Is it gravitas? Is it intelligence? Craft? Soldier. Crack dealer. Debonair Harlem gangster. Silver-tongued lobbyist. Dystopian underground-dweller. And hey—Uncle Aaron! “Subtlety” may be a good word for trying to capture that certain something present in all of Mahershala Ali’s performances, but “compression” may be an even better one.
Some performers build a career on “star power”—some fundamental charisma that makes them instantly identifiable. It’s different from being a great actor, though some people certainly manage to be both. (Denzel Washington comes to mind.) Stars have a thing, and when casting agents want that thing, they know who they want—the guy with the thing.
Then there are the true character actors, the people you might recognize but can’t put your finger on from where—the actors who dissolve so completely into each role that you can’t remember where else you’ve seen them. They don’t so much have a thing, as they have whatever you need. It’s a trait that probably works against most of these folks in contract negotiations, but they’re very often the difference between good movies and television, and great.
Mahershala Ali tends to field descriptors like “under the radar” even after he’s won an Oscar (for Moonlight). You’ll hear “subtle” a lot, too. These terms are code for “this guy is getting cast in a wide variety of roles and he’s doing such a good job with all of them that he cannot be identified by a schtick.” I don’t know how many episodes of Luke Cage I had seen before I realized Cottonmouth Stokes was the same guy who played the badass lobbyist in House of Cards and the mathematician’s husband in Hidden Figures. I had paid attention to those roles, both of them, but I lost track of it being the same guy. That is what the real deal looks like. The actor who totally lights up even a small role and you feel like you know him from somewhere but you can’t put your finger on it. Those people are under the radar precisely because they are on the top-tier of their craft; they disappear into the character. In Ali’s case, he’s had a combination of good fortune and good judgment, presumably, because he has tended to get a very broad spectrum of roles. He’s got an athlete’s body but you don’t look at him and say “action hero” any more than you’d say “supporting love interest” or “comic relief.” (Ali doesn’t tend to play comedic roles, but I bet he could.) Some actors are intensely physical—I wouldn’t call Ali that. He’s pretty cerebral, often at his best playing characters with a certain intense, quiet intelligence—whether that’s being put to noble or less-than-noble uses—and people with a tense, slightly defensive canniness, like they’re used to being underestimated or shot down. This tension can manifest as extreme world-weariness or secret depths. His current turn in True Detective is a vivid example of the former—he plays the same character at roughly 25, 35 and 60, and all three of those folks could be 200 years old. For the latter, look to his supporting roles in Moonlight and Hidden Figures, each completely different yet conveying a strong sense of unmined backstory.
Ali’s characters often seem to be exerting considerable energy to keep their thoughts to themselves. Perhaps that’s the compression. His characters all seem to possess an elaborately protected core—something that lies deeper, that’s hidden behind a ton of fortification and that, nonetheless, is making a good faith effort to escape.
Ali’s characters all project a fundamental integrity of persona, so much so that I suspect his biggest challenge might realistically playing a shallow or easily duped character. After all, judging from his characters, he’s so fundamentally self-contained it’s hard to imagine him suffering fools or falling for bullshit. Then again, I suspect he’d bring to any such role exactly what the audience needed.