Mahershala Ali and Benjamin Cleary on sci-fi drama ‘Swan Song’

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Live from AFI Fest, “Swan Song” director Benjamin Cleary and actor Mahershala Ali discuss the heartbreaking inspiration for the film, the challenges of shooting during a pandemic, and improvising scenes with Naomie Harris. Plus, Ali shares why every role — from a commercial to “Blade” — is equally important to him.

Mark Olsen: Hello, everyone! I’m Mark Olsen, and you’re listening to “The Envelope.” We’re back to our regular schedule starting next Tuesday. But in the meantime, we wanted to share this bonus episode with all of you.

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Last November, I had the pleasure of moderating a Q&A at AFI Fest following the world premiere of “Swan Song.” I got to speak with Benjamin Cleary, who wrote and directed the movie, and Mahershala Ali, who not only stars in “Swan Song” but also produced it. The film was a mix between sci-fi and drama and tells the story of a terminally ill man who must decide between breaking the bad news to his wife — played by Naomie Harris — or keeping his family blissfully unaware by replacing himself with a clone.

[Archival clip from “Swan Song”: Cameron: I can’t lie to my family anymore. Dr. Scott: The second you tell your wife that you are dying, your opportunity to do this is gone.]

Olsen: Believe it or not, this is actually two-time Oscar winner Mahershala Ali’s first lead role in a feature film, or maybe I should say roles since he played more than one character. Anyway, without further ado, here’s my conversation with Benjamin Cleary and Mahershala Ali.

Benjamin, you’ve said how this stemmed in part from your own experiences with grief, having lost a few friends. Can you talk a little bit about how that experience transformed into the story of “Swan Song?”

Benjamin Cleary: Yeah, I lost three friends when I was 19, 20, 21, three summers in a row. I think events like that affect you. They change you. You see the ripples of grief emanate out. You feel yourself. You see the loved ones that are affected. And ultimately, I think it changed how I navigated the world, how I saw the world. I constantly catastrophized about what if someone else I loved could die? Or what if I died? What would it do to my family? And then I think a premise like “Swan Song” comes into your brain years later, and you feel like you’re in a position to tell a completely imagined story, but hopefully be able to step into the shoes of a character like that and imbue it with some kind of truth. And then when you do finally go through all the pain of writing it and you’re as lucky as I was to get to work with someone like Mahershala, I think we all … hopefully the script has some truth in it, and then we all start to speak about our own connections to it, and I think people pick up on the fact that it has come from somewhere personal.

Olsen: Mahershala, those core feelings of grief and also confronting one’s own mortality, how did you connect to those feelings? And did it become personal for you?

Mahershala Ali: I think it always is in some way. You’re always trying to find what is your point of contact with the character and the story. My father died when I was 20, so 27 years ago. But then I think what it really is though, for me, is trying to move past my own personal stuff and really be a real advocate for the character. And I think when you really focus on being an advocate for the character, it’s really less about you, or not really about you at all, but those things just being sort of a foot in the door. And I think it’s a muscle, that empathy that I believe we all have. The great gift in being an actor is that you really have to … to at least work to get somewhat good at it, your empathy has to be alive and pulsating. And I think when you can get pretty sharp at connecting to someone else’s experiences of journey and going, “Wow, I have this responsibility to every day walk on this set, understand what the given circumstances are, and really just work to tell the truth,” that it frees you from yourself. And so I’m not thinking about my own personal experience with loss per se, but I am in the fight with this character, advocating for however the world may see that person, but still really just trying to say that this is his perspective, this is his experience, this is where he’s coming from, and trying to create a space for an audience to connect with that, and to sort of root for that character as well.

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Olsen: Benjamin, the timing of the movie is just so remarkable in that it’s coming out at a time when so many people are dealing with loss and grief. How have your own feelings sort of developed or evolved? Like, what has the process of making the movie done for you emotionally?

Cleary: Wow. I mean, there’s a lot to unpack there. But I think specifically thinking about the COVID of it all, you know, we were about to shoot up in Vancouver and then it all ended, and we all came back to Los Angeles. And then we had six months, I think, that we were waiting to go do it again and eventually got back up there. And I felt like we became galvanized. We all felt really grateful to still be able to get to work, because we knew people who weren’t able to do that at the time, and everyone was having all these issues. They knew people who were sick. They knew people who had passed away. There was no vaccine back then. It was definitely a trying time to make a movie, and I think when you’re making a film like this that, of course, is touching on loss and grief, it somehow … I think we all felt that in the fabric of what became our experience shooting this. I think it’s somehow made its way into the film, and it’s kind of hard to really put a finger on exactly what that is, but I felt it. I think we all felt that there was something there that was coming out of that.

Olsen: One thing the movie does so beautifully is sort of re-create memory, and we get all these little vignettes and snippets of scenes, like flashes of things. But thinking about that practically, you were having to set up and shoot these scenes that you’re only going to use like a few seconds of in the movie. Was that complicated for production? Like, what was it like to be shooting a lot of these memory scenes that we just see a little bit of?

Cleary: The shooting process was interesting because we’ve got two visual looks in the movie, the present day for Cameron is very much so a different shooting style than the others. We used different lenses for both of them. We are more locked off, more considered. It’s more slow push-ins. There’s a lot of central framing, symmetrical framing and things like that for his present day. And when we go into the memories, it’s much more of a free flow. Masanobu, our brilliant cinematographer, was almost kind of with you guys, dancing with you guys, as you did. And we did a lot of improv, which was grueling, I know. And but you, Naomie, you were just amazing, and it was phenomenal. These long takes. But what I really wanted to try and capture was just these little beautiful moments that felt like we were totally immersed in the character’s subjective.

Olsen: Mahershala, can you talk a little bit about shooting some of those memory scenes and in particular your scenes with Naomie, because the two of you just have such a wonderful chemistry all through the movie?

Ali: Oh, she’s — yeah. That in many ways is sort of led by her. And what I mean by that is I remember working with her on “Moonlight,” and she was in the middle of a press tour. She had three days to shoot that whole part. And I remember first day on set, she just went all in. Different movie, different time, but I just remember how committed she was and how mind-blowing that was to me. And then in this, especially because there is a period with the flashbacks and whatnot, a lot of those Ben is only intending to use snippets of it. So in the script, it’s like, “Oh, here’s this scenario, “so to speak. And so, we’re improving a lot of those. So, the way in which she would just jump in immediately, it was very freeing for me, because my personality is honestly a little bit like a cat in that like, you feel it out, you feel it out, you feel it out, and then eventually you own it. But when you’re opposite of somebody like that, specifically in improv scenarios, and they could be emotional, they could be funny, they could be whatever, and you have somebody who is just that committed — it really freed me up to find some other things in myself to bring to the table.

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Olsen: Tell me as well about just the challenge of playing two characters in the movie. It’s so remarkable because they’re supposed to be the same, and yet they do have all these very fine distinctions between the two separate characters. What was it like for you to play those two parts?

Ali: (laughs) It was good. It was good. It was hard, in a certain way. Well, there was a part that was very easy because of Ben, which was those characters had, clearly for me, at least in the script and on the page, they clearly had different intentions. They clearly wanted different things. So it truly was like playing two different characters. Like, forget the fact that they look alike, they clearly want two different things. So what I learned is that so much of character and who we are stems from what we want. It was the best example for me. Like it made school make sense, you know what I’m saying, right? When they say “Oh, it’s what you want, it’s your intentions” and you’re like “Yeah, OK.” But when you got two characters that you’re playing, and they clearly want two different things, it really revealed itself for me, so I was pretty clear. So that part was manageable. What was challenging, and please don’t — I hope this isn’t misinterpreted. Every actor, there’s no working actor that doesn’t first have to direct themselves before they’re being directed, because you have to listen to your instincts. And so, there’s this thing where you step into an audition or you’re on set or whatever, and your mind, your body spirit, your energy is telling you to do certain things. Then the director comes over and is like, “Hey, let’s try it this way,” or “Can we tone that down? Can we make that larger or smaller,” or like, “Let’s slow down in that moment,” the things that directors say. With this I had to play it out in my head first and then try to explain how I think I want to play and still discover stuff in the moment. And then after that, Ben could be like, “That’s working, that’s not working” or whatever. And so that was the challenging thing. It’s even challenging to explain. So sorry. (laughs)

Cleary: Yeah, there was a great moment, I’m not sure how far into it it was, where we started playing with using some of the audio that you would have done, say if Cameron started the scene, and then we’d play it for the Jack parts. That was cool.

Olsen: Benjamin, can you talk a bit about assembling the rest of the cast, because the movie just has this wonderful and wonderfully diverse cast? And what was it like assembling that group?

Cleary: Well, once Mahershala signed on, I remember when I heard you read the script and wanted to meet and I was like, “Holy s—!” And I was so close to the script, you know when you’re so into it and you can’t even see the thing. And then I heard that you were interested in meeting, and I read the script with your voice and you in mind, and suddenly the script was alive again, and it was amazing. Then we met like the next day, I think, and we had that great first conversation. It was phenomenal. And then at the end of it, you were like, “I want to do the movie.” I was like, “What’s going on? This is amazing!” But it was amazing. And then, of course, when you get a master like Mahershala to sign on to your movie, that’s the first step, and you build around that. And then just to get Naomie Harris, who is just phenomenal, Glenn Close, Awkwafina and everybody. You know, casting is fun. It’s a nervy time casting because you want to get it right, but when it works, it works great. In this case, I think we got it.

Olsen: Mahershala, this is also your first feature film where you’re credited as a producer. And what was it like for you taking on that additional role?

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Ali: An education. It’s such an education, but I think the nature, just sort of who I am, I don’t necessarily bite my tongue. And so from the jump with Ben there was just this relationship with just communicating certain things that I saw, bouncing off of what he already had there, making certain suggestions, speaking about wanting to see certain things like perhaps breathe a little bit more, or maybe we need a little less of that or what have you. But just to be in like sort of constant communication about dovetailing or reflecting off of what he already sort of has there was really amazing and fulfilling. And it just feels good to really have a seat at the table and your voice and your ideas be respected and embraced. So yeah, it was great.

Cleary: Can I just add to that as well? Mahershala, you’re a phenomenal actor, and you are a phenomenal filmmaker. And all through the process, what was amazing to me and I just talk about the edit process, but all the way through, the collaboration that we had and how you improved this movie all the way along, and we’re such a great partner to me was just fantastic. And one thing that really stuck with me in the edit was as you started giving your notes, which were inevitably just some of the best notes I’ve ever received, you could put on your director’s cap and forget completely about the performance of it all. Like, I never heard you say, “Oh, hold more on me.” It was always like, “No, you know, I think we’ve got it. We got all we need there,” and it was about shortening things. And that’s a skill that’s rare, I think. Not that I have a huge amount of experience making a lot of movies, but for me that was really, really amazing, and the movie is so much better for it. So, I would just like to say that.

Ali: Thank you, brother. Thank you.

Olsen: And before we wrap up, Mahershala, this might be your first lead role in a feature film, but it’s certainly not going to be your last. I know you’re soon going to playing the role of Blade, stepping into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I think people are very excited about that. What does it mean to you to be taking on an iconic role like that?

Ali: Man, I really love, respect and appreciate Wesley Snipes, and he’s been really supportive. At least from what I’ve experienced from the outside, I sincerely appreciate the support. It’s humbling and touching. And with that said, every part is iconic. I don’t look at them any different. I have the same responsibility 100% of the time. Whether I’m a lead or in one scene, if I’m doing voice-over acting, if I’m doing a commercial, I just am how I am with the work. I’m picky. I get on my own nerves. So it’s all important to me. It’s all important to me. I would be wrong to say that I don’t feel more pressure, but I always feel pressure, and I feel like something’s wrong if I don’t feel pressure to some degree. It’s how I understand how to move through the world at this point. There’s probably a healthier, more productive way of doing it, and maybe I will discover that. Pray for me. But in general, again, Marvel and all that, it’s incredible, but all these parts are important. They’re important to me, and I do the best I can.

Olsen: And that’s a wonderful place for us to wrap this up. Please, everyone join me in thanking Benjamin Cleary and Mahershala Ali.

Cleary: Thank you so much. Thanks, everybody. Cheers. Thank you, Mahershala.

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Olsen: That’s it from us here at “The Envelope.” I’m your host, Mark Olsen. If you haven’t already, please make sure to follow “The Envelope” wherever you get your podcasts. And don’t forget to leave us a review and recommend “The Envelope” to a friend. We’ll be back next week with a brand new episode. This episode was produced and edited by Heba Elorbany, Asal Ehsanipour, and our executive producer, Jazmín Aguilera. Our engineer and composer is Mike Heflin. Very special thanks to AFI Fest for hosting this event. And special thanks to Shani Hilton, Clint Schaff, Richard Hernandez, Amy Wong, Chris Price, Ross May, Geoff Berkshire, Elena Howe and Matt Brennan. Thanks for listening. We’ll see you next week.

The Team

The Envelope podcast is hosted by Mark Olsen and Yvonne Villarreal; produced by Heba Elorbany and Asal Ehsanipour; edited by Heba Elorbany and Jazmín Aguilera; engineering and theme music by Mike Heflin; audience strategy by Samantha Melbourneweaver, Amy Wong, Gabby Fernandez and Christina Schoellkopf; marketing by Richard Hernandez, Tova Weinstock, Patricia Gardiner, Brandon Sides and Dylan Harris. Special thanks to Shani Hilton, Clint Schaff, Matt Brennan, Geoff Berkshire, Elena Howe, Glenn Whipp and Daniel Gaines.