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Mahershala Ali on Playing Strong Characters: "How People See You Can Become Very Narrow" | Actor Oscar Roundtable

“It becomes a fight for you to be thought of in a different light, and also fighting your own fear, wondering if you can do something beyond what you’ve done already,” says the ‘Moonlight’ star.

“There was a lot there that I was concerned about,” Mahershala Ali told The Hollywood Reporter during the Actor Oscar Roundtable about playing a drug dealer in Barry Jenkins’ film Moonlight. “It was a time when I was literally doing three other jobs.” Ali was also working on Netflix’s House of Cards and Luke Cage. “It was trying to really be conscious of what part I was playing that day, and really concerned, and had a lot of fear about bleed from one part into the other.”

In order to “cross the boundary” between each character, Ali “made playlists specific to each character. When I would get in my trailer or be traveling to that gig, I would really only listen to that character’s music, so I used that as a beginning and an end to that world, because they’re very different places and characters, and different experiences.”

About the need to create more opportunities for minorities’ stories to be told in Hollywood, Ali said: “There have to be people with more unique experiences or people of color being in positions to create content … I also think that part of the challenge is in some way as an individual to sort of transcend race, so you bring something unique to a character that maybe wasn’t written for a black person to play, per se.”

Ali has dreams of directing but he says, “It’s taken me a long time to get to this place. In some ways I feel like I’m right at the beginning of having an opportunity to explore characters in a fuller way, so I want to be in that place for a time, because I’ve been wanting to grow as an actor.”

More roundtables featuring actresses, screenwriters, songwriters, documentarians, directors, composers and producers will continue throughout February in print and online. Tune in to new episodes of Close Up With ‘The Hollywood Reporter’ starting Jan. 15 on Sundance TV, and look for clips at THR.com/topic/roundtables with full episodes on THR.com after broadcast.


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