Mahershala Ali won the SAG Award for outstanding supporting actor with his portrayal of a Miami crack dealer in the coming-of-age independent film Moonlight. But the star was given another reason to celebrate during the night when all of the cast members of the film Hidden Figures took home the best cast ensemble award. Ali played military officer Jim Johnson, a supporting role, in the film depicting three brilliant female African-American mathematicians at NASA.
The SAG Awards were held at The Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles over the weekend, honoring the greatest performances from 2016 as chosen by other actors.
Ali’s accolades reflect the momentum that his acting career is building. The 42-year-old star’s other roles include the District 13 soldier, Boggs, in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 and Part 2, Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes in the Netflix series Luke Cage, and the suave lobbyist Remy Danton from House of Cards. Among Ali’s many stage credits is the off-Broadway dramady Smart People.
Raised in the East Bay of the San Francisco Bay area, Ali entered college on a basketball scholarship. But as his interest in basketball faded, he developed an interest in acting. After performing on stage, he landed an apprenticeship at the California Shakespeare Theater after graduating. It wasn’t long before he was accepted into NYU’s acting program. Within months of receiving his master’s degree, Ali booked a role as a regular on the series Crossing Jordan.
New to the business aspect of acting, he adapted by approaching it with deliberateness. He told the SAG-AFTRA Foundation about the frame of mind that he believes helped advance his career, saying:
“You have to be cognizant of what it means to be in show business. There’s parts of it that, at a certain point, if you deny their presence, then you’re just being foolish. And so that job [‘Crossing Jordan’ ] was the first of many that began to educate me on the expectations of me, and me taking personal responsibility. And not having expectations of anyone outside of myself. Because then you’re expecting the business to be fair. Right? And it’s not here to be fair. And I can’t control that. You leave yourself going home frustrated a lot. So what I can do is just try to be my best self, and to be a professional when I work, to treat people well, make friends and allies, and nurture those relationships in an organic way. And I think it’s helped me.”
Ali also described the relative ease that he experienced finding work as an actor after receiving his master’s degree. “In some ways to some degree, things happen really fast for me. I know I got into this business with certain expectations of it,” he said. “As much as you hear horror stories, you always want to believe and hope that you can transcend and go beyond some of the issues that the person right next to you is experienced…You’re just hoping, okay, but I’m hoping I’m going to have the remarkable experience.”
As it turns out, Ali is surely having a remarkable experience as an actor. And he’s been nominated for an Academy Award for his Moonlight performance to boot!