Amongst all of today’s outstanding TV talent, there is perhaps none more deserving of a Better Call Saul-type spin-off than Mahershala Ali, who has received his first Emmy nomination for his portrayal of formidable D.C. player Remy Danton on House of Cards, and has recently announced his departure from the series.
With a seemingly quick rise through the ranks of industry talent, starring opposite Brad Pitt in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button just seven years after receiving his first TV credit, Ali has moved through a fruitful David Fincher phase with Benjamin Button and House of Cards and into prestige indie territory, with an exciting upcoming role as Cottonmouth on Netflix’s Marvel series Luke Cage being the cherry on top. Below, Ali speaks to his career evolution, his exit from House of Cards, and Remy’s promising future with Jackie Sharp, far away from the venomous world of D.C.
Your first TV credit came in 2001, and by 2008, you were starring opposite the likes of Brad Pitt in David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Did you perceive a quick ascension in your career in those years?
I started acting, compared to a lot of people, really late. I got into an NYU graduate program, so I did that for three years, and then I got a pilot. It all was moving along at such a clip for me where it all felt quick, at the beginning. And then once I started working in television and film—my taste had been kind of cultivated by my father, who was really into independent film, and had a real artistic vein—I went into it knowing the kinds of things that I wanted to be involved in. Once I started working, there was very much a goal to be able to transition out of, say, broadcast network television—because that’s where the opportunities are.
And once that happened, I was always trying to figure out, how the heck do I get into that feature film pocket? And not only just being in film, but having a real presence—roles that mattered, that would challenge me, and give me an opportunity to be stretched, and also discover what I could do. When The Curious Case of Benjamin Button came along in 2008, that felt like a wonderful opportunity—definitely a break—but I say all that just to get to the point that I feel like my experience has been one that has been, for the most part, a gradual climb. Now, I’m experiencing something closer to what I’ve imagined, and always wanted. I’m still not at that place that I’d imagined, and I’m still working towards having full experience and getting leading parts. But I feel like I’m getting closer.
How would you describe your relationship with David Fincher, who gave you that first feature film role, and who produces House of Cards?
My first feature film was with David, and I had a wonderful time working with him. And again, House of Cards is a huge opening, and a wonderful platform that gave me another break. I always felt really respected by David, which was incredible for me and great for my confidence, because David is one of the best directors in the world, and to have somebody see something of value in you—and not only give you one opportunity, but give you another opportunity.
There was even a project a little while ago that he was looking at me for—it didn’t happen, but I know that he is somebody that respects me, and that I have the utmost respect for, and I would drop anything to work with him. [Laughs] We have a good relationship in that way—it’s definitely a working relationship, but the times I’ve worked with him have been really positive and, again, an education. You throw the word “genius” around a lot, but David is really a genius; and everyone who works with him knows that.
Remy has a bit of a tough time in Season 4—what were your thoughts on the season, and the evolution we’ve seen in your character?
Remy starts out a certain way, and over the arc of my time in these four seasons, I’ve seen him in some way go through a very deep emotional shift. He begins to discover who he is, or at least who he wants to be. Through Season 4, you see him trying to create a life for himself outside of D.C., and he’s kind of pulled back into it. But I think as a result of the challenges that he experiences, with being forced to work with Tusk again, and Claire—I think it really makes him resolve to break away from it. And it helps Jackie, as well.
So I actually think Remy wins, in the end. He gets the girl, and he’s wanted to move out of politics for some time now; so as much as it was a trial by fire, or somewhat of a crucible, it’s one where he leaves on his terms, to some degree. And they drive off into the sunset. If [Remy] were a real person, despite everything that he’s had to do and go through, I believe that he would be happy right now. He’s obviously an intelligent guy who still has some degree of access, and is going to be OK. Then it’s about, how is he connected to his soul, his heart?
In the past, you had stated your belief that any long-term relationship with Jackie would be impossible, given their separate circumstances, which makes Remy’s departure with Jackie at Season 4’s end all the more enticing.
Absolutely. Things are a culmination of choices that characters make. If you look at where the story was when I said that… and there was a point in Season 4 when I would have said the same thing. But obviously, you get to a point where the circumstances change, Jackie’s circumstances change, but his feelings for her have stayed steady. Things changed enough where the opportunity suddenly opened up for them to have a little more space to both consciously make a decision. Now, if Jackie was more worried about the political repercussions of her running off with Remy, then that’s a different story—then I would still say it’s impossible for them to be together. But once she decides that—I don’t care about that—then it’s possible for them to be together. But up to that point—it’s not a judgment of that character—but it was clear that that’s not a line she was willing to cross.
You’ve recently announced your departure from House of Cards, with the conclusion of Season 4. How long has the production team known about this decision, and when did you arrive at the decision to make your exit?
It got framed in a way—I was a little surprised by the headline [in GQ], honestly. Look, any actor knows that you don’t have that kind of power to quit; you just don’t, in general. I didn’t quit—we had conversations because the character had run his course. There wasn’t really anything new to offer the show, and there’s a lot of people on that show! It’s not fair for me to say, “Hey, I want to do more,” because that might not work for the show. It’s a narrative that’s bigger than you. But I do want to do more in my career, and that kind of aligned with the character running its course, and with how the show was framed.
I didn’t feel that there was a lot more to really explore—and if they didn’t agree with me, I wouldn’t be out of that contract. [Laughs] They understood that we had a good run, you know? You move on. I’ve said this before: every show has a shelf life. House of Cards might work for seven or eight seasons, it might be done after six, I don’t know—but my character also has a shelf life. It was just time to close that storyline out while it still meant something to people.
In Chapter 41, we get a little more background with Remy, as he’s seen conversing in French with his parents outside their Florida home. Why drop this piece of information at the tail end of your run on the series?
Coming into it, honestly, I kid you not—in the character description, in 2012, Remy was of Haitian descent. It just had never made it in, so that was interesting. I’m not unique in this—a lot of actors write a bit of a background on their character. It just makes it more real for them; so I had done a little of that work on my own, and it was nice, and kind of rounded out the character—it gave Remy the opportunity to go home, and you saw a glimpse of where his parents lived. And then the imagination leads into, what was that life like? All of that really made me excited to close out the arc.
Between House of Cards and your upcoming role in Luke Cage, you’ve really sunk your teeth into some meaty roles—some villains and some anti-hero types. What attracts you to these kinds of characters?
I’m still very much in a place of looking at the things that come my way that are the most interesting, and as you get to grow as an actor—as the industry looks at you as having more value—I think your opportunities would obviously expand. As mine have begun to expand, some of the more interesting characters have just fallen into that quote-unquote “villain” kind of aspect. If I were to play a hero, I would want him to be a little grey—to definitely be human, and be conflicted about something, as we all are. Even if you’re the most well-intentioned person, there’s something that you’re working on improving, or reshaping in some way, or letting go of.
With these villain characters, it’s about trying to make them human, because often they’re written in a way that is so slanted. And honestly, this really wasn’t the case with me on Luke Cage. Cottonmouth on Luke Cage—he’s really not a quote-unquote “bad guy”. It’s just being able to work against how those characters are often thought of, and sometimes written, to make them human; and therefore, making a character that the audience feels conflicted about. You can do a lot with those roles—you really can. I don’t want to only do that, by any stretch, but I definitely see the value in doing that, because it is such a challenge, and there’s a lot of runway in those characters for an actor.
In terms of series work, it’s definitely the most present I’ve personally ever been in a series, and the most demanding [experience], I would say. As much as it’s in that comic book world, and we’re all very aware that it’s a degree removed from our own reality, as an actor, playing a guy who is struggling with some of the things that he’s struggling with—who is trying to maintain a hold over his business, over his industry—there’s an aspect of family legacy, manhood, responsibility; these things that Luke Cage begins to be a threat toward.
I think you start seeing somebody who will do anything to protect what he has, and can justify that because he is so threatened by the introduction of this new person in Harlem, who is learning to take everything away from him. So the things that he has to do that are not necessarily par for the course, or what he would do everyday, I think it’s really trying for him—and therefore, it was hard for me, at a certain point, to go home and let that go at night. It was a stretch, but I loved it. What I’ve seen [of the series], I think is a really good offering for that genre.