The star reveals the scene he was 'nervous' to play
On Feb. 24, winners will be crowned at the 91st Academy Awards. But before the red carpet is rolled out and envelopes are opened, Entertainment Weekly has inside intel on the 2019 nominees. Keep checking back at EW.com this week for spotlights on contenders in all the major categories.
Starring in: Green Book
Oscar Past: 1 nomination, 1 win
Role Call: Don Shirley, the real-life celebrated pianist who never revealed his inner turmoil while in the spotlight.
The screenplay for Green Book, the drama about pianist Don Shirley’s friendship with his Italian-American driver (Viggo Mortensen) during their 1962 tour of the South, made Mahershala Ali afraid — which is why he signed on. “It’s scripts that I feel a little bit scared about [that I like],” Ali says, “and Don Shirley scared me a bit.”
It’s easy to see why. The late musician is a complicated figure in the film, feeling like an outsider despite his success. On stage, he’s lauded by white audiences, but off, he’s shunned. Though he’s black, he isn’t familiar with popular black culture. Ali exposes the elegant Don’s cracks little by little, until his frustration culminates in an outburst that Ali was “nervous” to play. “He couldn’t find his community, and that quietly plagues him,” he explains. “He voices it, and it’s still something he has to wrestle with after it’s voiced. He was not able to exist fully in any world.”
But on screen, thanks to Ali, he does — and if Ali wins the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, he’ll become the fastest black performer to win multiple Oscars. (Denzel Washington is the only actor with more than one Academy Award, but his wins came in 1989 and 2001; Ali won his last trophy in 2017, for Moonlight.)
Off-screen, however, the film has landed in hot water over its portrayal of Shirley. Members of the late musician’s family denounced its characterization of the pianist, prompting Ali himself to reportedly apologize. “I got a call from Mahershala Ali, a very, very respectful phone call, from him personally. He called me and my Uncle Maurice in which he apologized profusely if there had been any offense,” Don Shirley’s nephew Edwin Shirley III told Shadow and Act. “What he said was, ‘If I have offended you, I am so, so terribly sorry. I did the best I could with the material I had. I was not aware that there were close relatives with whom I could have consulted to add some nuance to the character.’”
In a statement after the nominations were announced, Ali thanked the Academy before going on to honor Shirley. “I was so fortunate to have collaborators in Viggo Mortensen and Peter Farrelly and I’d like to congratulate them on their nominations,” he said. “Through Dr. Donald Shirley, I had the gift of navigating circumstances as a profound, gifted, complicated genius. A man who had experiences and a combination of qualities that I had yet to see on film. I’m tremendously grateful for the lessons I learned through both his struggles and successes. I sincerely hope Dr. Shirley’s music and his unique contribution to our culture continues to be discovered, shared and appreciated.”
For more on the nominees, pick up this week’s Entertainment Weekly, available on stands Friday.