As crime boss Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes on Marvel’s Luke Cage, Mahershala Ali plays the opposite of a superhero, but in real life he has to be at least a little superhuman. The actor worked seven days a week for six weeks last year, bouncing between Baltimore, New York, and Miami to simultaneously film three projects: Netflix’s House of Cards and Luke Cage as well as the indie drama Moonlight. “My manager was worried about me,” the 42-year-old actor admits. “It was a little bit of a crucible, a rite of passage, you know? I knew it would be a bit of a marathon, but I felt, deep in my bones, like it was something I absolutely had to do.”
Ali, whose name is pronounced Mah-HER-shuh-lah — take note, awards presenters and John Travolta! — credits that same gut feeling as the reason he left House of Cards after four seasons and one Emmy nomination for playing White House staffer-turned-lobbyist and whistle-blower Remy Danton. “I believe that everything has a shelf life,” he says. “I have to say goodbye to things in order to take on bigger things that I’ve always wanted to do.
Those bigger things are on their way. Ali returns to Netflix for Luke Cage (Sept. 30) as an iconic comic-book gangster with a nasty temper, shines as the generous father figure to a lost little boy in Moonlight — an introspective three-part story about a gay black man that’s been gathering awards-season steam since its buzzy debut at Telluride — out Oct. 21, and courts Taraji P. Henson’s NASA mathematician in the 2017 biopic Hidden Figures.
Not even Ali could have predicted his sudden rise 16 years into his career. After all, the Bay Area native didn’t realize he wanted to act until a month before graduating from Saint Mary’s College in Moraga, California, which he attended on basketball scholarship. “Basketball wasn’t going particularly well,” he says with a hearty baritone chuckle, “but in my senior year I did a play and got a wonderful card from a professor that said, ‘I don’t know what your plans are after school or if acting is a part of it, but you have something special.’ Hearing that from someone who I had so much respect for pointed me in that direction.” So after earning a master’s degree from NYU’s acting program in 2000, Ali got to work, nabbing a role on Crossing Jordan shortly following graduation and eventually making his big-budget, big-screen debut in David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button in 2008, which later led him to the Fincher-produced House of Cards.