If Mahershala Ali’s Oscar Award-winning turn in Moonlight didn’t make you swoon (you do have a pulse, though, right?), then his GQ cover story will do just that. Even the writer, Carvell Wallace, is under his spell: “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.” Same.
In addition to making “botanical prints” look hella sexy (we love the editor’s note about his clothes, btw)—and that smile, we’re melting—Ali opens up about his upbringing, overcoming insecurities (yep, he has them too) and the time he found out his name was on a terrorist watch list. His honesty is refreshing. But we’re still thirsty. Here, five things we learned about him.
His parents’ separation only made him stronger
Ali’s parents separated when he was just a toddler; his father left his mother to pursue a career in the limelight after he won a contest on Soul Train. Clearly, the desire to perform is in his blood. And he speaks highly of his dad to writer Wallace. Still, it was only in becoming a parent himself that the 43-year-old actor says he finally came to terms with his father’s decision to leave his mother.
“When I look at the fact that I was more than twice my father’s age when I became a parent, it helps me put a little bit of his situation into perspective. It helps me appreciate and respect that my parents were able to do what they did do and love me as deeply as they did,” Ali says.
He suffers from the same insecurities that most of us have
Before he made it big, Ali was overwhelmed with negative thoughts that left him unsure of whether he should keep pushing to achieve his acting goals. As a student at the graduate acting program at NYU Tisch School of Arts, Ali was surrounded by fierce competition. “I wasn’t feeling very good at [acting],” he says in the profile. “It started to affect how I felt about myself.”
Apparently, he felt so inadequate that he almost didn’t try out to join an elite summer training program at Guthrie Theater. “I didn’t feel like I’d get it,” he says.
Thankfully, the artist director of the program stepped in—and if it weren’t for him, we might never have seen Ali on the big screen. The director saw Ali’s potential and helped remind him of his talents.
His credits his faith with helping him become a great actor
Ali converted to Islam in 1999 after a visit to a mosque with Amatus Sami-Karim, who met while studying at NYU Tisch and later married. The visit was a pivotal moment that shaped the course of his career.
“It benefits me from the standpoint of really creating empathy for these characters that I try to embody, other human beings with issues as deep and personal as my own. Because of Islam, I am acutely aware that I am a work in progress,” he says. Ali incorporates his faith in his daily life now, which he says, “puts a healthy pressure on you to be your best self, beginning with your own spirit and how that feeds into your actions.”
He shares the meaning of his name
Well, not exactly. Wallace actually notes that Ali’s first name is Mahershalalhashbaz (Mahershala is a nickname), which is the longest name in the Old Testament. “It means ‘Hurry to the spoils!’ or, in other words, ‘Look at all this good shit here!'”
We also learn that after 9/11, Ali discovered his name was on a terrorist watch list, which he appears to laugh off. As Wallace explains—from a interview Ali did with Fresh Air’s Terry Gross—when Ali found out about his name appearing on the list, “I was like, ‘What terrorist is running around with a Hebrew first name and an Arabic last name? Who’s that guy?”
He’s hopeful for the future
Toward the end of the interview, Ali gets real about the state of U.S. politics—and particularly about what it’s like to be African American in the U.S. right now. He reflects on his own experiences growing up. Riding on the subway when he was 10, he witnessed people hiding their rings away from him—a not-so-subtle message he says “that you are something to be feared.” He also talks about what it was like to get interrogated by police while he was just walking down the street.
“When suddenly you go from being followed in Barneys to being fawned over, it will mess with you head,” he says.
But he’s still rooting for the U.S.: “I sincerely believe we have the capacity to actually make this country great,” he says.
It’s just going to take time and work—and he’s here for it.
“There are enough people, there are enough believers out there, there are enough intelligent, empathetic souls out there that want good for the whole,” he says. “I don’t know if it’ll happen in my lifetime, but I believe in time the pendulum will swing in the right direction.”
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