A FRIEND IN NEED
Oscar-winner Mahershala Ali returns with another buzzworthy role in ‘Green Book’, a film about friendship set in pre-Civil Rights America, out in the UAE today
Roughly halfway through Green
Book, about one of the unlikeliest friendships of the preCivil Rights era, Jamaican piano prodigy Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), explains to his Italian American driver, Frank “Tony Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), that though he’s found success playing popular music, he was trained for the classical stage.
“Trained?” says Vallelonga. “What are you, a seal? People love what you do. Anyone can sound like Beethoven or Joe Pan or them other guys you said. But your music, what you do, only you can do that.”
“Thank you, Tony,” Shirley says patiently. “But not everyone can play Chopin, not like I can.”
The scene, one of the film’s most poignant insights into the musician’s conflicted feelings about his identity and legacy, was not always written that way.
“Dr Shirley used to just say, ‘Thank you, Tony,’ and that’s it, that’s the scene,” recalled Ali over lunch. “Like, ‘I appreciate it, you’re right. People love my music and despite the racism, what I became as a result is alright, I’m cool with it.’ And that scene always ate at me. It just didn’t ring true to me as a black person. It felt like what I would call a ‘TV moment.’”
After watching Nina Simone’s Netflix documentary What Happened, Miss Simone?, Ali was able to pinpoint just what it was that bugged him about the scene and brought it to director Peter Farrelly.
“I spoke at length with him about Nina Simone in that, as much as we love and appreciate her music, she didn’t become who she wanted to become, she became who she was allowed to become,” he said of the legendary dive-bar chanteuse, who’d originally had designs on being a classical pianist. “The fact is, as a person, as an individual knowing and feeling the creativity within herself, Nina Simone lived and died not being what she wanted to be. I think that that is true for so many black artists,” said Ali.
Green Book, out in the UAE on Thursday, is already being floated as a potential
“I’m just constantly looking for something that feels appropriate for me at the time. I don’t ever want to do something I’ve already done.” MAHERSHALA ALI | Actor
best picture nominee after claiming the Oscar-predictive People’s Choice Award in its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. Ali’s portrayal of the emotionally tortured Shirley is all but guaranteed to earn him a supporting actor nod. If so, it would mark his second Academy Award nomination, after a breakout turn in Barry Jenkins’ dazzling
Moonlight, for which he took home the trophy in 2016. But awards consideration, though appreciated, couldn’t be less of a driving force for the actor.
“We’re not going into it like, ‘OK, so when we look at the Oscar contenders, these films need to have these boxes checked,’” he said. Rather, the 44-yearold just wants to continue taking on roles that are different from those he’s played over the course of 20 years in the industry.
“For me, it’s about the diversity of my experience as an actor,” he said. “I’m just constantly looking for something that feels appropriate for me at the time. I don’t ever want to do something I’ve already done, I’m not interested in that at all.”
Though Farrelly calls him an “unbelievable actor,” the director was hesitant to cast Ali because of the tonal difference between the outwardly powerful drug-dealer Juan in
Moonlight and the more delicate, internal restraint of Shirley.
“He was such an imposing figure in
Moonlight,” said Farrelly. “He was big and strong and really a force. And Dr Shirley is not that. I thought maybe Mahershala might be too big a figure for this film, but when I met him, and he talked about who this guy was, he quickly became him. It was such an impressive performance.”
“This is going to sound like [expletive], but it was an honour and a pleasure [working with Ali],” said Mortensen. “For me, the foundation of good acting is al- ways good reacting. I’m looking at his face and there are all these incredible, minute, beautiful reactions. Like, so precise, his work. It was really difficult to keep a straight face because he was so hilarious and getting perfect timing.”
The painstaking performances of the two leads elevate the film’s fairly simple premise: In 1962, Shirley, a distinguished pianist, prepares to embark on a concert tour that will take him through the Deep South. He knows he needs to hire some muscle, which is where Lip comes in, a racist bouncer who just lost his job at Manhattan’s Copacabana nightclub.
Over the course of the trip, Shirley and Vallelonga become friends, a dynamic which has earned the film comparisons to The Odd Couple and deemed a “reverse Driving Miss Daisy,” a description that rankles Ali.
“There’s absolutely no such thing, it’s impossible,” he said. “Because in either scenario, if you make the white person the driver or if you make the white person the passenger, the white person is still free in society. That’s like saying, ‘Now the white person is black in this scenario.’ The white person is never black in any scenario. The switch just doesn’t work.”
Though it only makes sense that conversations about race dominate the press run for Green Book Ali says it’s a nagging point of discussion no matter what project he’s promoting. He takes issue with the tendency for black art to become tangled up in clunky conversations about race and representation, rather than being lauded for its merits the way white art is.
“People really lean towards talking about the cultural relevance,” he said.
“So much time is spend on clapping and celebrating the feat or the achievement of a black project doing well and black people being multidimensional. So much time is spent on ‘Wow! A multidimensional thug in Moonlight!’ I appreciate it, but what about the work is transformational?”
Despite this, he allows that Hollywood is much more open to diverse stories and storytellers now than in the recent past.
“I think Hollywood is always ready to embrace a new vein, a new anything that’s going to help expand storytelling that is also economically beneficial,” he said. “If Hollywood is making money off of something, then they want to figure out ways to tap into that. And for us, the positive thing is that we get to tell our stories how we want to tell them.”
The painstaking performances of the two leads (Ali and Mortensen) elevate the film’s fairly simple premise.