He’s the Hot Tip For A Second Oscar In Two Years – So How Did Mahershala Ali Get Into The Head Of A Musician?

As buddy movies go, ‘Green Book’, the story of musician Dr Don Shirley and bodyguard Tony Lip, looks to have raised the bar with Mahershala Ali a serious contender for this year’s Best Supporting Actor Oscar. His performance as Shirley follows hard on the heels of his win in the same category in 2017’s awards for playing Juan in Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight.

As an in-demand face in Hollywood, he’s due to appear in the third instalment of the seasonal anthology series, True Detective, alongside Stephen Dorff and Carmen Ejogo, to be broadcast in 2019. He will also star in the big-budget collaboration of Robert Rodriguez and James Cameron: ‘Alita: Battle Angel’, due out on Valentine’s Day. Fun fact: he’s already the first Muslim actor to ever clinch an Oscar.

Had he not chosen a change of career in his early twenties, Ali could have made his name on a court instead of in front of a camera. He entered college with a scholarship in basketball but talent without passion is hollow, which made him realise acting was his true goal.

Ali says his real-life experiences feed into every role, including ‘Green Book’. He plays Dr Don Shirley, a world-class African-American pianist who is about to embark on a concert tour in the Deep South, in 1962. In need of a driver and protection, Shirley recruits Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen), a tough-talking bouncer from an Italian-American neighbourhood in the Bronx.

Despite their differences, the two men soon develop an unexpected bond, while confronting racism and danger…

RSNG What did you think of the script when you first read it? MAHERSHALA ALI ‘I laughed out loud reading that script! I don’t really enjoy reading scripts and they are usually difficult to read because there is so much description in there, so the rhythm and the flow was constantly being broken in some way, in some regard. I always know if I’m responding to a script if I can hear the character, and what I mean by that is if I almost have to hold myself back from reading out loud, if he is resonating within me already.’

‘If I’m not responding to it, that’s when I actually may start reading some of the dialogue, and start trying to put something on it to see if I can try to wake it up in some way. But I could really hear these characters talking to each other and I laughed out loud at that chicken scene. ‘I was like: “should I be offended?” I don’t know. But I laughed hard, you know?’

I always make playlists for every character that I am working on

RSNG These are real, historical characters, friends – so how did you and Viggo Mortensen approach them? MA ‘Viggo has had a different type of support but also a different type of pressure, because of the presence of the family. He had the support, the presence and the information from the Vallelonga family, which also puts more pressure on you too, because you constantly have these eyes on you like: “My dad wouldn’t do that.”’

‘But with me, I didn’t have the presence of the Shirley family at that point because it’s hard to find anything on Don Shirley. There is music out there, there are some articles, periodicals. So, that’s where I saw him talking which gave me an ‘in’ into his sound, his demeanour, his posture. I could tell who he was from the 10 minutes of footage tops, maybe even seven minutes, from that documentary along with audio tapes that Nick Vallelonga (one of the book’s authors), Pete (Farrelly, the film’s director) and Brian (Currie, the other author of the book) of Tony Lip talking about their relationship.’

‘I always make playlists for every character that I am working on, that are very specific to what they would listen to, what they would be exposed to at that time. That’s kind of the only thing that I listen to while I am shooting. So, I had the privilege of really just going deep into his music during that time and sort of allowing that to affect my own frequency, because I feel like music clearly does that.’

RSNG What does the story of Dr Shirley mean to you? MA ‘My interpretation, something that helped me play Dr Shirley, was this experience of African-American artist or black artists – Dr Shirley was originally born in Jamaica – having to compromise in order to have a career.’

‘If you look at Nina Simone, who wanted to be a concert pianist… she wanted to be a classical musician, a very similar story – we all hear Nina Simone and love her. She went on and moved to Paris and had this extraordinary career. But we see these black artists, and if you really speak to them, if you really hear their story, the version of them that we love is not who they wanted to be, ultimately.’

‘And people say: “But Nina Simone is extraordinary…” but you have to really think what it does to that person; how do they feel when they know deep down inside that they also have something else amazing to offer, something that they wanted to choose. But the world, the circumstances chose for you what it was that you were going to be able to be?’

‘No matter how much you do, you cannot explain this to somebody, that they should be happy with what they ended up having an opportunity to do, because they and them within themselves feel like they had something else, something more specific, something maybe deeper that they wanted to do.’

RSNG Is that a key message in the film? MA ‘Yes, that’s something that we try to address in one of the scenes when Lip says: “But what you do is great and people love your music, nobody can play what you play”. However, at the end of the day, he wanted to be a classical musician and he wasn’t able to do that because he was too black for that.’

‘Not because he didn’t have the capacity or the ability, it’s just that he was the wrong colour. So, therefore you have to do some other version of something and so in preparing for him and listening to the music that he would have been drawn to, I tried to really go more in the classical realm because there were the Little Richards, the Chubby Checkers and the Aretha Franklins of the world. Not necessarily because he wasn’t aware of them – he obviously was – that wasn’t what he was drawn to.’

When I was an athlete, that was a little bit out-of-body – when I got to the arts it was more about being your best self

RSNG So, you entered St Mary’s College in California not with an acting background, but with a scholarship in basketball? MA ‘I wasn’t acting as I got into it relatively late. I was 22 really when I started acting… in a more committed way and so I think that when I was an athlete, that was a little bit out-of-body, because beating somebody or getting the better of them wasn’t really what I related to, and it still doesn’t relate to me. I just felt that when I got to the arts it was more about being your best self.’

‘So, looking at Doc Shirley I think that there was something about him always being in this process of really trying to articulate himself to the world and find where he would fit in, so to speak. And not at all comparing myself to his massive talent and his mind and all that, but I have felt throughout my life, a little bit… sort of in my own place.’

RSNG You also might have been a rapper? MA ‘Well, I did have a couple of gigs and a single. Right out of college, I got a job at The Gavin, which was a music industry magazine and I recorded spins (how many times a record would be played on any given day or week) and I would call a radio station and ask, for example: “How many times has Toni Braxton’s Unbreak My Heart been played?” And they would say, 64 times, this week.

‘So, I was doing that, and I had also been recording music for years and that’s when I got this indie deal, while I was working at the magazine. The night of my second show, we had just got my single pressed up and this was vinyl, back then. That was a hip-hop thing.’

‘I literally had my audition for the NYU grad programme the very next day. It was about the second week of February and I had just got this deal and we printed up this single… but I got into NYU and I had to call the guy at the record label and tell him that I was going to school, instead!’

WHAT NEXT? Watch the trailer for Green Book out in cinemas now…