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89th Oscars Backstage Interview Transcript: Actor in a Supporting Role

CATEGORY: Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role
SPEECH BY:  Mahershala Ali



A. Good evening.  How you doing?

Q. Good evening.  Over here.  Congratulations.  Wow.  I guess we should have known that MOONLIGHT was going to be the Best Picture when you walked away with the first Oscar of the evening.  That was a good sign.  You are the first Muslim actor to win an Oscar.  This says a lot at this particular time in our history.  Could you speak to that, please? 
A. Well, regardless of one's theology or however you see life or relate to worshipping God, as an artist my job is the same and it's to tell the truth, and try to connect with these characters and these people as honestly and as deeply as possible.  And so one's spiritual practice I don't ‑‑ I don't necessarily feel like it's as relevant unless it gives you a way into having more empathy for these people that you have to advocate for.  So, but I'm ‑‑ I'm proud to own that.  And I embrace that, you know.  But, again, I'm just an artist who feels blessed to have had the opportunities that I have had and try to do the most with every opportunity that's come my way.

Q. Congratulations on the win.
A. Thank you.

Q. And congratulations on becoming a father. 
A. Thank you.

Q. The material is so personal to Tarell and Barry.  How much pressure did you feel to get it right?
A. I think I always want to walk away from any project feeling like the writer, director was pleased with what I had to offer.  And considering the personal nature of this project, I think that there was a heightened sense of ‑‑ there was a need that felt a little heightened to me to ‑‑ to get it truthful where they could walk away and feel ‑‑ feel like I really contributed to their film and didn't screw it up considering that, you know, I was playing someone who had a ‑‑ who played a ‑‑ who had an extraordinary impact on Tarell's life, and I'm actually glad I didn't know till later more the details of that ‑‑ of Blue or Juan's contribution to Tarell's life, but it did.  It added a layer of pressure.

Q. Congratulations on your win.  Such a phenomenal movie.  I have a two‑part question.  First off, kind of what went through your head when you read the script to begin with because it was such a beautiful film?  And, two, I obviously have to ask you about the Best Picture and kind of what went through your head hearing LA LA LAND and then hearing MOONLIGHT after all?
A. Well, I sincerely say that when I read the script, look, I don't get to read everything, because there's things that I'm just not remotely right for, you know.  Ryan Gosling and I read different scripts.  It's just what it is, right?  But in terms of the ‑‑ as far as the scripts that I've read in my 17 years of doing it professionally, MOONLIGHT was the best thing that I've ‑‑ that has ever come across my desk.  And that character for the time that he's ‑‑ that he was on the page really spoke to my heart, and I felt like I could ‑‑ I could hear him, I could sort of envision his presence, and I could ‑‑ I really had a ‑‑ I had a real sense of who that person was, enough to start the journey.  And I really wanted to be a part of that project, and I'm just so fortunate that it ‑‑ that Idris and David Oyelowo left me a job.  You know, very, very kind of them.  So yeah, and then the second part of your question, you know, MOONLIGHT ‑‑ excuse me, LA LA LAND has done so well and it's resonated with so many people, especially in this time when people need a sense of buoyancy in their life and need some hope and light.  So that film has really impacted people sort of in that ‑‑ in a different ‑‑ in a very different way than MOONLIGHT.  And so when they ‑‑ when they ‑‑ when their name was read, I wasn't surprised.  And I am really happy for them.  It's a group of some extraordinary people in front of the camera and behind the camera.  So I was really happy for them.  And then when I did see security or people coming out on stage and their moment was being disrupted in some way, I got really worried.  And then when they said, you know, MOONLIGHT was ‑‑ Jordan Horowitz said, MOONLIGHT, you guys have won, it just threw me a bit because ‑‑ it threw me more than a bit, but, you know, I just didn't ‑‑ I didn't want to go up there and take anything from somebody, you know, and it's very hard to feel joy in a moment like that, you know.  But because somebody else just in front of them.  So, but I feel very fortunate to ‑‑ for all of us to have walked away with the Best Picture award.  It's pretty remarkable. 

Q. First of all, congratulations on your win tonight.
A. Thank you.

Q. And as home base for HOUSE OF CARDS, I have to ask you, what do you think your former boss, Frank Underwood, would have to say about your win tonight and about the way the whole thing ended this evening?
A. "Bah humbug."  No.  Kevin, he's been really supportive.  I think it's a film that ‑‑ that he really loved, and he's told me.  So, and they've been ‑‑ HOUSE OF CARDS is the reason I'm here, you know.  I've been working to that point 12 years, very steady employment for the most part, and then was finally able to be on something that ‑‑ that really resonated with people in a way that honestly was a real shift in ‑‑ in the culture.  HOUSE OF CARDS was the first binge‑watched show that was ever binge watched, and so to be a part of that and that being something that feels really authentic for our culture and a real option in how we view and absorb and embrace content, that was that show.  And so that's the reason I've been able to put certain things together and even have this moment because of the ‑‑ the four years I spent on HOUSE OF CARDS.

Q. Congratulations.  I want to say congratulations.  Remy Danton in HOUSE OF CARDS, Cottonmouth, Luke Cage, and now MOONLIGHT, you seem to have very eclectic taste when it comes to picking your roles.  Do you ‑‑ are you working on a project that you could share with us?  It will stay between you and us.
A. Well, there's a project called ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL that Robert Rodriguez is directing and James Cameron did in Austin.  And I'm really excited about that.  I actually play two parts in that film.  So ‑‑ so that ‑‑ that was a blast, and I literally wrapped that maybe two weeks ago.  But then after that, I'm going to start something in a couple of months, you know, and just honestly excited to read scripts and to have meetings and hopefully work with some more extraordinarily talented people like Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney, and this wonderful cast and crew of MOONLIGHT and HIDDEN FIGURES, you know.  So I just feel very, very blessed to have had this award season and this experience.

Q. Hey, congratulations on everything.
A. Thank you.

Q. You're welcome.  Especially being a father.
A. Thank you.

Q. You're welcome.  Now, this is a time capsule.
A. Yeah.

Q. What would you tell ‑‑ which would you like to tell your new daughter right now in this world, that fatherly advice?
A. Just pray to be guided to your excellence.  That's it.

Q. Congratulations.  And winning an Oscar, that's a journey that many actors want to be on, and it is a dream of dreaming big, and when they reach that dream, you know, what's next? 
A. Right.

Q. So then, therefore, what is next for you?  And also, who are some of your role models that you have idolized and you have patterned yourself after?
A. Okay.  You don't play.  You ask those heavy three‑part questions.  So as far as what's next, I think I'm going to try this way.  I'm going to just look for material that I am inspired by and that I respond to and just try to do my best work, you know, and keep it about the work, working with great directors and writers and other extraordinary talented actors, because, you know, you want to be around people who are better than you and who can lift you up where you have raise your game.  And I want to be inspired and just improve and do work that makes me uncomfortable, that scares me because anytime you get into the unknown, you get into that fearful space, that's when you're in new territory and you have the greatest opportunity to grow and improve as a talent or as an actor, an artist, and as a human being.  So I don't really ‑‑ it's very difficult to separate them for me, you know?  So that's how I would like to approach moving forward.  And I think you asked me about who inspired me?  Well, look, you know, we could talk about it till I'm some version of blue in the face, but the diversity topic, it's very real in that when I was growing up ‑‑ I'm 43 years old, I was born in 1974, and there weren't a lot of people on TV, you know, and there weren't a lot of films.  It was a big deal when ‑‑ when Billy Dee Williams was in STAR WARS, like that was a big deal in my house and in my family, and it was somebody who was in the story that I could kind of attach to and say, Oh, wow, we're present as well.  But for me, that person has always been Denzel Washington because, one, he's just so damn talented; but, then, two, to see someone who comes from your tribe, so to speak, play at the level of all the other great ones and do it so well and be able to have ‑‑ articulate his voice and his talent in a way that was on par with the very best and he looks like you, too.  You know what I mean, in that like, wow, there's somebody who could be an uncle of mine.  Like, those are things that ‑‑ that play in your mind as you ‑‑ as you move forward, you know.  And also what I love about Denzel is not that he's a great black actor, he's a great actor.  And I've never ‑‑ I've never looked at myself as a black actor.  I'm an actor who happens to be African American, but I just want an opportunity to respond to material and bring whatever ‑‑ whatever I bring to it in some unique fashion, and that's it.  But basically short story long, Denzel.



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