KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
As we just heard, the first person to be kind to Chiron in this film is a drug dealer named Juan, played by Mahershala Ali. I recently sat down with him, and he told me he was thrilled to play a drug dealer who wasn't a stereotypical drug dealer. Mahershala Ali says Juan is like people he knew growing up.
MAHERSHALA ALI: They're still good people. This is just a compartmentalized portion of their life where this is just how they make money. There's a gentleman who dated my aunt, and he was a substitute teacher, good guy. I only knew him to be a good guy - totally together, humble, nothing necessarily excessive about his lifestyle. And one day he got plucked up. And the next thing you know, he's in prison.
MCEVERS: What did he go to prison for?
ALI: For drugs, for selling drugs. That was my point, in that he just seemed like a regular guy, and he kind of kept it all really compartmentalized. So those kind of experiences shaped for me how a character like this felt real, especially compared to how we're all really accustomed to seeing these characters framed in these narratives that really are somewhat one-dimensional. So because they are a drug dealer, they're really only shown in the light of their occupation taking up all the space of their being.
MCEVERS: Is that how you came to think about Juan, the character, as somebody who's compartmentalizing? Like, when somebody knocks on the door, he's got to pick up a gun.
MCEVERS: He talks about always making sure, like, you know, you've got your back covered. But then he's extremely kind.
MCEVERS: Did you think about it that way?
ALI: I did, especially - well, one of the first things that happens in the movie - if you're watching the first scene - and it's an easy thing to miss - but Juan, who's this drug dealer, is on the corner talking to one of his corner boys. And Juan asks him, how's your mom doing?
ALI: And then he says, she's in my prayers. That's Juan. He's dealing drugs, but he prays, too.
MCEVERS: So it's established, like, early on.
ALI: Yeah, it's established really early on that he's more complicated. And so many people are more complicated than - than how we tend to want to think of them. And so I think, over time, when that happens consistently, you begin to think of races of people as being one-dimensional...
ALI: ...As not having the same capacity as other humans to - to achieve and even have the desire to get out of their situations because of how they're just framed in our stories.
MCEVERS: You - you said you grew up in the Bay Area, near Oakland.
MCEVERS: And you got into acting later in life.
ALI: I did. I was playing basketball. I was an athlete.
MCEVERS: At the time that you got into acting, were you aware of how black men were portrayed on screen - in TV and film - and that it was going to be hard, that, you know, there were only going to be certain roles?
ALI: At that point, I really wasn't quite thinking of it. I just - I don't - look, my dad had introduced me to indie films. So the stuff that I had a taste for, I certainly never saw myself in those parts. So growing up, it definitely affected my confidence or me understanding what could be accomplished because of only seeing myself in a very limited way. It's been really hard for me to say, I want to be a leading man - like, to really say that - because when I was growing up I didn't see that.
But I did see people helping the leading man, and the people helping the leading man always looked like me. And then when you feel it from the inside out, it's a little frustrating. But the industry is changing, so these young men in this movie, they're going to have an entirely different experience than I've had being in this business now for a decade and a half. I've been working for 16 years.
MCEVERS: You know, in the past couple years, you have played a really diverse range of characters - of course, Remy Danton, ruthless power broker on "House Of Cards."
ALI: My buddy.
MCEVERS: Yeah (laughter), your buddy, Remy. And then, of course, there's the - the complicated villain who kind of has a heart...
ALI: Kind of, yeah.
MCEVERS: ...Cottonmouth from "Luke Cage" on Netflix. I don't know. You're just, like, playing, like, this spectrum of, like, black maleness. Does it feel - I don't know - do you feel, like, a weight of responsibility? You know, I mean, there is a lot of complicated nuance in these characters.
ALI: I feel the responsibility to try to do great work. And that keeps me up at night sometimes - just, you know, trying to figure out what my in is with these characters and how to really connect to them and sort of lose myself in them for that 16 hours a day.
I have no interest in playing myself. I really don't think I'm that interesting. I think that these characters, though, the ones that I say yes to, are really interesting to me. And I respond to the ones where I feel like there's a shaft of light, like, there's a little opening there where I can power the entire person through - through that one little connection, so whether he's a drug dealer or a gun runner or what have you, that, if I can just make him human, then that is the goal for me right now.
MCEVERS: Mahershala Ali, thank you.
ALI: Thank you for having me.
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