Skip navigation

Hes the breakout star of this years buzziest films, next as a Miami drug dealer in Barry Jenkins tender coming-of-age drama. Will it win him an Oscar?

Let me see Luke Cage. Im looking down my phone Mahershala Ali sounds deep in concentration on the other end of the line. OK, so Danger Zone by Big L. Uh, Fly Girl Get Em, BJ The Chicago Kid; EPMD, Strictly Business; Erykah Badu, Soldier; Freddie Gibbs and Madlib, Deeper; Thuggin

Ali is going through one of his playlists. He makes one for every character, he explains. Music that he would respond to, music that reflects the world hes living in, things he would have listened to growing up or whatnot. Hell play them in his trailer or driving to the set. They help focus me very quickly, almost like a meditation. It especially helps if youre working on a couple of things.

Ali has been working on a couple of things pretty much all the time lately, which means a lot of playlists. After minor roles in The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button and The Hunger Games, the 42-year-old is currently experiencing a 15-years-in-the-making overnight success moment. In the aforementioned Luke Cage, Netflixs blaxploitation-tinged superhero series, he is Cornell Cottonmouth Stokes, Harlem club owner and ruthless crime boss. Before that, he was in slave-uprising drama Free State Of Jones. Next month well see him in Hidden Figures, the story of the African-American women who powered Nasa. Last year we also said goodbye to Alis best-known incarnation: Remy Danton, smooth political operator and foil to Kevin Spacey in House Of Cards. Remys playlist? A lot of Jay Z. I always felt if Jay Z had had different opportunities, he could be someone like Remy.

Ali as Cottonmouth in Luke Cage. Photograph: Myles Aronowitz/Netflix

The reason were talking now, though, is Moonlight, Barry Jenkinss sensual, lyrical study of a working-class, gay black mans fraught coming of age. The film has garnered enormous acclaim 140-plus prizes so far, including a best supporting actor Oscar nomination which means hes now in the midst of a long awards season campaign. Hes grateful to those who advised him to pace himself. I got a little sleep today so I feel about as caught up as you can do.

In Moonlight, Ali plays Juan, a Miami drug dealer who takes the films hero, Chiron, under his wing as a boy. He protects Chiron, feeds him, encourages him to find his own identity, even teaches him to swim. But Juan is also the man whos selling drugs to Chirons mother. When Chiron calls him out on this in one of many remarkable scenes, the pain and shame on Juans tear-streaked face is powerfully palpable. Ali is only in the first third of Moonlight but, as has become his forte, he does a lot with a little. I miss him more than any other character that Ive ever played, he says.

Of course, Ali made a playlist for Juan but he never really listened to it. To his surprise, Barry Jenkins had already compiled one for him. It was mostly hip-hop in the southern, slowed-down style (known as chopped and screwed, Ali says) plus a few chopped-and-screwed Bach and Mozart compositions thrown in, too. You can feel the angst and yearning in it when its slowed down like that.

Ali devised other ways to get into character, too. I found myself thinking of him as a spirit first, strange as that might sound, and engaging in conversations with him. Finding out what it was I needed to know about, what he needed to say.

Literal, talking-to-yourself conversations?

Literal conversations, yes. Alone in my office, walking around just talking with him, and even going for walks. I havent approached it in that way before, and I wasnt sure if it was OK to do that! But then at the end of the day, I never know what Im doing.

Ali never had a plan to get where he is now. You could hardly accuse someone of ruthlessly seeking stardom when they were christened Mahershalalhashbaz Gilmore (he opted to change his surname to Ali when he later converted to Islam). His route into acting was via a basketball scholarship, though, according to Ali, sports was never his long-term aim. I had certain talents that I felt were going to get me to college and we didnt have a lot of money. Slam poetry was more his thing back then. That segued into rapping. He even had a recording contract.

I released a couple of projects which I wont advertise, he says modestly (a little detective work reveals him to be Prince Ali, who released a 2007 album called Curb Side Service). But he tried acting at college and it took over. Just as he was about to sign another recording contract in 1997, he got accepted by New York Universitys graduate school for acting.

Ali with The Hunger Games gang. Photograph: Color Force/REX/Shutterstock

The rest, you could say, is cinemas gain and hip-hops loss, though Ali still brings a certain musical charisma to every role he takes. Even when hes playing rogues and villains, hes irresistibly charming. As Essence magazine recently swooned: Mr Ali has some serious swag from his cool demeanour and radiant smile to his deep laugh and dope style. Its all there in Moonlight, as he rolls up in his vintage car, do-rag on his head, grills on his teeth, cigarette behind one ear, stereo blasting out Boris Gardiners 1974 soul tune Every Nigger Is A Star.

Moonlight is all about the hurt and humiliation that so often lies behind that swagger. Its a movie that helps redefine the perceptions around African-American masculinity. Ali says that he is always conscious of those and the burden of representing his culture, especially when hes playing a potential cliche like a drug dealer.

You have to be cognisant of it, he says. Since weve come out of decades of only being framed in very narrow scope, that puts a lot of pressure on those who do have some degree of success to reflect all things positive in the culture. I dont know if that will ever go away. But I think that dissipates as theres more representation, as theres more diversity of stories. Hes optimistic thats happening now. In addition to Moonlight, he cities Denzel Washingtons movie Fences, Donald Glovers Atlanta and Issa Raes Insecure.

Despite the current political climate, its a good time for Ali to be coming into his prime. He describes his unexpected ascent as humbling and sounds like a man with a sense of purpose. Im focused on trying to align myself with people who are like-minded, and trying to build the world I want to live in to the best of my powers. Alis working on it, one playlist at a time.

Moonlight is out in UK cinemas on Friday 17 February

Read more: