Moonlight star Mahershala Ali, as usual, was thinking about work when he heard about his Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Currently in Austin, Texas, filming James Cameron’s Alita: Battle Angel, Ali had been prepping for another day on the set of the action-adventure epic when he received the news. “I was up and just getting myself together to get out of the house to go to work when my wonderful publicist called me,” he says. “So yeah, it’s been a whirlwind.”
It’s no surprise the actor was focusing on non-awards-related matters. Ali likes to multi-task: In 2016, he made waves delivering memorable performances in not just Barry Jenkins’ Best Picture-nominated Moonlight, but also in fellow Best Picture nominee Hidden Figures — as a colonel who woos Taraji P. Henson’s NASA mathematician — and in TV dramas like Luke Cage and the fourth season of House of Cards, all of which he filmed around the same time.
And now, Ali’s an Oscar nominee. The actor took a few minutes out of his suddenly crazed morning to talk with EW.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So let me get this straight: You weren’t even watching the live-stream this morning?
MAHERSHALA ALI: No, not that I didn’t know how to watch it, but I just got up and started getting ready for work, and you know, figured that if there was something to tell me, then I would get a phone call, and if there wasn’t, then my phone would not go off. [Laughs] But I was obviously aware, with Moonlight being recognized the way it has been. So once the phone started going off, I knew something positive happened.
No nerves last night either, then?
You know, I did think about it yesterday, because it was mentioned to me a couple of times at work so it was hard not to be aware of it, and your mind naturally goes there. But I wasn’t really nervous or anxious or anything. I’m still surprised by how calm I’ve felt throughout this process. I didn’t know what to expect going into this, but I haven’t thought about it a lot. I’m appreciative of it, I’m appreciative of Moonlight and Hidden Figures being recognized and the work of my cast-mates and Barry Jenkins and the fact that people have taken notice of their work.
It’s great to see, especially to see Barry [nominated], because that story is so personal to him and to [writer] Tarell McCraney. We didn’t have a lot to make this film with and to see it turn out the way it has is really encouraging and humbling and empowering.
You are now officially an Oscar nominee, no matter what happens at the ceremony. How does it feel to be “Oscar nominee Mahershala Ali”?
I didn’t imagine my name could get any longer. [Laughs] I think I need just a couple of days or even months to take that in and feel what that means, but I think what it means to me now is, you know, what I hear or what I see in a trophy. I see all the people that have contributed to me being able to be here, so I don’t own that by myself, you know? I just get to be the embodiment of that but I don’t really own that. It’s been a group effort from day one to this moment right now.
And so it just makes me really happy that they can own that and they get to have some ownership of that recognition. My friends have definitely helped guide me and assist me through things, my family helped me keep the lights on during certain years, and my wife knows how much she’s contributed to my well-being, so I’m happy. I’m happy with myself, of course, but I’m happy they get to share in that.
You are the only Oscar acting nominee this year who’s in two of the Best Picture nominees — Moonlight and Hidden Figures — both of which feature strong, diverse casts. So what does this mean to you? Does this mean that the conversation has changed, from being about #OscarsSoWhite to, maybe, #OscarsSoRight?
[Laughs] Well, let me see. I think when we talk about inclusion, that proper balance is something that is gonna take many years to find. We’re gonna continue to struggle to find what that balance can be, and so that’s ongoing work. You know, if you’re a parent, you don’t get to stop raising your kid at 12 or 13 [years old], you have to keep doing that, you have to keep putting in work. Anything in our culture, anything that has real societal, social impact, those are things that we always have to keep our eyes on, to make sure that everyone has an opportunity. That never stops.
That’s what it means, I think, to be a part of progress. I think this year has been really positive for people of color in terms of films and representation, but you know, we have a ways to go. It’s been the way it’s been for a very long time so for there to be expectations that everything‘s changed in a year is unrealistic. We’d be setting ourselves up to be really disappointed in a couple of years if there are not a number of people of color nominated or being recognized, so as much as I appreciate it all, I just think we have to be really cognizant of the work we have to do. I’m encouraged by it, of course, and appreciate being present and being a part of it, but we gotta keep working on that. That doesn’t stop because of 2017 and the Oscars this year.
The Oscars take place Feb. 26.