TORONTO – When awards season rolls around in the coming weeks don’t expect actor Mahershala Ali to be debating whose performance outshone another.
The “Moonlight” Oscar winner, who was once an aspiring professional basketball player, says he rejects the competitiveness that frequently comes with starring in movies. He says rivalry is one of the reasons he stopped pursuing a career in sports and turned to theatre when he was 22 years old.
“I didn’t really relate to beating somebody,” the 44-year-old actor said during a press conference at the Toronto International Film Festival.
“When I got to the arts it was more about being your best self. I never understood, ‘So-and-so blew so-and-so away in that scene.’ I don’t relate to the work that way. It actually really turns me off.”
In the new film “Green Book,” which opens in theatres later this year, Ali stars as real-life classical pianist Don Shirley, a black man who faces the bigotry of the American South during the late 1960s. He’s booked to play a number of shows in the region so he hires a white bouncer, played by Viggo Mortensen, to chauffeur him around safely.
The two men are from different worlds and must reckon with their divergent perspectives while driving through the segregated South.
Preparing to play Shirley involved two months of piano lessons, Ali said, but he also turned to one of his most cherished methods of getting into the mindset of a role.
“I always make playlists for every character that I’m working on,” he said, listing Sergei Rachmaninoff and Johann Sebastian Bach as two composers who served as inspiration.
Ali said he believes Shirley was “deeply plagued” by the common experience among black artists of the era who often had to compromise their artistry in order to have a career. He pointed to Nina Simone, whose original aspirations were to be a concert pianist before she began performing more popular jazz and blues music, as one example.
“We can say, ‘Yeah but Nina Simone is extraordinary,’ but what does it do to that person when you know you have something else to offer?” he said.
“If you really speak to them and hear their story, the version of them we love is not who they wanted to be… There’s no explaining to somebody that they should be happy with what they ended up having.”
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