With ‘Moonlight,’ It’s Pretty Great To Be Mahershala Ali Right Now

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Mahershala Ali is a very popular man right now. And it’s pretty difficult to miss him in a crowd, as he towers over most mere mortals (including myself). On Monday night, Moonlight won a whole host of awards at the Gotham Independent Film Awards*; on Tuesday, during a lunch and panel hosted by Peggy Siegel and A24, Naomie Harris, Ali, and director Barry Jenkins were told in front of the guests that Moonlight had now won another round of awards from the National Board of Review.

*As a side note, on Monday night I attended the Gotham Awards and was sitting at the Everybody Wants Some!! table which was a) as you can probably imagine a total hoot and b) made me feel like Kramer in that episode of Seinfeld when he won a Tony for Scarsdale Surprise. Anyway, I ran into Barry Jenkins later that night after his win for Best Picture and, since I interviewed him a couple of months ago, he’s gone from “cautious” about his film’s awards chances to, maybe, “cautiously optimistic.”

Ali has been acting for the last 15 years and his profile got a boost when he starred as Boggs in the Hunger Games franchise. But 2016 is his year. He’s received much acclaim for his role on Luke Cage and you’ll see him again in the upcoming Hidden Figures, which is a huge crowdpleaser. But what everyone is talking about is his role in Moonlight as a drug dealer named Juan who mentors a young Chiron (played in that chapter by Alex Hibbert). This isn’t what we usually see out of a character with that profession, as Ali plays him as fatherly. (For more on Moonlight, you can read our review from September. It is deserving of all its accolades.)

After the panel, I spoke to Ali about a couple of specific questions I’ve had about his performance in Moonlight, (at least, I spoke to him after he was done getting the glad hand from well-wishers).

You’re very popular right now.

[Laughs.] Yeah.

When I watched Juan my thoughts were, “He’d make a great dad.” Which is not usually what we think of characters with Juan’s profession. Was that portrayal on the page when you got the script, or was that you?