Mahershala Ali, nominated for Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in any Motion Picture Globe in 2016 for Moonlight, (for which he won at the Academy), has another shot at the Globe this year, albeit in a vastly different role.
Ali could play any role with ease and conviction, transforming from a tough yet sensitive drug dealer in Moonlight to high-class artist. In Green Book, as directed by Peter Farrelly - one half of the Farrelly brothers team, responsible for such popular R-rated comedies as 1998 There's Something About Mary - Ali plays a suave, elegant world-class pianist.
World premiering at the 2018 Toronto Film Festival to great acclaim, Green Book is already touted in town as Driving Miss Daisy in reverse, flipping the race and gender of the two protagonists. In the 1989 seriocomedy, which won the Oscars for Best Picture and Best Actress. Jessica Tandy played an older, rich Jewish widow who bosses around and then bonds with her younger, reliable and obedient black chauffeur (Morgan Freeman, who was Oscar-nominated).
Green Book is inspired by the true story of Dr. Don Shirley (played by Ali), a world-class African-American (specifically Jamaican) pianist who hires a simple tough-talking New York bouncer from the Bronx, Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), to be his driver and security guard as he sets out on a concert tour in the Deep South in 1962. The trip is full of risks, dangers, pitfalls, and adventures—perfect material for a movie, which ultimately bears an upbeat optimistic message.
The sharply observed screenplay was written by Tony Vallelonga's son, Nick Vallelonga, alongside Peter Farrelly and Brian Hayes Currie. Many viewers (and critics) did not realize that the film's title derives from The Negro Motorist Green Book, a guidebook to “safe” locations in the Jim Crow South for African-American road trippers, written by Victor Hugo Green.
On their trip, the two men bond and become close despite their differences attributes and despite living in an era of racial segregation, just before the Civil Rights Movement. "What's so beautiful about it is these two gentlemen are just so different," Ali observes. "They couldn't be more different and they actually remain different, but there's so much that is revealed about themselves in the course of the trip. And they're so open and they listen to each other in such a wonderful way that they end up becoming like really close friends and allies."
Known for his meticulous preparation, Ali notes: "I m doing it for my work as an actor on every picture, if I'm working on something, I have been working on it for two years." Ali said that he "immersed" himself in the real-life character's music and researched all the material he could get in order to be "fully equipped" for the challenging role.
In order to get into Dr. Shirley's mental and emotional states, Ali researched his mannerisms through documentaries, listened to old recordings and immersed himself in his music. "I equipped myself as best I could with the materials that I needed in order to really try to capture his essence and do justice to this moment in time," the actor said.
Ali was specifically inspired by a documentary called Little Bohemia, about the artists that lived above Carnegie Hall that "Dr. Shirley appears in several times." "I was able to pull from that and sort of get a sense of his gestures and his rhythm and his speech and posture and how he played the piano. So I had that to lean on a bit," he said.
Green Book has only increased Ali’s already acute interest in the varieties of music. The actor, who has dabbled with rap in the past, says that he is now "working on something for a project associated specifically with the film and for other projects." That said, he’s very happy with his acting and doesn't consider an alternate career in music: "In terms of pursuing a career and doing it and releasing music on a regular basis, the answer is no."
Speaking of versatility: Ali’s new movie, the eagerly awaited Alita: Battle Angel, a cyberpunk actioner produced by James Cameron and directed by Robert Rodriguez, hits theaters on February 14, 2019. While Rosa Salazar is the lead, Ali plays a supporting role in a stellar cast that includes Oscar winners Christoph Waltz and Jennifer Connelly, and Oscar nominee Jackie Earle Haley. In 2019 he will also headline in the third iteration of True Detective for HBO.