411mania Interviews: Mahershalalhashbaz Ali
Mahershalalhashbaz Ali is best known for his role as Richard Tyler on the USA series The 4400 and for his performance in the Oscar winning film The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. This Sunday at 9 pm he co-stars opposite Julia Ormond in the Lifetime Movie Network original movie The Wronged Man as Calvin Willis, who in 2003 was exonerated for a crime he spend almost 22 years in jail for.
Al Norton: Let’s get this out of the way at the start; can you pronounce your first name for me?
M Ali: Sure. It’s Maher-Shalal-Hazshbaz.
Al Norton: What’s the origin of the name?
M Ali: It’s Hebrew. It’s the longest name in the bible and it’s the symbolic name for the prophet Isaiah’s second son. You can find it in Isaiah, chapter 8, versus 2 & 3.
Al Norton: Was that a tough name to carry around as a kid?
M Ali: You know, I didn’t know it was my name until I was 7 (laughing). Everyone used to call me Hershal, because it’s in there somewhere. I learned when I was 7 that my full name was Mahershalalhashbaz.
I think when I got older and was an undergrad people started calling me the only thing that would fit on social security card, which was Mahershala. People started calling me Mahershala around then and it kind of stuck for a while. Right before I stepped into the professional world I felt like it was time for me to take on my name in its entirety because it was given to me and I just wanted to honor that. It was time for me to embrace it.
Al Norton: You’ve had a good career so far but do you think the name was ever a hindrance? Casting directors seem to make choices for a pretty strange variety of reasons.
M Ali: They do, for sure. I don’t know if it’s caused any issues but then again I would never know. They might think it would be difficult to market or this, that, and the other. The way I find peace in the industry is to focus on doing the best work I can do. I want to be the best actor I can be, I want to be the best person I can be. I feel like that will put me where I should be. There may hindrances and road blocks that pop up from time to time but my focus is always the same, it always has been the same. I think if you’re supposed to have something in life, you end up having it, and if you’re not supposed to have it, you don’t.
Al Norton: How did you decide you wanted to be an actor?
M Ali: I really just fell into it. My goal was to graduate undergrad with a 3.0. My grandfather told me he was going to give me a decent amount of money if a graduated college with a 3.0 or better. I was really focused on my GPA and taking Spanish at the time and didn’t feel like I would get the grade that I wanted in the second semester so I decided I’d start over my senior year and take Spanish 1 and 2 so right now I am going to take an elective. I just picked acting and it was a blast. Everything I did resonated with me, from Shakespeare to eventually doing a Zora Neal Hurston piece, and then my senior year I did my first play.
Right after my senior year I got the California Shakespeare Festival. I just kind of got into it and it felt right. Things happened for me, people pointed me in the right direction, and I ended up going to grad school for it, too. Basically I fell into it by not taking the second semester of Spanish when I should have.
Al Norton: I have to ask; did you graduate with a 3.0?
M Ali: I did. Over a 3.0. And I got the money (laughing).
Al Norton: Were you much of a sci-fi fan before The 4400?
M Ali: I’ve never really been a huge sci-fi fan. What I loved about The 4400 was that they did a really good job of making a drama with a science fiction back drop. I loved comic books growing up but never really considered them sci-fi. I did love Star Wars. There were certain movies, certain franchises. I have cousins and friends who were real sci-fi heads but I am not one of those. It was a great experience doing The 4400 and getting to play in a different world.
Al Norton: The great thing about sci-fi fans is their loyalty.
M Ali: Absolutely. They are really loyal and very, very serious about the most minuet details. To this day there are people trying to get The 4400 back on the air.
Al Norton: Was it frustrating to spend a few years as a part of the show and then not get a chance to finish telling the story in any way?
M Ali: I don’t know if you think about it like that as an actor, and that may disappoint the fans to a certain degree. You’re so focused on being in the moment that, just like in life, we’re not thinking about how our story is going to end, how our family’s story comes together. You have goals, short and long term, but I feel like it’s the same in acting if you’re doing a serial drama. You’re focused on that episode, and maybe even that season. I think it was disappointing that the show was cancelled but those things have their life, their time to live, and the powers that be decided that was it.
Al Norton: How did The Wronged Man come to you?
M Ali: The casting director of The Wronged Man was the same who did The Curious Case of Benjamin Button – Lorraine Mayfield – and she called me in to meet with the director and producer and I had a really great meeting with them. They were concerned I might be a little too nice for the role so they wanted to see me read for it. I came back in a few days later and I guess they were happy with what they saw and I got the job.
Al Norton: Had you ever played a real person before?
M Ali: No.
Al Norton: What were some of the challenges, as opposed to playing a fictional character?
M Ali: As an actor you always feel a responsibility to be truthful but I think when you know they are going to see it, or people they know and love are going to see it, you feel a real responsibility to do their story justice and capture the essence of a story that actually happened. That’s the challenge. You can’t create everything from your imagination.
Al Norton: Did you get to meet Calvin Willis?
M Ali: No but I did get to see a lot of documentary footage of him plus I spend quite a bit of time with the paralegal who worked with him the two decades he was in prison. We got an opportunity to spend a few days together talking.
Al Norton: I am not sure what your feelings about the death penalty were going into the project but did doing this movie change them at all, or maybe reaffirm them?
M Ali: It’s tough, it’s complicated. If I had a daughter and someone God forbid did something to her, or to my family, I don’t know if I am that forgiving to say “ok, I forgive you” after you spend a little time in prison. It’s a very complicated thing. This story does show that there are mistakes and people have died because of those mistakes. I think it created more questions for me with the death penalty, and that’s good; the more questions you have about how things exist in their current state, the more you fully understand them. The most questions usually lead to the best answers.
Al Norton: Did you just finish work on Predators?
M Ali: We just finished and it should be out July 9th.
Al Norton: Between the writer (Robert Rodriguez) and your fellow cast members (Adrian Brody, Lawrence Fishburne, Topher Grace, Danny Trejo), how much fun was that?
M Ali: It was a blast. It was an amazing experience. We were in the tropical rainforests of Hawaii stomping through the mud and getting rained on all day and then we ended up finishing in Austin, Texas. I really think this movie is going to be good. They had cut together a trailer while we were still working and it looked amazing. It’s a great cast and along with the action elements and the sci-fi elements, and with Robert Rodriguez being involved, I think it’s going to push it to another level.
Al Norton: For someone who might not think of themselves as the target audience for a Lifetime Movie Network movie, why should they watch The Wronged Man?
M Ali: I think because it’s relevant. You have something that’s based on a true story. There is a woman who spends two decades -twenty years of her life – dedicating to freeing a man she felt was innocent, and on the other side you’ve got a man who is in prison because justice has not been served. He’s lost his family, his friends, his life. You get to see the story unfold as he is eventually redeemed.
This is something that could happen to absolutely anyone. The Innocence Project believes that there are potentially 40,000 people wrongfully imprisoned. Those kind of numbers go beyond color lines, beyond race, beyond class. This story sheds some light on that and therefore it’s something that all audiences should be interested in checking out.
Don’t miss The Wronged Man on LMN, Sunday at 8 pm.