There’s not actually a golden light shining down on Mahershala Ali from the ceiling of the Santa Monica café where I first meet him, but it feels like there is. He looks in real life the way old MGM movies made leading men look on-screen. Vivid and dashing.
We are the only black people here. Ali is, by a substantial margin, the best-dressed man in the room. He wears a brown cardigan and a simple maroon T-shirt; a knit skullcap sits tilted on his head. They are not fancy clothes, but they are worn with certainty and ease, as if they were. I watch as the people around us notice him and then try to play it cool.
The past year has brought Ali a rash of fame after nearly two decades spent toiling away as what you might call a blue-collar actor. A four-season run on House of Cards may have elevated Ali to minor renown, but it was his performance in Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight as Juan, a drug dealer who takes a vulnerable child under his wing, that launched him into the stratosphere. Ali gave a lot of speeches this winter and spring, as he won a best-supporting-actor trophy at nearly every awards show, including the Oscars. At the Screen Actors Guild Awards, on the heels of Trump’s proposed Muslim travel ban, Ali made a compelling, impassioned call for sanity: “What I’ve learned from working on Moonlight is we see what happens when you persecute people. They fold into themselves.” Juan, he said, “saw a young man folding into himself as a result of the persecution of his community and [took] that opportunity to uplift him and tell him that he mattered”—Ali’s eyes filled with tears, his baritone turned quavering and rough—“that he was okay, and accept him. And I hope that we do a better job of that.”
The speech was a remarkable thing to watch, a near spiritual moment amid a humdrum parade of movie-industry self-congratulation. Here was a dark-skinned American Muslim in a gleaming white tuxedo jacket gently, word by word, opening up his heart to the audience.
Like many actors, he is charismatic and clever and easy to talk to. But perhaps more than most, he is thoughtful. He wants to say what’s on his mind, and he wants to say it correctly. He is a black man who has been navigating America for 43 years. He wants to choose his words carefully, so that when he talks, you don’t get it twisted.
“When suddenly you go from being followed in Barneys to being fawned over, it will mess with your head,” he tells me, leaning over the table. He remembers being on subway trains and seeing people hide their rings from him: “those experiences that you have from age 10, when you start getting these little messages that you are something to be feared.” Even as a celebrity, he’s experienced how the script can always be flipped. “Walking down the street in Berkeley,” he says, “and some cops roll up on you and say straight up, ‘Give me your ID,’ and you’re like, ‘What the fuck?’ ”
I ask if his sudden and breathless celebration by white people ever makes him feel like a… I’m searching for the words.
“A way to relieve pressure for people?” he asks me, stirring his tea. “Like a kind of peace offering? I accept it as a possibility. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that’s what it is.… As long as what you’re doing as an artist is resonating with people, I’m not as concerned about if that’s convoluted or not by their own prejudices, because at the end of the day you gotta accept people on their terms.”
Read more at GQ.