because her father is an imam and her mother, though, is a convert, but she was basically raised Muslim. And she was at that point where she was deciding or trying to come to terms with her own relationship with Islam and how to embrace that for herself. So I was sort of trying to come walk toward it. And she was - she wasn't sure if she - if it was what she wanted for herself. And so she kind of, like, introduced me to things kind of like, hey, here's this book. Check it out, if you respond to it.

And so she - I went to a mosque in Philadelphia with her in December 24, 1999. And we we went to this mosque in Philly, and I just had such a strong reaction to the prayer. And I was really emotionally - I felt really grounded at that time. And so to be in this prayer and the imam is doing the prayer in Arabic and I don't understand a word of Arabic but I just remember these tears just coming down my face and it just really connecting to my spirit in a way that felt like I needed to pay attention to that.

GROSS: My guest is Mahershala Ali, who's nominated for an Oscar as best supporting actor for his performance in "Moonlight," which is nominated for best picture; so is "Hidden Figures," which he also co-stars in. After a break, we'll talk about what it was like to be a Muslim after 9/11, just a year and a half after he converted. And Maureen Corrigan will review a novel by the writer known as the Indian Chekov. It's just been published in English. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF AVISHAI COHEN'S "ANI MAAMIN")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Mahershala Ali. He co-stars in two films that have Oscar nominations for best picture - "Moonlight" and "Hidden Figures." He's nominated for an Oscar as best supporting actor for his performance in "Moonlight" as a drug dealer who becomes a father figure to a young boy who's bullied. He won a SAG Award for that performance. When we left off, we were talking about converting to Islam.

So you converted to Islam basically a year and a half before 9/11. So you converted just in time for a lot of Americans to become, like, super phobic about Islam.

ALI: Yeah, just in time to enjoy all the benefits of it (laughter).

GROSS: Right, yeah.

ALI: Yes.

GROSS: (Laughter) So how did your life as a Muslim change after 9/11? And how would people project onto you change after 9/11?

ALI: Well, that's where I think the connection with, I think, Chiron can happen is you as Muslim...

GROSS: Chiron's the character of the boy in "Moonlight," yeah.

ALI: The character from - yes, yes, from "Moonlight" - is it was - so many Muslims would tell you that they felt like - and still do, but especially then - that you had to - you fold it into yourself because people were looking at you and recognizing you as being the culprit even though, look, I'm American. I don't believe that the teachings of Islam justified those actions. I feel like those acts are un-Islamic. So to see that happen and somebody do that in the name of God, it just - and the religion that you practice, it just - it hurts your heart so deeply because it's such a misrepresentation of the faith.

And then you - and you are an American, so you're hurt that other American citizens have been hurt, but you end up having to shoulder the shame for something that you don't even believe. There's a lot of years where Muslims have dealt with having to make themselves very small and not disrupt the flow and not - make sure that you're not noticed because, you know, deep down inside people are not really excited that you're around (laughter). So - yeah.

GROSS: You know, it's funny, like, your birth name is Mahershalalhashbaz Gilmore. And it sounds like your first name is a Muslim name, even though your mother is Christian and wasn't...

ALI: But it's Hebrew (laughter).

GROSS: It's Hebrew, really?

ALI: Yeah, yeah, of all - yes, yes.

GROSS: Oh, that's interesting.

ALI: Yeah. And I've been on - I remember after 9/11, I started - I was working quite a bit in Vancouver. And then I realized I would go to catch my flight, and it would take me like 20 minutes to get cleared to fly, like, every time. I'm like, what is going on? Again, having - fortunately having never been in trouble. And eventually I found out that I was on a watch list. And I was just...

GROSS: What year is this?

ALI: This is 2003, 2004. And then I started - after the Patriot Act, I would always get my financial packages in the mail and they would just be opened. And it was like, what is going on here? So, yeah, I don't know how I drifted off to that, but...

GROSS: We were talking about your name and you were saying it was Hebrew. And I was saying it sounded Muslim.

ALI: Yeah, yeah. Oh - because on that watch list, they would be like, yeah, your name - they told me like, yeah, your name matches the name of a terrorist or someone that they're watching. I was just like, what terrorist is running around with a Hebrew first name and a Muslim - Arabic last - I'm like, who's that guy?

GROSS: (Laughter).

ALI: So, yeah, I've had...

GROSS: So who are you named after? Is it - it's an Old Testament name?

ALI: It - yes, Isaiah the prophet, Isaiah's second son was - his symbolic name was Mahershalalhashbaz. And Isaiah was - the Prophet Isaiah was instructed to write the name in all capital letters as a prophecy. And it means hasten to the spoils, speedy as the prey. And I've been - also been told that another meaning of it is divine restoration. So, yes.

GROSS: OK.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So what made you think about acting? Did your father have anything to do with that?

ALI: Wow. Yeah, my father had a lot to do with me thinking about acting, though he never saw me act. He passed away probably - he passed away as I was doing my first play, but I just think being exposed to it and being around it. It wasn't something that I ever thought I couldn't do because I grew up around it. So when it finally came my way and doors opened up for me to do it and to be on stage, it felt like a natural thing to try out. And it just so happened to speak to me. I really couldn't do what I needed to do in the most fulfilling way in Hayward, Calif., or in the Bay Area, that it required me to go off to NYU. And that...

GROSS: Where you studied acting, but you started off on a basketball scholarship at St. Mary's College.

ALI: Yeah, I did.

GROSS: Yeah. So what was the transition between basketball and acting?

ALI: Well, I wanted to get that scholarship. I wanted to get that scholarship to - a division one scholarship and play ball and go to school for free. And that, to me, was - I was always about getting to that next step. If I could get to that next place, then I could figure out essentially what to do with being in that space and how to manage my time and handle those - handle all the benefits of being in that space in a way that would get me to the next place. And so I was always sort of ahead of myself in some way, shape or form and trying to envision how to get further along and closer to fulfilling that dream of being of being free and having a creative agency, so to speak.

And so getting to St. Mary's College was a big deal for me because that essentially led to me getting to go to NYU. And in my time at St. Mary's College, drifting out of sports because it was something that began to feel really finite. And I could see that I didn't have the passion to sustain a career in sports. I didn't have the passion for athletics in that way, that there were other parts of me that felt under-served and that needed to be nurtured and needed my energy. And so I played all four years with - at a certain point, basketball became the thing I was doing most, but it was really in my periphery. And it was really a focus on how to in some ways keep moving in this direction towards something that allowed me to express myself in a way that sports didn't.

GROSS: When you started acting, were you concerned about there being a shortage of roles for black actors?

ALI: Well, I got into it so late because of sports. And then when I was in grad school, I sort of got lulled into basically forgetting I was black, in - meaning that everyone you play at a conservatory, 95 percent of the characters are non-black (laughter). So you don't even - you're - if anything, you're thinking about how do I transcend this? How do I transform and be believable as Krogstad in "A Doll's House" or Sir Peter Teazle in "A School for Scandal" (ph).

You know, you - these are things that are so far from my reality. And it's once you - when you graduate is when you start to find yourself looking at the information in the audition breakdown and it says tall black African - or African-American built such and such. And you start seeing these character descriptions and seeing that, oh, you're only going in for the ones that are described as your look. And it - and so if anything, in my mind, I just didn't - I never wanted to accept that. And so I have always fought against that in some way, shape or form and had - I've had people who have supported trying to get me in for things that were beyond the character description.

GROSS: If you're just joining, us my guest is Mahershala Ali. He's nominated for a best supporting actor Oscar. And two films that he's in are nominated for best picture - "Moonlight" and "Hidden Figures." We're going to take a short break, and then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE ROOTS' "ADRENALINE")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is actor Mahershala Ali. He's nominated for a best supporting actor Oscar for his role in "Moonlight." "Moonlight" is nominated for best picture and so is another film that he co-stars in, "Hidden Figures."

So a big break for you was a few years ago when you got cast in "House Of Cards," which is the Netflix series about a congressman turned president - very ruthless - played by Kevin Spacey. And you play somebody who had been his press secretary when he was majority whip, but then you become a partner in a major lobbying firm. And your main client at the beginning of the series is SanCorp, which is a natural gas company that gives a lot of money to Frank Underwood, the Kevin Spacey character. But I'm going to play a scene from...

ALI: OK.

GROSS: This is actually your very first scene...

(LAUGHTER)

ALI: Oh, yeah, yeah.

GROSS: ...In "House Of Cards." And so at this point - so you're lobbying for SanCorp. And SanCorp is giving a lot of money to Frank Underwood, the Kevin Spacey character. He's been avoiding your calls. So the scene we're going to hear plays out in three parts. First...

ALI: I'm so glad that you're bringing all this up because I'm, like, I don't remember any of that.

(LAUGHTER)

ALI: That was so long - it's like five years ago. I'm, like, oh, yeah. That's right. That's right. OK.

(LAUGHTER)

ALI: That's great.

GROSS: OK. So to refresh your memory further...

ALI: Yes.

GROSS: ...This scene plays out in three parts. First, you come up to talk to Frank Underwood in a restaurant. Then Underwood addresses the camera and talks about money and politics. And then you...

ALI: Yes.

GROSS: ...And Underwood have this meeting in the hall.

ALI: Right.

GROSS: So the scene starts with you walking up to the restaurant table where Frank Underwood is having lunch with another congressman and the speaker of the house. You speak first.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HOUSE OF CARDS")

ALI: (As Remy Danton) Congressman, sorry to interrupt. Just saw you sitting over here and...

KEVIN SPACEY: (As Francis Underwood) Remy, gentlemen, this is Remy Danton. Remy, this is Speaker Birch and Congress...

ALI: (As Remy Danton) I'm well aware. Mr. Speaker, Congressman.

SPACEY: (As Francis Underwood) Remy just made partner at Glendon Hill.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Glendon Hill, great team over there. Congratulations.

ALI: (As Remy Danton) Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) When was the last time they added a partner?

ALI: (As Remy Danton) It's been a while.

SPACEY: (As Francis Underwood) Well, they know a winner when they see one. Remy was the best press secretary I ever had.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Why'd you let him go?

SPACEY: (As Francis Underwood) Well, I didn't. They stole him away.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) What accounts do you have?

ALI: (As Remy Danton) SanCorp Industries is my main one. I run that account now. Anyhow, I'll let you get back to it. Sorry again to interrupt.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) No problem.

ALI: (As Remy Danton) Very nice to meet you both.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Christ - lobbyists keep getting younger and younger.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) He's probably making more than all of us combined.

SPACEY: (As Francis Underwood) Gentlemen, this one's on me. I'm going to track down that check.

Glendon Hill fronts SanCorp Industries. SanCorp is deep into natural gas. I don't give a hoot about natural gas, but I have 67 deputy whips, and they all need cash to win races. SanCorp helps me purchase loyalty and, in return, they expect mine. It's degrading, I know, but when the [expletive] that big, everybody gets in line.

Tell them I'm on top of it.

ALI: (As Remy Danton) I need more than that.

SPACEY: (As Francis Underwood) You are well aware that I do not drop the ball on things like this, Remy.

ALI: (As Remy Danton) Promises, Frank - the secretary of state, Argentina, the offshore drill contracts.

SPACEY: (As Francis Underwood) Talk to me when I've solved the problem. Don't waste my time when I'm working on solving it.

ALI: (As Remy Danton) There's billions on the line. You can't not call me back. And I can't not show up.

SPACEY: (As Francis Underwood) Fine. Thank you for your diligence.

ALI: (As Remy Danton) Eight figures to you and the DCCC - $6 million to build that library of yours in your name.

SPACEY: (As Francis Underwood) I know.

ALI: (As Remy Danton) Don't make them throw money at your challenger next cycle.

SPACEY: (As Francis Underwood) You've made your point.

ALI: (As Remy Danton) Have I? I hope so.

GROSS: OK.

ALI: Oh, fun stuff.

GROSS: Hardball politics there.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So did you start paying a lot more attention to lobbying and politics after playing this part?

ALI: I started paying attention to - if anything, I became more curious about the story behind the story. So what was really going on behind the headline? And it's a little bit sad that that show, it doesn't seem so much like entertainment the way it did (laughter) back when we started doing it. You know, it felt, like, so far from - or far enough from the reality of things that we can enjoy it purely as entertainment. And now it feels a little bit too in alignment, honestly, but yeah - so we'll see how season five goes over there.

GROSS: But you're not in season five, right? You left the show.

ALI: No, I'm not. I'm not in season five, so I can't spoil anything for you...

GROSS: (Laughter).

ALI: ...Other than the fact that I'm not in it (laughter).

GROSS: Right (laughter). So you're in two films now nominated for best picture, "Moonlight" and "Hidden Figures." So in a way, you're competing against yourself.

ALI: (Laughter).

GROSS: You're in a kind of strange (laughter)...

ALI: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Position. At the same time, your wife is due to have her baby. So...

ALI: Any minute now, I could get a call while you and I are talking, and I'd just have to dash away and finish this interview.

GROSS: Wow. I think she can hold on that long.

ALI: (Laughter).

GROSS: We're almost done. Hang in there.

ALI: No, I'm joking. I'm joking.

GROSS: (Laughter) So...

ALI: But yeah - so yeah, we're a couple days past the due date.

GROSS: Oh, OK. So she's probably not going to be in labor on the day or the night of the...

ALI: No.

GROSS: OK, that's good.

ALI: No, no.

GROSS: So you'll be a father by then.

ALI: Yeah. Yes, fingers crossed.

GROSS: Fingers crossed (laughter). So just one more question. So I know you've made mixtapes, like - or imaginary mixtapes for characters that you've played to kind of help define who they are by figuring out what their taste is.

ALI: Yes.

GROSS: So I imagine you made a mixtape playing Juan, the character that you play "Moonlight," who's a drug dealer but also a surrogate father to this young boy. A lot of the music in the score for the film is more, like, chamber music.

ALI: Right.

GROSS: So when you heard the scoring for the film, were you surprised at the music?

ALI: Not at all, not at all. And the reason being is that for the first time in working with the director, Barry said - Barry Jenkins, the director, said, you know, I got some music, man, I want to send you. And I said, that's crazy, man, because I'm up here trying to, like, make this playlist for Juan. And I'm just having a little bit of trouble with it because he's just so - he's so different from anyone I've ever played. And so I'm just trying to figure out, with him being from the South and being Cuban and being - so I'm really trying to find an in just sonically for this guy, especially because I was doing several other projects at that time.

So I really needed something, like a specific thing, to kind of clue me into who I was playing and on what day. And Barry sent us, several of us, some music from - not that it was necessarily intended to be in the movie but it was music that inspired him while working on the film and sort of essentially trying to set the tone for the movie. And I just thought that was so amazing because I always do that for my character, so that was a case where I heavily leaned on music that he had in that playlist.

Some of it was some - what's called chopped and screwed but basically slowed down, the BPMs are dropped way down - chopped and screwed versions of Erykah Badu songs. And I believe there was, like, Outkast on there and Goodie Mob, Frank Ocean, some Bach. That's what I can recall - and oh Aretha Franklin I want to say. So yeah, there was a good bit of music that was there that really spoke to me and gave me a real sense of the character, the pace and feel, what the weather of Miami felt like, the spirit of the project. Like, I had enough in there to go off of.

GROSS: Mahershala Ali, it's been great to talk with you. I wish you very good luck at the Oscars.

ALI: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: And I wish your forthcoming baby a speedy and happy entrance into the world (laughter).

ALI: Thank you. I really appreciate it. It was good talking to you.

GROSS: It's good talking to you. Be well. Thank you so much.

ALI: You too.

GROSS: Mahershala Ali is nominated for an Oscar as best supporting actor for his performance in "Moonlight." He also co-stars in "Hidden Figures." Both films are nominated for best picture. Let's hear a recording that's used in the soundtrack of "Moonlight." This is Aretha Franklin singing "One Step Ahead."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ONE STEP AHEAD")

ARETHA FRANKLIN: (Singing) I'm only one step ahead of heartbreak, one step ahead of misery. One step is all I have to take backwards to be the same old fool for you I used to be I'm only one step ahead of your arms, one kiss away from your sweet lips. I know I can't afford to stop for one moment 'cause I'm just out of reach of your fingertips. Your warm breath on my shoulder keeps reminding me that it's too soon to forget you. It's too late to be free, can't you see?

GROSS: After we take a short break, Maureen Corrigan will review a new novel by the writer known as the Indian Chekov. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.