It’s hard to imagine as great an actor as Mahershala Ali not being on everyone’s radar, but, according to him, it’s a matter of luck that he’s at the forefront of change. With House of Cards, Luke Cage, Moonlight, and Free State of Jones, Ali is everywhere, telling stories that, as a kid, he’d never been able to see:
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.
With several projects hitting at once, Ali feels like he can finally show off his range; this moment in time has afforded an opportunity to play various and completely different characters:
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 … 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.
Which also had a lot to do — aside from getting to play a villain in a Marvel project — with why he chose to play Cornell Stokes/Cottomouth:
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.
Being a part of huge, groundbreaking projects like Cards — which “created the binge-watching phenomena” — and Cage, the first black-led Marvel series, feels like “signifiers of change” that Ali believes social media has greatly helped affect:
… 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 … 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.
Read more about how he views and subsequently made Cottonmouth’s mob boss different from Daredevil’s Kingpin — “I spent a lot of time getting clear on what my motivations were” — and the threat Luke poses to Stokes’ world here.
All episodes of Luke Cage are streaming on Netflix now.