Mahershala Ali, playing Cottonmouth in Luke Cage series, speaks about the struggle between the characters.
His name means “divine restoration,” and when it comes to choosing his roles, actor Mahershala Ali lets his spirit guide him.
“Every part you take on has to speak to you if you’re going to do your best work,” says the Oakland, Calif, native. “You have to give it everything you have to offer.” This year Ali, 42, has definitely given it his all, appearing in a wide variety of projects, including the Netflix drama House of Cards as political communications honcho Remy Danton and the Civil War movie Free State of Jones as Moses, a runaway slave.
Past fall, he was flexing his acting muscles in two vastly different roles. Journalists sat down with Ali to talk about playing Marvel villain Cottonmouth in Luke Cage and Juan, a drug-dealing mentor to Chiron, a Black guy youth, in the gritty film Moonlight.
At this stage of your career, what drives you as an actor?
Really working to shift from playing characters who just move the narrative along to playing people who are on the page — [that is,] three-dimensional—who have their own stories and their own lives going on. I need that as an actor to stay inspired.
Moonlight is gaining a lot of buzz. What attracted you to the role of Juan?
I serve as a mentor in the first third of the story. I’m a drug dealer, and I think Chiron and I really connect because, in some ways, he sees the good in my character and the value that goes beyond what he does in his daily life. Juan is able to be a bit of a rock and serve as the backbone for Chiron,
who is starting to go through some difficult times and struggle with fitting at that point. Together they shine a light on the good within each [other].
Juan seems very different from Cottonmouth. For those not familiar with Luke Саge, tell us a bit more about the series.
Luke Cage is a reluctant superhero. He lives in the shadows of Harlem. And he’s at a point where he has to decide if he’s going to step into the light to step up and fight, on behalf of the people, those who are a threat to the well-being of the city.
My character, from Cage’s perspective, is one of those threats. His name is Cottonmouth and he owns a nightclub, but specifically, he’s a crime boss and has been for the majority of his life. That’s what he knows, and that’s what he’s good at.
In this first season, you’ll see those two go head-to-head, fighting for the heart of the city and their perspectives on what is good and right for Harlem.
Why do you think comic book films and TV series are doing so well now?
I think it’s the inspirational qualities of the superhero genre that don’t ever quite go away in a person. Even as you age and grow up, they, in some ways, have legs.
As corny as it may be to say, we are all trying to connect to the hero in ourselves—the strange characters and responding to them, dealing with the challenges in our own lives … and be victorious in the end. That’s why they continue to resonate: People see themselves in some of those heroes – or at least they want to.