The Hollywood Reporter recently did one of the magazine’s regular roundtables featuring actors who have been named in awards press. One of the featured actors is Mahershala Ali, who is having one of the best years of his career. On top of his role as Cottonmouth on Netflix’s Marvel series Luke Cage and his ongoing role on House of Cards, he also appeared in a critically-praised role in Moonlight, having already been awarded Best Supporting Actor honors from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the New York Film Critics Circle.
In the roundtable, Ali points out that having anxiety or fear about a role shows that he’s getting close to finding his character. He says, “In some way it’s an indication that I’m in the right place, because the fear is kind of informing me: I’m in the place where the known is ending and the unknown is beginning. And that is our job, to consistently put ourselves in a position where we’re uncomfortable and going beyond our comfort zone. If you’re fortunate enough to build a career, a little pebble is put out in front of you, and you’ve got to step toward it, and with each step you’re hopefully going further out and getting beyond what you’ve done before and exploring territory that has yet to be explored. So you have to really make friends with that fear. It’s a bit of a tightrope walk.”
He also talks about the importance of taking on varied roles so you don’t get thought of as a certain “type,” which is why he played a drug dealer in Moonlight. He explains, “I’ve been able to make a living playing characters that are in a certain world — [like in]House of Cards and these FBI-type parts. At a certain point, you find yourself being thought of a certain way. You can become very narrow. And so it becomes a fight to be thought of in a different light, and to fight your own fear, wondering if you can do something beyond what you’ve done already. What probably concerned me most was that I was literally doing three other jobs, and so every day I was traveling. It was [about]trying to really be conscious of what part I was playing on that day, and I had a lot of fear about bleed[-through] from one part into the other.”
So how did Ali manage to keep his four different characters as separate individuals? One ticket was music. He says, “Basically, I made playlists specific to each character. So when I’d be traveling to that gig, I would really only listen to that character’s music.”