Mahershala Ali says his True Detective role was originally written for a white actor until he convinced the showrunner to cast him anyway.
Interviewed for Variety‘s Actors on Actors issue, Ali recalled how the story for season 3 focuses on two Arkansas state trooper roles, and initially, the lead character, Wayne Hays, was to be played by a white actor and the secondary role was to be played by a black actor.
“I read the scripts,” said Ali, who won a best supporting actor Oscar in 2017 for Moonlight. “I was blown away. I got to read the first four, and I could have played that second lead, the supporting character. But in my mind, I was like, ‘I’ve done this my entire career. I’ve never done [the lead role].’ And I’m 40 at that time. And if it don’t happen now, it really may not happen. My grandfather was a state police officer, and these are two state police officers. So I went on my phone; I’m hitting up some cousins and whatnot. And they send me some pictures of my grandfather in the state police officer uniform.”
Ali says he texted the photos to True Detective showrunner Nic Pizzolatto, “and I was like, ‘See, we existed in this space in the ’60s, in the ’70s, [as] state police officers. This is in Arkansas.'”
“And I was like, “’I think your story would be served. I think the story would improve in this case if this lead character is black,'” Ali continued. “We don’t have to beat them over the head with the race element, but let’s write it. I’m encouraging him to think of it from the standpoint of how it’s experienced. Racism is not experienced as the N-word all the time, right? It’s more like, he wouldn’t even look me in the eye. Or like I said, thank you — he just brushed me off. And so I came back to [Nic] and I was like, ‘I want to play that part.’ And he thought about it a couple of days, got back to me, and he was like, ‘Yo, let’s do this. I’m down.'”
Later, Stephen Dorff (Blade) was cast in the secondary role, as Roland West.
True Detective returns Jan. 13 on HBO.