TVMahershala Ali Quit House of Cards and Became Marvel’s New Villain
Talking to the foil of Luke Cage about breaking into the biz, being black in Hollywood, and creating mixtapes for each of his roles.
When Mahershala Ali was coming of age in the Bay Area in the ‘80s, black superheroes existed only in the margins. At 42, Ali would’ve never imagined seeing a black superhero in a lead role, let alone playing alongside one in Marvel’s upcoming Netflix series Luke Cage.
Despite the sixteen years of steady work in Hollywood under his belt, Ali is not yet a household name. Like his House of Cards character Remy Danton, Ali possesses a subdued intensity. He is meticulous with his words but never a bore. Dressed in a crisp white button-down, he talks about thwarting his NBA plans for a career where he’s paid to embody characters like he does in Free State of Jones, Moonlight, Hidden Figures, and of course his debut as Marvel’s Cottonmouth, the Harlem drug kingpin Luke Cage (Michael Colter) wants to destroy. Cottonmouth may not be the black superhero absent from Ali’s childhood, but for those searching for themselves in a complicated character who looks like them, playing a superhero’s foil means just as much.
We caught up with Ali in New York City to chat about his House of Cards fate, music playlists, and what makes him feel sexy.
GQ: What was your childhood like in Oakland?
Mahershala Ali: I was born in Oakland. I was raised in Hayward. You know when you’re from there people care about things like that. My mother was an ordained minister and my dad was on Broadway, so I would come to New York in the summers. I had a remarkable time growing up.
You went to college on a basketball scholarship, but then attended NYU for grad school for acting. Why the shift?
It was about getting a basketball scholarship to a Division I school. Once I got that, I didn’t set a realistic next goal on how to get to the NBA, which is perhaps for the best. I fell into acting. A teacher gave me an opportunity to be in a play and it came a little easy to me. When it got difficult was when I decided to study acting and I went to grad school. I felt like if I got [into NYU] this was what I was supposed to pursue. It just so happened that it worked out.
This is a good time to be an African-American in this industry… the opportunities are shifting and changing because people have spoken out.
What would you say is your breakthrough role?
I don’t truly believe this when I say it, but House of Cards. It is the thing where people know me from the most. I didn’t have that [role like] Lupita who comes out of school and boom! There’s no way she can say that her big break isn’t Twelve Years a Slave. I don’t really have that. My experience has been a series of opportunities that lead to larger or more diverse opportunities. House of Cards allowed me to get into Hunger Games: Mockingjay and that has allowed me to get other things that are about to come out.
So what’s next for Remy in season five of House of Cards?
I’m done with House of Cards.
I’ve never talked about it. It’s time to go. I want to do more. There’s only so much space for you to stretch and develop and grow because there are so many characters. I think this is a good time to be an African-American in this industry. I think that the opportunities are shifting and changing because people have spoken out.
Speaking of forthcoming roles, you play Cottonmouth in Netflix’s Luke Cage.
I’m excited about Luke Cage with Michael Colter who plays Luke Cage. I play the villain, Cottonmouth. It takes place in Harlem. It’ll just be amazing for people to get to see an African-American superhero, which there weren’t any when I was growing up.
We all just know that you gotta be able to put that suit on and have a conversation with people that don’t look like you or your family.
In your HuffPo Live interview you said that similar to your character Remy Danton you’ve pretty much always been in spaces where you’re the only black person. How has that shaped your identity?
I think that black people to a degree need to have a certain level of dexterity. If we want to be at the highest level of whatever our field is, we have to be able to navigate both worlds. We all just know that you gotta be able to put that suit on and have a conversation with people that don’t look like you or your family. But it’s interesting being able to step into some of these worlds with white people who will never come to your house. People who are uncomfortable when you’re in an elevator, but I can still be comfortable even though they’re uncomfortable.
It’s also challenging sometimes because you don’t want to be the token either. We’re in a time now where if you’re going to be the representative of all things on a project, you want them to be written in a three-dimensional way where you’re a human being.
Not a caricature.
Not a caricature or someone that’s passing through because they’re checking the diversity box. That’s the thing that I’m conscious of in 2016.
I saw an ode to Phife Dawg on your Instagram. What’s your first memory of hip hop?
My first moment where I felt like I couldn’t live without this music [laughs] was when I heard Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick’s “The Show” on the radio station in the Bay Area and I’m twelve years old. I sat by the radio station the whole weekend changing the dial from different radio stations to see if they would play “The Show.” I felt like my head was going to explode. I love hip hop. It’s such an appendage for me. It’s something that’s always shaped my experience out in the world. I always make mixtapes for every character that I’m playing. Sonically, that character has a soundtrack.
What songs are on the playlists for Remy and Cottonmouth?
For Cottonmouth I used a wide range of music because he is a musician. I also wanted to be mindful of the fact that he was from Harlem. So some of the hip hop I used was specific to artists from uptown and the Bronx: Big L, Diamond D.O.C., Brand Nubian; as well as D'Angelo, Mobb Deep, Kanye, and Erykah Badu.
For Remy, it would change from season to season. But a staple was always Jay Z because of Jay Z's supreme confidence and the fact that he so brilliantly embodies a show and proven ideology that informs his masculinity. Remy's list has the likes of Rakim, Jaylib, Nas, Ghostface, Raekwon, Bilal, Gang Starr, and Black Star.
You even named your cat Nas after the legendary emcee.
I feel like cat guys are uncommon.
Well, I’m allergic to dogs and not to cats. It’s also a Muslim thing. We can’t have dogs in the house.
What would you be doing if you weren’t acting?
I would hope I would have fallen into writing. I was going to try to get into the creative writing program at Berkeley; it’s just that the acting thing worked out. I’ve written a couple of scripts but nothing amazing yet. [laughs]
Obviously there’s a lot of women who consider you a sex symbol. What makes you feel sexy?
I guess when women tell me that I’m sexy ‘cause that not something that I walk around conscious about. You know, sometimes sexy is just when you’re in your power. Sexy isn’t always about sex. I think it’s about people being in the fullness of themselves.