For someone worried about getting typecast in political suit roles due to his work on “House Of Cards,” this September actor Mahershala Ali is all about showcasing his darker more violent inner hoodlum.
As Harlem nightclub owner Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes in Netflix’s highly anticipated Marvel Comics series “Luke Cage,” Ali unveils a nasty bit of work come September 30th.
However, for those looking for a gangster preview of Ali’s more urban chops, this weekend he does a star turn in the Focus Features indie drama “Kicks.” “Kicks,” which opens in theaters on September 9, 2016 is the gritty tale of what happens when youngsters in the hood make the mistake of connecting shoes to manhood. In “Kicks,” Ali plays the vicious Oakland based old G, Marlon.
We asked him about this role and more in our exclusive one on one interview:
AllHipHop: You are the biggest most recognizable name in this film. Why did you decide to do it?
Mahershala Ali: I decided to do it because it was a part that was so different from anything I’ve been offered up to this point. I was actually surprised they approached me about it. I felt like I needed to do it because it was just an opportunity to stretch. When you get on a series and you start working on those for a couple of years, six or seven months out of the year, you are kind of doing one thing. Just the opportunity to go and work on somebody who was so different and be challenged – to see if I could make this person human and really work to do a good job with it was a challenge that I was really excited about and surprised about getting offered. Because they knew me from “House Of Cards” which is a character that is obviously the polar opposite of this guy. So, that in a nutshell. Also I just thought the script was really good. And it was something that was being shot in the Bay Area – a story that was so authentic to so many people’s experience from my point of view growing up there.
The world of “Kicks” is a very specific one. Being from the Bay Area was it familiar for you or a departure?
Well it’s interesting. I grew up in Hayward, which is five miles from Oakland. Even though that’s not a huge difference in terms of geography, the mentality is just different and the opportunities are a little bit different. I grew up in what was very much a working class, kind of blue collar suburb in the day. But the element in Oakland, especially when I was growing up – it’s very gentrified now – Oakland, had very real dangerous elements in it so you had to be really careful. I’d go into these side shows and there was always a sense that something could pop off at any moment. Just having family and friends in that life to some degree, still kind of paying the price for that now – it was something that on the page you just knew, or at least for myself (I knew) it felt real. It took the Bay area to encapsulate that.
You said that you were surprised that they offered you this role, but I’m surprised to hear you say that. Your character in “Kicks” is dangerous, but he is someone that people identify with as a leader. In “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Parts 1 & 2” you also played a leader in a deadly, albeit futuristic environment. So why the shock?
I was surprised because for lack of a better word, he’s an urban character and I’m more known for being in a suit. With being known for “House Of Cards,” especially in Hollywood, fairly quickly, once you become known for something – like I’ve been offered several other things that were just a different version of Remy ( Ali’s character in “House Of Cards”) in a different setting…. So what I’m saying is a true – it’s a real thing. Even really intelligent people they kind of develop an opinion about you on what they’ve seen you do. So getting an offer on a character that was just so different surprised me because I don’t even get those scripts not even the offers. I just don’t get the scripts to read and dig through that would be in a more urban environment. I rarely get those. So that’s why I was really surprised.
Speaking about intelligent people forming set opinions based on one dimensional perceptions, as a Muslim and a Black Man in America with a public platform, how do you feel about how many Muslims and people of color are being portrayed in politics and popular culture these days?
It’s not anything that I’m not used to. I think I’ve grown up – look, I’m 42 years old. I’ve been around a bit. I’ve grown up being thought of in a certain way just as an African American man so I think what Muslims have been going through in this country has been more so as a result of 911, so it’s been like the last 15 years. So to be Muslim and to be an African American man… the type of discrimination or the way in which people pigeon hole or the way that the negative aspects of people who want to represent any culture – those always tend to come to the forefront. The people who are really trying to do good in the black community and in the Muslim community (those) that are real peacekeepers, people who are trying to do really positive things in the culture, they don’t really get handed the microphone. I think what sells tickets is violence and sometimes a lot of negativity is what gets the headlines. And then often people say, ‘well why aren’t these Muslims speaking up?’ I’ve been to those events. I know people who are doing things and they just don’t…its not as interesting. So they just don’t get the platform in the same way. Hopefully that will change. I really hope that changes. But the only thing I can do is be the best person that I can be and represent my own unique self in the best way I can. I just happen to be an African American who is Muslim, just trying to live right and live the best I can. I hope that my contribution in some way has a positive affect on how African Americans and how Muslims are seen. But it’s just not something I lead with. I’m an actor and I have to transform. I have to make these characters real.
That may be true, but you still ought to be commended on your choices. With your upcoming film “Hidden Figures” you’re involved in a movie that retells the true story of a team of African American women who worked as mathematicians to help NASA’s space programs Project Mercury and Apollo 11 in the 1960s. So one could infer from these choices that you are actively attempting to take roles in projects that mean something in that they consistently portray a diverse array of characters in scenarios that aren’t regularly seen. Would you say that that is correct?
I think I try to pick roles that resonate with me. Stories that I feel have a purpose. And also too – and a lot of people don’t see this – there’s a real balancing act that actors have to do. Look, my real taste is that I would do art house movies all day if I could. But I could probably make more money doing theater than I could doing Art House projects. You just don’t make enough money to really have a decent living off of doing that. So really I’m looking to strike a balance between really good commercial projects that have an opportunity to resonate (with) people that are not going to look as hard and are not going to search as hard to find a great story. Those have real value, but also (I’m looking to) find those (projects) that are kind of in the middle that are a combination of an Art House and a commercial project and then also the ones that are purely about an inspired story. If the movie makes $5 it makes $5. If it makes 20 million then great. But I think my taste is pretty broad. And I just try to do what I respond to. I’ve got to feel like I can do something with the character – selfishly. First and foremost. I’ve got to feel like I’ve got something to give it, give him, and see if he had something to offer me – and then hope that the larger story is good as well. So we’ll see. But it’s a balance.
Let’s switch gears. Kicks – are they a big thing for you?
MA: Shoes? Yeah, but I’m not a big tennis shoe guy. But I love shoes. I’ve always loved shoes, collected in my own way. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten more specific in what I’ll buy and what I do get. But yeah, I’ve always appreciated shoes. I’ve always appreciated clothes in general and how they speak for you in a certain way. It always kind of starts with the shoes for some reason. At least to me.
So what shoes are you buying? You’ve said you’ve gotten more specific.
I mean, I’m not committed to any one brand, it’s just more so if I see something that speaks to me. If I do get like an adidas, something like that, I’m going to try and find something that’s a little bit unique something that really resonates with me. The last pair of shoes I got, I was working on this job and I loved them and they ordered them for me. These Stan Smiths. Not the regular Stan Smiths, they were these ones called the neo stock…they just look different enough where they are really dope and I haven’t really seen anybody with them. I really love those. There’s a friend who makes these handmade moccasins out of Oakland that are really dope – different kind of colors and what not, called 23 tribes moccasins. I wear Wolverine boots. It just depends on what speaks to me. So I’m not one that is necessarily married to any one brand per se.
There’s a lot of great hip hop music in “Kicks”. Is there anybody who is in your personal playlist that we ought to know about?
I would have to go through to the end to see who all was in there because you know it’s funny – the chapters that they put in there in the script were different from what made it into the movie… Originally there was Biggie, who I think did make it. I don’t know if the actual music made it or if they were just quoting his words. There was Biggie and I think everybody was talking about Souls Of Mischief, a little snippet by Nas, Wutang. So I definitely resonate with all of those. It was like for sure because I’m a hip hop head. I just really grew up on “The Wake Up Show” in the Bay Area and just kind of going to these shows and kind of being a real fan of underground hip hop…and then there’s the more commercial hip hop. Yeah, I’m a real hip hop music fan.
As real hip hop head, who are you listening to now that you think deserves a little more shine?
Definitely number one is this brother named Ka. He’s out of Brownsville, Brooklyn. This brother is a brilliant lyricist. He does his own production, he shoots his own videos, but he popped up on a Jizza album a few years ago. He works a lot with Roc Marciano, who is really dope. But he just released this album called “Honor Killed The Samurai.” But Ka, he’s brilliant. He’s got about four or five albums. Also he has another album under the name Dr. Yen Lo….I really love Roc Marciano who is also another New York dude living in LA.. But yeah I’m into anything that doesn’t really reach the surface.
“Kicks” starring Jahking Guillory, Christopher Jordan Wallace, Kofi Siriboe, Christopher Meyer and Mahershala Ali opens in theaters in limited release on September 9, 2016.