Awards seasons come and go, but exceptional work, like Mahershala Ali’s performance in Moonlight, lasts forever. So we had the 43-year-old actor give us some of his all-time favorites of film.
PHOTOGRAPHS BY ERIK MADIGAN HECK
Regardless of the outcome, Oscar night will be victory lap for Mahershala Ali. Sure, he’s nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his performance as Juan in Moonlight, but Ali’s success transcends the whims of the Academy. Besides delivering one of the most sensitive, memorable performances in Moonlight—which is saying something—Ali redeemed the fourth season of House of Cards as Remy Danton and, even though he already had our attention, stole scenes in Hidden Figures as Colonel Jim Johnson (“tall glass of water” is right). He even makes wearing one of this year’s most surprising colors look easy. We asked Ali to tell us about the films and artists who inspire him—the winners of his own personal Academy Awards, if you will. Our advice: Don’t just read Mahershala’s picks, watch them all.
Nanook of the North . It’s about the Inuits. We follow a family around, led by Nanook, whom we see trying to survive in those conditions. It feels like a movie to me, but it’s one of the first documentary films. You gotta think how someone would approach telling that type of story as a documentary in a world that has only ever seen narratives told in the way in which we look at films right now. [Director Robert J. Flaherty] worked on it for years. He had a cut that I think he worked on for four or five years, and then he came home. Back then film was so flammable, and his studio caught fire and burned most of his film. He was able to patch together some of the story, and his wife encouraged him to go back up for a few years. He came back down and he ended up with the film that we know as Nanook of the North.
Especially as an African-American, you need to see yourself reflected in some way. And I’ve looked at Denzel [Washington]. And I’ve looked at Forest Whitaker. He’s an extraordinary actor, but he’s also a character actor. And I feel similar to him. I draw inspiration from him, because in some ways, he’s kind of present against all odds. You can’t necessarily say what he is. I’ve been watching him since Fast Times at Ridgemont High, when he was a kid. I remember when he came on-screen in Fast Times, and just his presence alone made me kind of take a step back.
I love Michelle Williams. I think she’s extraordinary. I was such a fan of Blue Valentine, and I heard stories about how Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams worked on that. They lived together for a period of time as rehearsal. From nine in the morning to five at night, living in a space together. The work is really awe-inspiring.
I just love what Nicholas Britell did with Moonlight. Honestly, I would never pick something I’m involved in like this, but hearing pieces of that music, out of context even, or watching the film, it just brings up so much for me. I know it’s a cheat, because I know some of the things that went into the sounds: In the music, they used two characters’ hands slapping together as percussion in the score. No one would ever know that. They drew from classical music and slowed it down in order to define more of the angst in the sound and draw a deeper emotional reaction from the audience. It’s such a nice mix of classical and hip-hop—a very specific kind of hip-hop—and then all the other sound elements and nuances that help make our story what it is.
Steven Soderbergh. As a kid, my dad would take me to see indie films when I would visit him in New York. Films that I just wouldn’t see growing up in the Bay Area. Seeing Soderbergh’s first movies, going to the theater to see them, in their time—the fact that Soderbergh is still around, doing really good work… I would be honored to have an opportunity to work with him.
Person You Most Want to Take a Selfie with at the Oscars
Denzel Washington. That’s a no-brainer for me.
Best Movie You’ve Never Seen
I’ve never seen Gone with the Wind. I don’t know if that’s something to be embarrassed about, but I know that I should have seen that movie by now.
Best Animated Film
Oh goodness. Oh boy. This is gonna sound… Winnie the Pooh.