You might remember Mahershalalhashbaz Ali from our “Black Men To Watch” feature. If you don’t, where have you been living, under a rock? Well to catch you up, aside from being ridiculously fine, he’s an actor. You might remember him as Richard Tyler from the hit series on The 4400 on the USA network a few years back or more recently as Tizzy in the Oscar-nominated blockbuster, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. This November, the talented actor is returning to the small screen in what may be one of his most provocative roles yet.
Ali stars opposite Julia Ormond in the Lifetime movie The Wronged Man. I know what you’re thinking, but this isn’t your average Lifetime damsel-in-distress flick. Based on a true story, The Wronged Man is based on the true life story of Calvin Willis, a man sent to prison for a crime he didn’t commit – the rape of a minor. The story also chronicles the story of Janet Chrissy Gregory, the paralegal and tireless advocate who picked up the cause and helped to exonerate Willis after 22 years in prison. When asked about why he chose to play such a provocative role he states, “I was automatically drawn to it because I want to help to tell this story, the story of someone who should have been free. As a human being I was drawn because this is a story where justice should be done. The opportunity to be of service to a story like this lets you become a part of justice, of the energy that is saying that justice should be prevail. You do whatever you can to be a part of a project like that because it’s so powerful.”
It’s this passion that makes Ali such a great actor. Unable to meet Calvin face to face Ali did the next best thing. He immersed himself in the life of Willis, often journaling what he felt the wrongly convicted man was feeling as well as letters he might have sent to loved ones. He also listened to the music that he would have listened to during those 22 years behind bars, everything from Country to Wu Tang. “At the end, all you can hope to do is try to connect with the essence and the journey the person has experienced. With the tools that I had, I believe that the audience will be able to respond to the story.”
After spending so much time connecting with a character it can be difficult to detach and return to a regular life. How difficult? There was some speculation that playing the role of the Joker in The Dark Knight may have sent Heath Ledger into a depression that led to his tragic demise. When asked how he deals with character detachment by mourning the character of Willis he states, “I think afterward you have to mourn the character a little bit. I think those are the best roles. It’s different from when you’re guest starring on a TV series and you’re only playing the character for a few shows. For this role, I honestly prayed a lot because I felt that I didn’t know how to approach it. I felt like if I could have some sort of link with him spiritually, I could convey the emotion needed to make the audience connect with the character. I think through prayer I was able to channel all my research into a believable character.”
“If you’re really trying to work at being the best you can be at something, then if it happens, it’s healthy and you can understand and appreciate it.”
Mahershalalhashbaz also brings the same level of intense passion for the technical aspects of acting to the actual art form. As an older wiser person, he’s not just in acting for the perks of fame and wealth although a younger Ali definitely had those aspirations, But as a seasoned actor, Ali lives by the mantra of being best at whatever you do. “If you’re really trying to work at being the best you can be at something, then if it happens, it’s healthy and you can understand and appreciate it. But if you go out and make a sex tape real quick and you’re like “I’m famous,” it’s just unhealthy. The best advice I’ve gotten is to appreciate the art and the work and be the best you can be not to be famous, not to be rich. Those things happen, but that’s not why you get into it. It’s an art form and you should respect it and treat it as such.”
(Photo Credits: Peter Graham and Lisa Keating)