On a remarkable journey, Mahershala Ali has arrived at the very top. On February 26, the night of the Oscars, he raised an Academy Award aloft in front of the watching world. It was the last stop of a long award season and cemented the triumph of Moonlight, which not only won the gong for Best Film but saw Ali named Best Supporting Actor.
Here’s all you need to know about the man who’s the talk of Tinseltown:
Mahershala Ali is 43-years-old though he doesn’t look it. Born on February 16, 1974, in Oakland, California, his birthname is Mahershalalhashbaz Gilmore. The first name comes from the Bible, given to him after his mother had seen it in a dream. In 1999, he converted to Islam and changed his surname to Ali, then shortened his first name to Mahershala in 2010.
It was sport that first brought Ali into acting. He received a basketball scholarship to St. Mary’s College but he fell in love with the stage. After graduating in acting from New York University in 2000, his first series of roles followed. He enjoyed extended appearances on TV screens in shows such as Crossing Jordan, Threat Matrix and 4400, but his career was still waiting for that breakthrough moment.
Ali’s talents didn’t just lie in acting. His youth, and life were also shaped by rap music. In 2007, he recorded his own album “The Curb Side Service” under the pseudonym Prince Ali. His cat is named after hip-hop legend Nas, while music also plays a decisive part in his preparation for his roles. More on that shortly.
Ali’s focus remained on the camera and in 2008, he landed his first major film role as Tizzy Weathers in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. But he really found the door to Hollywood as Remy Danton, the constantly quarrelling lobbyist from the Netflix hit series House of Cards.
Major film roles followed, including in The Hunger Games - Mockingjay. At one stage, Ali could have been cast in Game of Thrones but he messed up the audition. “That was one of the worst auditions of my life,” he told Jimmy Kimmel Live.
In the Marvel series Luke Cage in 2016, Ali excelled as crime boss Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes who revered rapper Notorious B.I.G., and in one key scene is positioned in front of a giant picture of the hip-hop icon.
As the owner of Harlem’s hottest nightclub, music is an integral part of Stokes’s life, just as it is for Ali. The actor has put together his own playlist as part of his preparation to play the villainous kingpin. No matter what character he plays, Ali creates his own special soundtrack with “music that he would respond to, music that reflects the world he’s living in, things he would have listened to growing up or whatnot,” as he told The Guardian. The screen star listens to the tunes in his trailer or on the way to set to help him focus.
These backing tracks and the ever-increasing list of role offers have launched the first Muslim Oscar winner to where he is today; Hollywood’s top tier. In addition to Moonlight, Ali also appeared in Hidden Figures, also nominated at the Academy Awards.
His wife Amatus could not have picked a happier time to give birth to the couple’s first child. Four days before his Oscar triumph, daughter Bari Najma entered the world.
Ali’s star continues to shine and if this is a major high point, his real journey is only just beginning. Let’s hope he has plenty more playlists in his luggage.