The indie film Kicks follows a young boy, Brandon, as he treks around his home in the Bay Area to retrieve a pair of stolen Air Jordans. Brandon encounters many people on his journey, including his uncle Marlon, played by Mahershala Ali. Marlon helps to spark the quest with some much-needed wisdom on responsibility and consequence.
Ali had a standout performance in Kicks, and theGrio had the pleasure of getting to chat with him about his character, the state of diversity in Hollywood, and the future of his career.
This interview was edited for clarity.
TheGrio: ‘Kicks’ was very much about growing up and trying to be an adult. Could you relate to the younger characters when you were their age?
Mahershala Ali: Yeah, because you have the element of trying to feel comfortable about how you look and feel, which is just very much a part of just adolescence and puberty and growing up. Connecting to girls, and feeling like you’re in pace with the other boys and their experiences. And then the whole bit about the rite of passage and the tests and challenges to your masculinity that often end up putting you in a situation where there’s the threat of violence, or things happening that are really violent and the trouble that goes along with that. So those are all things that I’ve seen and in some cases have definitely experienced to a certain degree. And I feel like Justin does a wonderful job of capturing that and making it feel really authentic, and it’s something that so many people have gone through, whatever town they live in and whatever class. And in that way, it’s really relatable, because it’s not just about kids that are in these “urban environments” and kids who may have a more suburban upper class experience that there are some of those same pressures really do translate.
TG: What in particular surprised you about the young actors like Jahking Guillory?
MA: I just always appreciate, you know, that when you work with younger actors, they’re just ready to take on the world and really excited about like being in a film and the opportunity and that’s always infectious because you know, when we’ve done it for a while, like you… it’s not like you lose that, you just… your perspective changes because you just end up having so much experience, and so it’s always just really wonderful getting to connect to and work with younger actors.
TG: Marlon seemed like the wise, almost oracle-like character of the story who helped Brandon start his journey. What did you like about Marlon as a character?
MA: I liked that he in some ways is a bit of a sort of a reluctant mentor in a certain way and that he wasn’t all-out trying to necessarily guide him or push in the right direction per say. Or he wasn’t going to necessarily help him, but what he was gonna say is that “listen, in this environment you have to handle your own business and take care of it yourself and then be willing to deal with the consequences and make that decision for yourself. But I’m not gonna help you — I’m not gonna do it for you,” and I do appreciate that about the character. He was somebody who I was excited to play because he’s not the kind of opportunity that I’ve really been accustomed to getting and having so, yeah, it was great to get to play him.
TG: Do you think he did more to help or hurt Brandon?
MA: Well, I think anytime you can be honest with somebody, you’re helping them. You know? He didn’t tell him to go do anything; he just told him he had to go. He told him wasn’t gonna do it for you. So I think in that way, yeah, he helped him. But he was just basically telling Brandon that this is a decision and a situation that you gotta go deal with. I’m not gonna handle your business for you. And Brandon makes the decisions that he makes. So I think that was really something that was on Brandon.
TG: How much of a stretch was it to go from white collar Remy in House of Cards, to this harder, grittier character, Marlon? Do the two have any similarities?
MA: I mean, if there are, that would be a real stretch for me. I mean I hope there wouldn’t be, just as an actor, I think that is what’s attractive, for me at least, is just finding not the similarities but really the differences. Yeah, that would be a real stretch for me to find how they are similar.
TG: What are your views on diversity in Hollywood? Do you think Hollywood is doing enough to be inclusive?
MA: Uh, I think that there are obviously efforts being made, I think that there’s… we’ll have to see what happens over the next five years or so. There’s obviously a lot of projects coming out and being greenlit that have diverse casts in them, and that’s a huge step in the right direction, and hopefully it’s something that continues and that people even behind the camera of different ethnicities and races get opportunities to be producing and writing and, you know, working as directors of photography and makeup artists. You know, it’s all… there’s a lot of space for improvement, but I do believe there is motion and there is movement happening… there is something happening, there have been steps to improve diversity in Hollywood.
TG: What do you think about the way black men are portrayed in films? What does that look like today with the kind of roles you are offered?
MA: I don’t really know how to answer that. Like, in all honesty, I don’t really quite know how to answer that. I think that there are a lot of African-American men, or even British men playing African-American men that are — they have parts that I am totally inspired by, that I myself would love to play. Um, there’s parts that I have that I know that I feel really inspired by and moved by. Look, there’s always room for improvement for sure, but I think that — yeah I really, I honestly don’t know how to answer that question. I really don’t, because there’s a whole range of black people, if you look at what Idris has done, if you look at what David Oyelowo has done, there’s a lot of people out there doing good work, and they’re obviously playing black men. From Denzel Washington, Forest Whitaker, Don Cheadle — they always put their stamp on these characters and make them very real and most often wonderful, so yeah I don’t really have a good answer for that question.
TG: You’ve had so much diversity in your career, from ‘House of Cards’ to ‘Smart People’ and films like ‘Kicks’ and ‘The Free State of Jones.’ Do you have a next big goal that you are trying to pursue or a new medium to discover?
MA: A new medium? I don’t know if I can say a new medium, but I just want to continue to grow and to find parts that are challenging. Like some things are just purely for entertaining, and I think that has it’s place, I really do, and I just don’t want to be an actor where everything you do is just purely entertaining. I want my career to be diverse and broad and the types of roles that I do to have real breadth and all of them be unique. And I’m just looking to do more, to be more present, to move into that perhaps that leading man pocket where you just have more space and more runway to explore character. So that’s really what I’m looking to do and hoping to move into going forward.
We look forward to seeing the continuation of Mahershala Ali’s diverse career!
‘Kicks’ premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in April and will be released in the US on September 9.