Actor Mahershala Ali smiled broadly as he strolled onto stage at the USC Annenberg School of Communications April 18, as he was warmly greeted by a crowd of nearly 600 that filled three floors eager to hear his thoughts on acting, ethnicity and life.
The two-time Academy Award and Golden Globe winner, who was recently named one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World by Time magazine, was selected as one of six Hollywood influencers to speak at the university as part of the USC Annenberg HBO Diverse Voices Forum Series.
The series, designed to connect HBO’s top talent and producers with USC students and faculty, was established to explore the role of diversity in the future of entertainment and was hosted by Josh Kun, director of the USC Annenberg School of Communications.
Ali is the first Muslim to win an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his groundbreaking roles in “Moonlight,” where he played Juan, a Miami drug dealer who mentors a troubled youth searching for his sexual identity.
“When I read ‘Moonlight,’ the script was so beautiful,” Ali said. “I had never seen characters that had that dimension and I was already a fan of writer/director Barry Jenkins’ work. For me, it was a no-brainer.”
The critically acclaimed movie went on to win Best Picture at the 2017 Academy Awards.
In “Green Book,” Ali portrayed Professor Don Shirley, a jazz concert pianist who forges a friendship with his loud-mouthed white driver, Bronx-born Tony “Lip” Vallelonga, who chauffeurs him on a concert tour through the deep South. Despite the odds, the two eventually become friends.
Ali went on to win a 2019 Golden Globe award for Best Supporting Actor as well as a SAG, Critics Choice Award and a BAFTA Award for “Green Book.”
On the heels of his historic Oscar wins, Ali campaigned for and won the role of Arkansas State Police detective Wayne Hayes in the third season of the popular HBO’s highly successful series “True Detective,” which takes place in Arkansas in the 1980s.
He convinced “True Detective’s” creator, Nic Pizzolatto, that the character would have more dimension if he was an African-American male. He sent Pizzolatto a series of photographs depicting Ali’s grandfather, who served as a state police officer in Arkansas in the 1960s and ’70s. Ali won the lead role.
Ali advised students that challenges might inevitably emerge as they pursue their careers in the film industry, but he urged them to hold fast to their dreams and goals.
“You have to ask yourself, ‘What is it that is going to bring about certain degrees of fulfillment?’ It is your calling to work towards that. You don’t really have a choice. … It’s better for you to go for it and to fall flat on your face and fail, and have to figure out how to get up and do something else, than to have not tried. Don’t give yourself a choice in life. Go for it.”
Pausing, he said, “I just look at my experiences growing up. You begin to take over that question, ‘What do you want to be?’ Who are you?’ As we look for our tribes and community, sometimes we have trouble finding our slot fitting in. When you are not recognized for your unique talents, you begin to feel smaller. You don’t develop the call and response because you are questioning whether you belong.”
Ali, who grew up in the blue-collar town of Hayward, California, was inspired to explore the arts after being influenced by his father, a dancer on Broadway who loved musical theater.
Aware that he wanted to pursue the arts like his father, Ali said, “I started acting and rapping as a result of writing poetry and dealing with bouts of insomnia.” He recalled how his father “lit up” whenever Ali read him one of his poems. Ali even recorded a rap album under the moniker “Prince Ali.”
“My father introduced me to indie films,” Ali said. “He took me to see ‘Sex, Lies and Videotapes’ and ‘Do the Right Thing.’”
Then Ali’s father suddenly died.
After his father’s death, Ali moved in with his grandparents who urged him to try for a basketball scholarship at St. Mary’s College in Moraga, California. He was accepted and pursued a degree in mass communications.
But while shooting hoops, he quickly concluded that college sports, particularly basketball, was exploitative and decided to change career paths, realizing that college basketball only saw players as a product. “We were just there to win championships,” he said, opting to use sports as a way to pay for his education.
Deciding to pursue acting as a career, he auditioned for New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts as a theater student.
“I was concerned,” Ali said. “They were sending people home after their auditions. I decided to deliver a Shakespeare monologue even though I had only been acting for 10 minutes.”
Then Ali got the fateful phone call. He had been accepted at Tisch.
“That was my first big break,” he said.
In 2000, he converted to Islam, changing his surname from Gilmore to Ali and joined the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community.
In describing the acting process, the introspective Ali, who has been described as an ‘old soul,’ said, “I feel most free when I act because I’m less self-conscious. I think my work forces me to come out. I can’t go into the dark. The acting work forces me to problem solve and to appreciate someone else’s work because I have to go through the journey.”
Ali went on to do scores of television and film work. He’s appeared in “Alita: Battle Angel,” “House of Cards,” “Hidden Figures,” “Luke Cage,” “Spider Man: Into the Spider Verse,” “The Hunger Games Pts. 1 and 2,” and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.”
Despite his success, one of Ali’s pet peeves is that actors of color are frequently relegated to the role of “cultural ambassadors” when they are asked about race in interviews.
“I’m someone who wants to be excellent,” he said. “But the press checks that diversity box … think about the white person in North Hollywood and every article he reads about you is about race. They start to think of you as an actor of color first. They’ll say, ‘Get over it already.’”
Ali advised the students to be bold and to confidently pursue their goals. “You have to give yourself permission not to be afraid. Go into the unknown and trust that you will survive it,” he advised.