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Mahershala Ali on ‘Blade,’ keeping secrets and how life has changed since his second Oscar win

Mahershala Ali photographed in the L.A. Times Photo and Video Studio at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival
Mahershala Ali photographed in the L.A. Times Photo and Video Studio at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 10, 2018.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Ever since 2019, when he was first announced as the new face of “Blade” during a star-studded Marvel Comic-Con panel, Mahershala Ali has been skillfully dodging questions about the upcoming vampire hunter reboot.

When asked what at all he can say about the highly anticipated (and as yet unscheduled) film, Ali was mum.

“What’s so funny is you’ll write this 2,000-word article and then 40 other publications will spin off one quote,” he said during a day of press for his latest release, the Apple TV+ drama “Swan Song,” now available on streaming and in select theaters. “And the thing I’m promoting gets buried and it’s like, ‘Mahershala Ali whispered “Blade” at night before he went to sleep.’ And really, I don’t have anything to offer yet that is really, truly worth anyone’s time. And so what I really want to do is preserve the space to make the character great and then talk about that if and when I achieve that.”

Ali made his official MCU debut as the character in a voice-only cameo in the mid-credits scene of “Eternals.” After turns in the Netflix series “Luke Cage” (as charismatic villain Cottonmouth) and Sony’s “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” (as another villain, the Prowler), “Blade” will mark Ali’s third appearance in a Marvel project.

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“Usually you’re not dealing with things that are this anticipated, so that’s new space,” he said. “You just embrace it and keep going.”

While the anticipation is new territory, the culture of confidentiality is not. “My real first introduction to that was when I did the ‘[Hunger Games:] Mockingjay’ movies,” Ali remembered. “You didn’t know [in advance] if the pages changed, so you’d get to work and the scene is totally rewritten. Like ‘What? I know none of these words.’ They would collect the sides at the end of the day and everything was such a secret.”

Mahershala Ali at San Diego Comic-Con 2019
Mahershala Ali, center, of Marvel Studios’ upcoming “Blade,” at the San Diego Comic-Con International 2019 Marvel Studios Panel in Hall H on July 20, 2019, in San Diego.
(Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Disney)

Even with two Oscars under his belt and a standalone superhero film in the works, Ali says he still doesn’t quite feel like he’s “made it.”

“I think about these people who lead huge films like Tom Cruise or Will Smith,” he said. “There’s so much pressure on those films to make money for them to keep being able to do the films. We could all say that Will made it or Tom Cruise made it, but I don’t know if they see it that way. I imagine they see it as ‘What’s next? How do I build on this?’ So I think there’s just more work to do.”

After more than a decade working in television and supporting roles in film, Ali score a key breakthrough with his role as Juan in Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight,” for which he won his first Oscar (he won his second two years later for “Green Book”). Since then, the roles have gotten bigger and the opportunities more abundant.

“It’s challenging in that suddenly there’s a lot to harvest so you want to make sure you’re not wasting anything,” said Ali. “Sometimes we respond by just saying yes to everything and the catch is that everything takes time. So you want to make sure that the things you’re saying yes to are not harmed because your focus is split. I’m just trying to manage it so I can take advantage of the opportunities and it can be something that continues to be a real blessing and fortune.”

When The Times last caught up with Ali, he had yet to unpack the trophy. Now, “I think I’m still unpacking,” he said. “But I try to unpack by working with other really talented people. I feel the difference in [that] the door feels wide open as opposed to it being cracked before. I think the Oscars and awards give you so much more of a platform and therefore there’s more [opportunities] but I think because of the quantity shifts, the attention to detail has to be so much greater.

“When we last talked, I think I was still sort of coming out of that place of figuring out what your next job is to knowing what your next two or three jobs are and having a sense of how much time each of those is going to take,” he added. “So you almost start seeing your life in years as opposed to moments or seasons because your calendar changes. And it’s just made me so much more conscious and even tentative around saying yes to anything.”

During the pandemic, Ali developed several projects, made “a lot” of music and produced an album with the rapper Radamiz, which they’re currently in talks with a label about.

Up next, he will play boxing legend Jack Johnson in the HBO limited series “Unruly” and has also been cast in Sam Esmail’s adaptation of Rumaan Alam’s “Leave the World Behind” alongside Julia Roberts. He’s also under a first-look deal for the streamer, “so we’ve got some TV stuff we’re developing that I’m in and not in,” he said.

“Since the Oscars I’m so much more aware of how much [time] I actually spend acting. Like ‘Oh, wow, you really only act 5% of your time.’ The rest is development, processing, feedback, sifting through things but the actual time between action and cut is very limited. So I value it that much more now and it puts an emphasis on signing up for experiences and working with people that you feel are going to be fruitful and enjoyable.”

“I feel like I’m closer to consistently being able to do the types of things I want to do,” he added. “Being in the flow of a breadth of opportunities is where I want to be and stay.”


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