Academy-Award-winner Mahershala Ali closed out the sixth and final part of USC Annenberg-HBO's Diverse Voices Series Thursday. In front of a crowd of about 100 people, Josh Kun, Director of the Annenberg School of Communication, spoke with Ali about how he opens himself up to the characters he portrays and navigates conversations about race.
Ali discussed how he becomes a "vessel" when taking on new roles, such as Wayne Hays in the third season HBO's "True Detective".
"I feel my most free when I'm acting because I am less self-conscious and dive into someone's narrative," Ali said. "My work forces me to come out of myself."
To prepare himself emotionally, Ali said he needed to come "to terms with the things that cause you anxiety and bring about fear. You have to give yourself permission to not be afraid."
This epiphany came while he completed his master's degree at the NYU Tisch School of the Arts and was forced to open up.
Ali's career was informed by his grandfather and father, both of whom he said influenced his perspective and worldview relating to acting.
"I do think having conversations with my grandfather and being around him and his awareness and natural concern for things has affected me more so later on and moving past focusing on your own ambitions," Ali said.
In addition to acting, Ali has launched a career as a rapper. He credits both of these passions to his early experiences with poetry and recalls reciting poems to his father before he died.
"He would light up when I would perform my writing and later acting in the California Shakespeare Theater and NYU," Ali said. While they didn't necessarily bond over sports and the Knicks, Ali "appreciated the points of contact we did have."
Part of the success of "Moonlight", in which Ali became the first Muslim African American to win an Academy award in his supporting role, was his connection with the character Juan. Kun asked Ali what drew him to the character.
Ali described one of the men he knew growing up in the Oakland area. He was a substitute teacher, drove a yellow Corvette, dated Ali's aunt and showed up at church every now and then. He ended up being a drug dealer, which took Ali by surprise.
Ali said drug dealers "weren't shooting around in the streets, they would play ball with you and have money for the week." To be able to see a similar person like Juan on the pages of the script was a breakthrough for Ali. "Ah, finally, there's somebody more dynamic."
"I just responded to how human he was," Ali added. "From the time I read it to when I shot it, we all knew we were doing something really special."
Ali said that he doesn't like to talk about race unless it comes up organically, which it incidentally did during his interview with Kun. The main issue he has when it comes to race is journalists focusing on that aspect of his life without giving enough balance to his work.
Ali said he feels that people start to think that he and others are "so hung up on race – 'get past it already,' – when it isn't that. It's just that it's never necessarily relayed in context."
After Ali finished speaking with Kun, a student asked how Ali distances himself from being equated solely with conversations about race.
Ali connected moving away from race with greater equality.
"Wouldn't that be groundbreaking if an all-black production company produced a story about white people and hire colored people behind the scenes," Ali said. "We have to have people of color in positions to tell a broader story, one where they're not always necessarily having to speak to race."
Morgan McClure, a senior communication management student, was appreciative of Ali's success and the way he connected with everyone around him.
"I think he's a phenomenal actor and he's just a trailblazer, especially for someone who is a Muslim black actor who has won two academy awards, both first of his kind, which is I think is just incredibly monumental," McClure said. "To be so relatable and have time to speak to me was really inspiring."
For the last question, Kun turned to an excerpt from the book "Good Talk" by Mira Jacob. The book is "about growing up in the "Trump era" and growing up trying to figure how to talk about identity and race," Kun said in his brief summary.
"If you grow up to be the kind of person who asks questions about who you are, why things are the way they are and what we could do to make them better, then you still have hope for this world," Kun said, quoting the book. He then asked Ali, "where is hope located for you?"
Ali, referencing an Islamic teaching, said that peace exists between fear and hope, and he is working to find that place.
"I think for me I have to do the work for myself to nurture my hope and find inspiration from everything in my orbit," Ali said. "I believe it is my responsibility to nurture and curate my own hope because otherwise I would find myself putting that responsibility on someone else."
Correction at 1:46 p.m. April 20: In a previous version of this story, we misspelled Josh Kun's last name in the first paragraph. It's Kun, not Kuhn.