Mahershala Ali interview: 'Moonlight is going to impact our culture'

The actor talks to The Independent about Luke Cage, House of Cards, and Black Panther

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Mahershala Ali is a big deal right now. The actor - best known for playing Remy Danton on House of Cards - is hotly tipped for an Oscar nomination for his performance in Moonlight, features alongside Matthew McConaughy in Free State of Jones, and plays the villain in Netflix's new Marvel series Luke Cage.

Sitting down with The Independent in support of the latter show about a bullet proof black hero, Ali candidly spoke about his role as the villain Cottonmouth, breaking through into the mainstream with House of Cards, and diversity on screen.

Highlights include Ali discussing representation on screen, particularluy when he was growing up: "I grew up not seeing myself on screen. I grew up always watching us be the friend, always supporting the narrative, always supporting the other person's journey, which is problematic because you don’t get to see yourself being at the forefront, being supported by other people. It’s really frustrating because, in many ways, it feels like you don’t exist." Read the full Q&A below. 

Mahershala Ali, lovely to meet you. Sincerest congratulations on Luke Cage, I really enjoyed the show. What attracted you to the role of Cottonmouth?

I haven’t really had the opportunity to play a villain and I’ve always wanted to do something with Marvel. What I really appreciated was what Cheo [Hodari Coker, showrunner] was doing with this character. For a villain, there was this really wonderful balance of light and dark. It was also going to give me the opportunity to be really present on a series. As an actor, as you grow into where you fit in the industry, you're just trying to find the opportunities, hoping they grow and you get to do more. This was an opportunity to really be present, to be written for, which I hadn’t really had up to this point.

Mahershala Ali at Comic Con 2016 (Getty)

Cottonmouth is a mob boss. How did you make him different to other on-screen villains like Fisk in Daredevil?

If you look at Daredevil, there are different showrunners, different voices. Cottonmouth is specific to the world of Luke Cage, someone who organically comes out of Harlem. A lot of that work was done for me, he felt unique on the page. I didn’t have to do a lot of work to make him different to Kingpin, they come from different circumstances, they even - in some ways - want different things. It’s how specific and nuanced you make each character that naturally sets them apart, makes them organically different. I spent a lot of time getting clear on what my motivations were.

What would you say Cottonmouth's main motivation is?

Survival. Luke Cage comes and breaks the order of things. Cottonmouth has grown his business, he’s strengthened his hold on Harlem, which informs his identity which is actually a bit fragile. As Luke Cage becomes a threat to the world he’s created and built, things begin to crack around him. It’s a threat, a deep threat, so he quickly becomes about trying to hold it together, trying to survive. His business begins to suffer quickly as a result, and the success of his business is very much tied to his identity in the world. His status and stature. These things are more important to him than other people because he’s not doing what he should be, he missed his calling when growing up. These other markers of identity are what he needs because he’s so far from what he should have been. 

It’s a turbulent time in US politics. For Luke Cage to come out now - with a bulletproof black man as the lead - it feels very important.

I think it’s important for people of colour to have similar opportunities to white people, that’s what is most important. It’s important for people of colour to have the opportunities to play characters that are as nuanced - as three-dimensional, as human - as the characters who we traditionally see getting to play the protagonist. The good guys and the bad guys. The reason that is important is because it’s a better reflection of the reality of the world we live in. We live in diverse communities with all sorts of people from all sorts of different backgrounds. The more our entertainment can be a reflection of the world we live in, the better it is for all of us. 

It feels important that Luke Cage does have such a diverse cast; it makes it stand out from other shows, particularly superhero shows. Your career at the moment is particularly interesting as you are starring in Moonlight, also in a film with Matthew McConaughey (Free State of Jones). Does this feel like a step up in your career?

It does. I think House of Cards has opened it up for me. I just did my last season of House of Cards, I’m no longer on the show, and because of our conversations and being able to contractually move out of that series, I’ve been able to take advantage of other opportunities and get a sense of what was available for me out there. A lot of these things happened at once. When I was working on Luke Cage I was working on four projects at one time, seven days a week, wrapping up House of Cards, doing Moonlight, and this project called Future Relic. Now they’re all coming out at the same time. What is most important is that the characters are very different, so it gives people a sense of my range who are different to Remy, who was a great character and a wonderful reference point for people but these feel very different from Remy. Somehow, your work gets appreciated differently. When you’re one character people associate them with you and it is not seen as acting but more as a version of yourself. When you play someone else, they see your range and what you can do. Thankfully, many of these projects have a real social relevance and I can see them having an impact. It feels like Luke Cage is going to have an impact on people. Moonlight is going to impact our culture.

Luke Cage trailer

These projects that have an impact, it must be an incredible feeling being at the forefront of change?

I’ve been very fortunate. Very fortunate because House of Cards, like Luke Cage, was the first of its kind. It created the binge watching phenomena. A series where all episodes were released at once, where people could watch on their terms. It completely changed how shows are released and now Netflix has over 50 original series. Now, with Luke Cage being in the Marvel universe and being the first black-led series of its kind, again that’s akin to House of Cards being the first of its kind. Then there’s the subject matter of Moonlight which also has a cultural significance. These projects feel like signifiers of change, but I can’t take credit for that, I’ve just been lucky.

Why do you think this change is only happening now?

Well, I think Hollywood has been this way for a hundred years. Some industries are very slow to change, I’m just glad the change is happening now. I’m glad people have spoken up about diversity, for lack of a better word. For me, the conversation is about the type and quality of projects featuring people of colour that are being green-lit. Because, if you don’t have quality projects that feature people of colour in positions to lead these projects, they will not be up for awards. If the projects of critical acclaim are not even being green-lit, at the end of the year - come awards season - no one is going to get nominated for anything. This is where lots of the conversation has come from. It’s about investing in projects that get the right kind of attention.

Diverse casts are coming a lot more frequent. Marvel, despite receiving lots of criticism in the past, now has Luke Cage and will have the Black Panther film. 

I think a lot of it has to do with social media. People have a real platform to voice their issues. 15 years ago, even 10 years ago, there wasn’t that ability to hashtag anything. There was no opportunity to cause a ruckus about not seeing themselves on screen. I grew up not seeing myself on screen. I grew up always watching us be the friend, always supporting the narrative, always supporting the other person's journey, which is problematic because you don’t get to see yourself being at the forefront, being supported by other people. It’s really frustrating because, in many ways, it feels like you don’t exist. You don’t exist in the fullest way like this other person seems to always exist. Therefore, for other people in the world, for the layperson, because we take our cues from entertainment, they don’t look at you as human or having the same capacity to express the same range of emotion. That’s why the diversity issue is a very important problem. It’s not just about having the opportunity. It really goes into how we psychologically view other people. 

Do you hope kids will look up to shows like Luke Cage and see themselves represented on screen?

I think it's a wonderful opportunity for kids and adults. Anytime you can see yourself in the narrative, and if there’s a balance of the good and the grey, not necessarily just the bad. Anytime you can see yourself included in the narrative you feel like you exist, you’re as important. These are things that contribute to how we see ourselves in the world, they inform other people. It’s as important for black people as it is for white people.