Born in Oakland, California, in 1974, Mahershala Ali attended college on a basketball scholarship before discovering a love for acting. He became a series regular on Crossing Jordan in 2001, and by the end of the decade he had also starred on the science fiction drama The 4400 and appeared in films like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. After landing the breakout role of Remy Danton on House of Cards in 2013, Ali became one of the industry's most talked-about actors in 2016 with his sinister turn on the series Luke Cage. In 2017, he won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his role in the film Moonlight, making him the first Muslim actor to win an Academy Award.
Mahershala Ali was born Mahershalalhashbaz Gilmore on February 16, 1974, in Oakland, California. Raised in nearby Hayward, he developed into a talented athlete, particularly in basketball. He was also exposed to theater and film through summertime visits to his father, who was working out of New York City as an actor.
Ali attended Saint Mary's College of California on a basketball scholarship, but grew disenchanted with the demands of playing on the team. He began writing poetry and competing in poetry slams, through which he discovered the thrill of performing. During his senior year, he appeared in a production of George C. Wolfe's Spunk.
After earning his degree in mass communication, Ali spent the summer of 1996 as an apprentice with the California Shakespeare Festival. He went on to a job with The Gavin Report, a record industry publication, but decided to resume acting, and in 1997 he successfully auditioned for New York University's graduate acting program.
As he neared completion of NYU's grad program in 2000, Ali nabbed the lead in the independent film Making Revolution (released in 2003) and the play The Great White Hope. Beginning in September 2001, he held down the role of Dr. Trey Sanders for the first season of the primetime series Crossing Jordan.
Sustaining that initial success proved a challenge, as Ali managed lone appearances in shows like NYPD Blue and CSI. He was cast as a series regular for Threat Matrix, which lasted less than a season, but soon found another project that gained more traction with The 4400, a science fiction drama that aired from 2004-07.
In 2008, Ali surfaced in his first major film, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. This opened the door for additional big screen opportunities, and including appearances in Crossing Over (2009), Predators (2010) and The Place Beyond the Pines (2012). Ali also delivered an acclaimed performance in the TV movie The Wronged Man (2010), and made recurring appearances on the programs Treme and Alphas.
The Big Time
In 2013, Mahershala Ali landed the breakout role of Remy Danton on House of Cards. The political drama marked Netflix's successful entry into original programming, and Ali more than held his own alongside such big-name actors as Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright. In 2014 he joined Jennifer Lawrence for The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1, and he returned the following year for the finale of the wildly successful movie franchise.
The stars aligned for Ali in 2016, starting with his supporting role in the historical drama Free State of Jones. He earned an Emmy nomination that summer for House of Cards, and that fall he began starring in another Netflix program, Luke Cage, as the villainous nightclub owner Cottonmouth Stokes. However, it was his contribution to the independent film Moonlight that generated the most buzz. For his touching performance as Juan, a drug dealer who becomes a father figure to a conflicted boy in a rough Miami neighborhood, Ali earned a Golden Globe nomination and won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Ali made history as the first Muslim actor to win an Oscar.
In early 2017, Ali also appeared in a prominent supporting role in the box-office success Hidden Figures, about female African-American mathematicians in the formative years of NASA. He is expected to star in Alita: Battle Angel, an adaptation of a popular manga series.
Although raised with strong Christian influences – his mother, aunt and grandmother all were ordained ministers – Mahershala Ali converted to Islam while attending NYU. He also met his future wife, Amatus Sami-Karim, during that period. They married in 2013.
Possessing a love for music, Ali has said he makes a mixtape for every major role he takes on to give that character a soundtrack. His cat, Nas, is named after the top-selling hip hop artist.
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