Oscar nominee Mahershala Ali is featured and opens up about his life’s journey in the latest issue of The Hollywood Reporter.
Check out what the breakout Moonlight star shared with the mag below:
On the origin of his name: “My birth name is Mahershalalhashbaz Gilmore. In the Bible, that’s the name of the prophet Isaiah’s second son. He was instructed to write the name in capital letters on a rock, and it means “divine restoration” or “speedy to the spoils.” My mom, Willicia, had a dream about it and felt very strongly it should be my name.”
On his religious background: “My grandmother, Evie Goines, was an ordained minister in Hayward Baptist Church. She was the assistant pastor until she died, and [years later] my mother became an ordained minister, too. I grew up in a prayerful home; I never remember not praying — I prayed every day of my life, and that was instilled in me as a kid, and as I’ve gotten older, that’s just matured in me.”
On his father leaving the home when he was three years old: “My parents were in high school when I was born. My mom was 16, my dad was 17. They were kids, at the very beginning of coming into their own and finding themselves. My father, Phillip Gilmore, was very talented. He was getting seriously into dancing. He was on Soul Train and won $2,500. But the Bay Area was too small for him. I don’t think he had the space to do what he needed to do. He went off to New York and got into the Dance Theatre of Harlem and immediately started working and traveling with the companies of the larger shows. They split when I was 3. I remember clearly my mom’s reaction, one of the first things that felt traumatic in my life. She was leaning on the dresser, crying, and I said, “Mommy?” I asked her what was wrong. She told me that my dad had left, and I started crying. Just seeing her, I understood the weight of what was happening. She said, ‘He’s gone. Your father’s gone.'”
On finding the acting bug: “I won a basketball scholarship to Saint Mary’s College in 1992, and then I found acting. I had a professor there, Rebecca Engle, and she approached me about doing Othello. That scared me, but it let me know what she thought of me. I ended up doing a different play, Spunk, which my father had taken me to see. It was standing-room only, standing ovations every time we did that play. It was borderline revolutionary for us to do a black play in a college that was 90-some-odd percent white, and here’s this white woman who was a Berkeley hippie, embracing of all people, whatever their walk of life. That was the trigger for me: when I felt that was the only thing I could do, and if I did anything else I wouldn’t be on track. It was therapeutic to get down to the seeds of other people’s dysfunction, with the goal to crack it open and shed light on it. That’s what led me to graduate school [at NYU] and to follow acting, like my father.”
On becoming a Muslim: “When I was in grad school, I met Amatus, who later became my wife, though there was a [period of 12 years] when we weren’t really in contact. She’s artistic, extraordinarily independent, very straightforward, very intelligent, kind. She’s really high-functioning — morally, ethically and socially. She was in undergrad, studying acting at NYU’s Experimental Theatre Wing. She was coming to terms with whether she even wanted to be Muslim, because her father is an imam. And I was looking for my anchor or the thing to bring structure to my spiritual walk. She was almost coming out of it, and I was going into it. So I went with her and her mother to the mosque in Philadelphia. I remember watching the imam give the khutbah, or sermon, and then we’re making the congregational prayer. And I started crying. I didn’t quite understand why I was crying, because the prayer was in Arabic and I couldn’t understand Arabic. And I’m just crying in a way that I hadn’t quite experienced before. A week later, it was Christmas break for school, and I just happened to stay in New York. It was Dec. 31, 1999. I woke up and thought, “I have to go to the mosque,” and I go to this mosque in Brooklyn, and it’s packed. It’s multiple stories, and I’m all the way in the back, and they do this sermon in English and in Arabic, and they go to make the prayer — “In the name of God the gracious and the merciful. All praise is due to God alone” — and the same thing happens to me, and I just start crying. I couldn’t wrap my head around it. It was beyond explanation. There was this connection that pierced through it all for me. And I felt like I was in the right place. And this guy touches me on the shoulder and says, “Are you Muslim?” And I say, “No.” And he goes, “Do you want to be?” And I said, “Yes.” So he took me up to the imam, and I made my pledge.”
On telling his Baptist mother he converted to Islam: “When I told my mother, it was a little bit clumsy. I got on the phone and she wasn’t excited about that, in large part because at that time she believed there’s only one route to heaven, through Christianity. It probably took 10 or 12 years until she really embraced it. My mother is as spiritual as she is religious. She likes to have a good time, but she has an extraordinarily serious quality about her. She lives with the awareness that we are spiritual beings having a physical experience, that everything is about the next life. She basically told me she accepted that was my path, and she’s been really supportive of that choice. We are in an extraordinarily positive place today.”