For the third season of his anthology crime drama, True Detective creator Nic Pizzolatto pitched Mahershala Ali a supporting role — but Ali had something else in mind.

“I didn’t respond strongly to what I was offered,” the Oscar-winning Moonlight actor admits. “I was excited about what hadn’t been done.”

As in, playing the lead.

Pizzolatto had envisioned his protagonist — Vietnam-vet-turned-state-detective Wayne Hays — as a white man, but he altered the character after Ali texted him photos of his own grandfather, a state police officer, in uniform. “The pictures helped show him how personal it was to me,” Ali explains, quickly adding that he wasn’t objecting to Pizzolatto’s script — just fine-tuning it. “It was more about pitching myself and presenting the idea of Wayne being a black cop and why it would work. [It was] a slightly tweaked vision inspired by what Nic already had on the page.”

Credit: Warrick Page/HBO

After all, what Pizzolatto had already written for season 3 — which arrives more than two years after the less-than-well-received sophomore outing — was complicated and intriguing enough. The story begins in the fall of 1980, when two children disappear at dusk in the Ozarks. Hays (Ali) and his partner, Roland West (Stephen Dorff), pursue the case, only to find themselves drawn into an impossibly tangled web involving (or not) the local church, a recluse who hoards trash, and a set of unsettling straw dolls. There’s also Amelia (Carmen Ejogo), a teacher familiar with the children whom Wayne eventually marries in a strained relationship that’s just as pivotal to the plot as the crime. “[Pizzolatto] was obsessed with the idea of exploring a woman who is self-actualizing while in a marriage,” Ejogo explains, “and how that can be a very threatening thing to a man.”

To cover it all, the story follows three intertwined timelines: 1980, during the crime’s immediate aftermath; 1990, when the case gets reopened; and 2015, when Wayne, now an old man with a fading memory, becomes haunted by his past. “It was scary,” Dorff says of playing one character’s evolution across decades. “Me and Mahershala would always fight to stay in the ’80s, because we had that vibe going. [We’d plead], ‘Let’s not jump to the ’90s yet!’” Too bad time, that pesky flat circle, can’t be stopped.

True Detective returns Jan. 13 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.

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