He stole scenes on 'House of Cards,' and now he shines bright on Netflix's 'Luke Cage' and the Oscar shoo-in 'Moonlight'
Credit: MJ Kim/Getty Images

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.

Credit: Myles Aronowitz/Netflix

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.

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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.

Hidden Figures
  • Movie
  • 127 minutes