ALL CROPS: Moonlight (2016) Alex R. Hibbert (L) and Mahershala Ali
Credit: David Bornfriend

Mahershala Ali is having quite a week: Hours after he won the Critics’ Choice Award for his work in Barry Jenkins’ sublime Moonlight, a film chronicling three chapters of a gay black man’s life, the actor nabbed a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actor in a Drama. It’s the latest in the string of honors for his performance in the film as Juan, a drug dealer who takes the bullied and struggling Chiron (Alex R. Hibbert) under his wing, teaching him about how to understand his identity despite his circumstances.

Ali hopped on the phone with EW on Monday morning to talk about his nomination.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Congratulations. What was your immediate reaction to the nomination?

MAHERSHALA ALI: A bit surprised. You know, there have been some really generous and positive things said about our film and about individual performances in the film, and so I wasn’t shocked, per se, but I just felt a little bit surprised because none of it’s reality until it happens. So as things happened, I had to pinch myself a couple times. But I’m excited as well and just humbled by it all. It’s wonderful to see a little tiny film we did be recognized and embraced on such a large level. There’s a lot of wonderful work in this movie and I’m just happy to have played a small part in it.

Have you talked to director Barry Jenkins or any of your costars yet?

Not yet. I’m sure they’re busy talking to a lot of other folks. [Laughs] You know, I saw Barry last night at the Critics’ Choice Awards, and so I’ll shoot him a text later today. I’m sure he’s plenty busy right now. [Laughs]

When you were working on this film months ago, you were bouncing across the country filming multiple projects at the same time. Did you have any idea that this one would be your breakout?

No, not at all. I was happy to be [working]. I was just really focused on doing my job, on whatever part I was playing on that day, and just taking it a day at a time. Otherwise, I’d have gotten really overwhelmed by what it was I had to accomplish over the course of a month. So I didn’t really have time to think about how it was gonna be received or what people were going to think about it a year later. I just felt like we were making something that could potentially be really special, but that to me was more just about individuals receiving it and seeing it. It wasn’t necessarily connected to awards. If anything, I was thinking about the potential impact on hearts and minds because it was impacting all of us that way. But awards? I don’t think it crossed my mind, honestly.

The last time we talked, we spoke about #OscarsSoWhite and what Moonlight could mean for that movement if it entered the conversation. Now that it has, how do you feel now that you’re a part of that conversation?

I think it’s really gratifying in some ways to be a part of the conversation. I’m just one for inclusivity, you know? I just want to see people from all walks of life just have their opportunity, just have their fair amount of space, and so I’m inspired by being part of the conversation and hope that people continue to get opportunities, in front of and behind the camera, of people of color, and women as well having opportunities to direct and write. For me, if we can continue to move in that direction where there’s a real balance that reflects the face of the world we live in, if we can at least be working towards that in a really committed way, then I’m hopeful for the future. I definitely feel like we’re headed in the right direction, and I just hope it continues.

You’ve said before that you like to build playlists and work to music. So, tell me: Do you have a victory song you listen to in moments like this?

[Laughs] No. If anything, it’s been a very full and dense journey the last couple of months, ever since we shared this project starting in Telluride. If anything, I think I probably need a second away from it, to just take it in and really connect to my sense of gratitude for this. So no victory songs playing… I’m just really grateful for the opportunity to be a part of this film and really appreciate how people have responded, to the point of actually giving us a few awards here and there. [Laughs] It’s been really surreal and something I will always cherish and appreciate.

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