Mahershala Ali

Mahershala Ali

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5 mins read

Mahershala Ali (born Mahershalalhashbaz Gilmore) was born February 16, 1974 and is an American actor and rapper. 

After pursuing an MFA degree from New York University, Ali began his career as a regular on television series, such as Crossing Jordan (2001–2002) and Threat Matrix (2003–2004), before his breakthrough role as Richard Tyler in the science fiction series The 4400 (2004–2007). His first major film release was in the David Fincher-directed fantasy The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008). He gained wider attention for his supporting role in the Netflix political thriller series House of Cards (2013–2016), as Boggs in the final two films of The Hunger Games film series, and as Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes in the Luke Cage series.

Ali won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performances as Juan in the drama film Moonlight (2016) and for his portrayal of Don Shirley in the comedy-drama film Green Book (2018). This made him the first black actor to win two Academy Awards in the same category. In 2019, he played the lead role of a troubled police officer in the third season of the HBO anthology crime series True Detective. In 2020, he starred in the second season of the Hulu comedy-drama series Ramy.

He was born in Hayward, California, the son of Phillip Gilmore and Willicia Goines. He was raised a Christian by his mother, an ordained Baptist minister. His father was an actor who appeared on Broadway. Maher-shalal-hash-baz is the name of a prophetic child in chapter 8 of the Biblical Book of Isaiah.

He attended St. Mary’s College of California (SMC) in Moraga, California, where he graduated in 1996 with a degree in mass communication. He entered SMC with a basketball scholarship and went by the name “Hershal Gilmore” when playing for the SMC Gaels.

He became disenchanted with the idea of a sports career because of the treatment given to the team’s athletes, and developed an interest in acting, particularly after taking part in a staging of Spunk. This later landed him an apprenticeship at the California Shakespeare Theater following graduation. After a sabbatical year working for Gavin Report, he enrolled in New York University’s graduate acting program at Tisch School of the Arts, earning his master’s degree in 2000.

In 2000, he converted to Islam, changed his surname from Gilmore to Ali, and joined the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community. In interviews, he has recounted numerous problems he has encountered at airports, with banks and otherwise in everyday life as an American Muslim since the September 11 attacks.

Ali had considered shortening his name for a while, although he had never been pressured by managers or agents to change it. He decided to use a shorter version of his first name after being told that his full name was too long to fit on the poster for the film The Place Beyond the Pines. He did not want the alternative of “M. Ali” to represent himself on the poster, so he chose to adopt the shorter version of his name.

Ali was signed to Bay Area recording label Hieroglyphics Imperium during the late 2000s and recorded rap music as Prince Ali. He released his album, Curb Side Service, in 2007, but did not tour to promote the album, choosing instead to focus on his acting career.