The Oscar front-runner for best supporting actor said it all began in a buffet line. Mahershala Ali first met Viggo Mortensen during awards season in 2018. A few shrimp puffs were involved. “You meet people for 30 seconds or five minutes at those awards shows,” said Ali. “A long conversation is 10 minutes. I saw Viggo at this brunch and we talked for half an hour.”
“At the end of that, he said, ‘We should work together sometime,’” Ali recalled. “I said, ‘Yes!’” The end result is “Green Book,” which has also been nominated for best picture. Mortensen also has a nomination for best actor and Ali is considered a lock for the best supporting actor statue.
The story revolves around a working-class Italian-American security guard and bouncer who chauffeurs Don Shirley, an African-American pianist through a tour of the segregated Deep South in the early 1960s. Ali, 44 and a native of Hayward, California, isn’t content with just big-screen roles. He also stars on HBO’s current season of “True Detective.”
Review-Journal: What is a great Sunday for you?
I love to listen to music. Maybe write music, or make music lists. I always make playlists for every character I’m working on that are very specific to what they would listen to and be exposed to at that time. That’s the only thing I listen to when I’m working. It affects my own frequency. I love listening to music on a Sunday. Music just puts you in another place.
What was your first reaction to the “Green Book” script?
I laughed out loud reading the script. And I don’t really enjoy reading scripts. Scripts are difficult to read because there is so much description in there. The rhythm and the flow are constantly broken in some regard. But I always know I’m responding to a script if I can hear the character. And I heard him.
So, you met Viggo Mortensen at awards season …
We did, and we just had this chemistry going into the film. Once we were both cast in “Green Book,” we spent a good 10 to 12 hours just combing through the script at a table, eating pizza. We were trying to pick it up. I kept hearing, “Mahershala, do you want more pizza?” I kept saying, “I’m good. I’m good.” Viggo was trying to feed me. Sort of like his character. That’s kind of how we connected at the beginning.
What was the best part about working with him?
He’s a better person than he is an actor, and he is a hell of an actor. As for the actor part, he really freed me up by observing how meticulous and passionate he is in a scene.
You learned to play piano for the film.
I took lessons for about two months with the composer of the film, Kris Bowers. I’m pretending to play piano. And we had our whole process as to how to make that feel as believable as possible.
What were you like as a young boy?
I loved to write poetry. I would share it with people I trusted — ones I thought would understand. I had insomnia really bad in high school. I’d be up all night until the next day. I starting writing a lot. I even made my own book and printed it at Kinkos.
Were you close to your dad?
My Dad (Phillip Gilmore) was a musical theater actor who did “Dreamgirls” and “Five Guys Named Moe” back in the ’80s. I had so much respect for his taste and talent. I was an athlete who went to school on a basketball scholarship. That started to not go well. At the same time, I had this collection of poetry and I’d perform it when I visited him, not knowing what I was doing was monologues. He was so into it. He dug it. I really connected with my father.
Didn’t your dad win “Soul Train”?
He won it in 1977. They used to have a national dance contest. One of my early memories was seeing him on TV in his apartment in San Francisco. I remember looking up and he was dancing on TV. He won a car and $2.500. I still have his letter from Johnson & Johnson saying that he won.
What did you learn from your father?
I learned about pursuing a dream. My father passed really young. I didn’t have a lot of time with him, but I got enough time with him that it molded my life. I’m six years older than him right now from when he passed. I guess that’s why I’ve always felt this pressure associated with time and becoming. It’s about living your life to the fullest every single day. It’s quality over quantity. And I still hear him saying, “Son, do not bite your fingernails.”
Any other lessons?
I still have his suede jacket. One day, I put my hand in the pocket and there was a condom in there. Dad looked at me. I was at that age. I thought, “Whoa, my Dad is cool.” That was the birds and the bees talk.
You began your career as a rapper.
Right out of undergrad, I got a job at a music industry magazine. I’d call a radio station and ask, “How many times did you play Erykah Badu? Seventy-three? OK, thanks.” I had been recording music for years and initially got this indie deal. The night of my second show, I got my single pressed up. The next day was my NYU acting school grad program audition. I ended up getting in. I had to call the label guy and said, “Look, I’m going to school for this acting thing.”
You’re nominated for an Oscar. What could be better? It’s great to be called a great actor or a great director. Even better is when you’re someone who treats people well. That’s a real win. That’s the kind of person I want to be.