Months after his breakout role in “Moonlight” earned him the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, Mahershala Ali is still getting used to fame.
“When suddenly you go from being followed in Barneys to being fawned over, it will mess with your head,” the 43-year-old Muslim actor tells GQ. “Those experiences that you have from age 10, when you start getting these little messages that you are something to be feared.”
Ali reveals that at times his celebrity life stands in harsh contrast to the way he is still treated publicly. “Walking down the street in Berkeley and some cops roll up on you and say straight up, ‘Give me your ID,’ and you’re like, ‘What the f***?'” he says, recalling a carding incident. He revealed he was put on a terrorist watchlist following 9/11.
“They would be like, ‘Yeah, your name matches the name of a terrorist.’ I was like, ‘What terrorist is running around with a Hebrew first name and an Arabic last name? Who’s that guy?'” he tells FreshAir. Ali, who converted to Islam in 1999 after attending a mosque with his now-wife, credits his religion with helping him become a better actor.
“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, who became a father of the first time just days before he took home his Oscar, channels his own experience into the characters he plays.
“I think I identify with characters who have to make themselves smaller because that’s been my experience, as a large black man, to make people feel safer,” he says, explaining how he has learned to brush off uncomfortable situations. “Just because I always found witnessing other people’s discomfort made me uncomfortable. And at the end of the day, it’s a lot of b.s., too. Sometimes you gotta be like, ‘Eff that.'”
For the American actor, he has at times found himself at odds with his country. During the awards season, Ali used his platform to speak out against Donald Trump’s proposed Muslim ban, making a compelling call for sanity in the face of political turmoil.
“I think African-Americans have a very convoluted relationship with patriotism. The fact is, we essentially were the abused child. We still love the parent, but you can’t overlook the fact that we have a very convoluted relationship with the parent,” he explains. “I absolutely love this country, but like so many people have some real questions and concerns about how things have gone down over the years and where we’re at. And that’s from a place of love, because I want the country to be what it says it is on paper.”
Ali says America can be made great, but not in the Trumpian “Make America Great Again” sort of way. Ali has been using the spotlight to advocate for love and tolerance in society.
“I sincerely believe we have the capacity to actually make this country great. 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.”