Mahershala Ali says experience with grief, loss of father impacted ‘Swan Song’ role: ‘I lost my father young’

EXCLUSIVE: "I was 20, my father was only 38 years old. I think that definitely came up for me in my initial read," Ali says about the sci-fi drama

Mahershala Ali revealed that his role as Cameron, a loving husband and father diagnosed with a terminal illness, in Apple TV+’s Swan Song was impacted by his own personal experience with grief.

The Oscar winner, 47, told theGrio exclusively that he thought about his feelings surrounding his father’s death when he read the script for the sci-fi drama, which follows Cameron as he is “presented with a controversial alternative solution to replace himself with a carbon copy clone,” according to the synopsis.

“I lost my father young. I was 20, my father was only 38 years old,” Ali shared. “I think that definitely came up for me in my initial read, but one of the beautiful things about acting—one of the things I love most is that it’s never about you personally. But you naturally connect to things because of your own personal experience, just like when you watch something. Like there’s people who are gonna watch this film and think of their own parents, their own father or mother, or even themselves, if they’re dealing with some sort of similar situation.”

(Credit: Apple TV+ Publicity)

Ali’s father, Phillip Gilmore, died in 1994. The actor explained that once he “got to step into Cameron’s shoes,” he was able to let go of his own thoughts and feelings about his father’s unexpected passing and focus on the richness of the character.

“What takes over very quickly is becoming an advocate for that character,” Ali said. “It’s easier to become the character when you’re just really working to serve his interests, and serving him in a way that will allow people’s empathy to open up to go on that journey with you. I think with all things you start with yourself, but then quickly you move out of it being about you, or myself and my own emotional baggage. I don’t mean that in a negative way, but just my own issues, my own emotional baggage and experiences, to really being an advocate for this character and bringing the story to life in the most truthful way.”

Ali takes on the role of Cameron and his clone, Jack, is the 2021 film, which also stars Naomie Harris as Cameron’s wife, Poppy, and Glenn Close as Dr. Scott, the scientist who creates Cameron’s clone. While many actors might shy away from the complexity of playing two nuanced characters, Ali says he was more than ready for the challenge.

(Credit: Apple TV+ Publicity)

“I think I tried to start with sort of the mindset, and being very clear on what Cameron’s intentions and desires were and needs were,” the Oakland native said. “And really understanding that they were very different from what Jack wanted and needed, you know. So there was that, which was a starting point. But then it was really subtle things, like how does Cameron breathe different dealing with the illness? I had to kind of slow up my movements a little bit for Cameron just because of where he was at in his illness.”

“But literally, same day and in the same moment, I’m switching over and playing Jack. It’s not like I could have a different haircut or something like that. The differences had to be really subtle, really starting with what they wanted…and being very aware of who was in power, out of the two of them, in the scenes all the time. Cameron is the one in power and Jack is the one who was looking for Cameron’s permission. So in comparison, Jack had to sort of always be the humble one, for the most part, compared to Cameron, who was the one who got to play God, so to speak, and decide if Jack is going to get to live or not. So all those things became a lot of fuel for guiding how I approached it in each moment.”

Swan Song is available to watch now in theaters and on Apple TV+.

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