Boasting impressive range, Mahershala Ali defines every role that he plays with his strong physical presence and emotional intensity, regardless of the size of his text, or the medium. Ali’s other works include Free State of Jones, in which he held his own against Matthew McConaughey, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, and Netflix's MARVEL's Luke Cage series.
This season alone he can be seen in two vastly different films, as the romantic interest of one of the trio of women in Hidden Figures, and as Juan, the sensitive drug lord in Moonlight, arguably the most critically acclaimed film of the year. Among many distinctions, the richly textured Moonlight concerns masculinity and how it's expressed in a specific community in the Liberty City district in Miami, Florida, where much of the movie was shot. In this milieu, criminal life routinely overlaps with everyday domestic life, and paternal figures come to take on the ambiguous qualities of provider and supplier.
The remarkable casting was based on director Barry Jenkins' bold decision to show the same man – Chiron – progressing during various stages of his life, beginning at age ten and extending into his early 30s, without aging a single actor through the film's three chapters. Instead, Jenkins used three distinct actors who could convey the same inner feeling across multiple years without ever meeting during the shoot.
Indeed, the three Chirons connect across the three chapters, despite the fact that the actors – Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes – do not physically resemble one another, and never met during filming. What they did have in common, which pulled the three different stages together, was intense vulnerability. Each actor could express it in his eyes, helping to create a complete picture of his character's life.
The same quietly powerful intensity applies to Ali’s turn as Juan. As writer and helmer, Jenkins holds that “You don't see black males on screen where they're just allowed to emote, instead of talking or being active all the time. Chiron is an introverted, troubled man who is hiding his true self from the world because he's frightened of letting people know who he really is."
Jenkins elaborates: “ We needed someone who could be menacing one moment and extremely caring the next." The filmmakers found their Juan in the Oakland-born stage and screen actor Ali, whose most visible role to date is playing the lobbyist and former press secretary Remy Danton on Netflix's House of Cards. As Chiron’s father-figure, and a drug-dealer, Ali paints another portrait of a complicated criminal. He’s the first character we’re introduced to in Moonlight and, as such, sets an introspective, mournful, and ultimately hopeful tone for the entire film. In an astonishing performance, Ali’s Juan imparts valuable information to Chiron that helps him survive inside and out through the years – until he comes to embody a version of Juan in his adult life. "He's the father figure to Little, which is important because you want to feel like Little has someone guiding him through life," Ali says. "There's also this dangerous level to Juan, which isn't what you associate with paternal figures.”
The character challenges our expectations in actually becoming a positive influence in Chiron’s life. Juan is tired of this life of dealing. He goes through the motions, the threats, the “front,” but his character’s heart isn’t in the game. As a result, his mentorship Chiron provides possible redemption.