Mahershala Ali is the fan and critical favorite to win best supporting actor for Moonlight at the 2017 Academy Awards on Sunday, February 26. Though he previously starred in acclaimed roles in the Hunger Games films and Netflix’s House of Cards, it wasn’t until Moonlight that the 43-year-old actor became one of Hollywood’s most-talked-about stars.
Here are five things to know about Ali.
1. Mahershala Is a Nickname
Ali was born Mahershalalhashbaz Gilmore in February 1974. “It’s from the Bible, Isaiah, chapter 8, verses 1 and 3,” Ali explained of his first name to IndieWire in October 2016. “People say, ‘What’s the short version of your name?’ and I say, ‘Mahershala is the short version of my name; that’s my nickname.’ So I’ve embraced that as my acting name as well.”
2. He’s Married and (Almost) a Father
Sorry, ladies! Ali met his future wife, singer Amatus Sami-Karim, while attending New York University. The couple married in 2013 and announced in December 2016 that they’re expecting their first child together. The baby is due within days of the Oscars ceremony. “You couldn’t write it this way,” he joked to Entertainment Tonight earlier this month.
3. He’s Been Acting Since College
Ali discovered his love for acting as a student at Saint Mary’s College of California, where he played on the school’s basketball team. As a senior in college, he appeared in a production of George C. Wolfe’s Spunk and later spent a summer as an apprentice with the California Shakespeare Festival. After graduating from NYU’s graduate acting program in 2000, he scored the lead role in the 2003 independent film Making Revolution.
4. He Quickly Became a Pro On Screen
Ali landed his first major role (opposite Brad Pitt) in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button in 2008, opening the door for his breakout role as Remy Danton in House of Cards. He earned an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series in 2016, the same year he left the series after four seasons. That fall, he began starring in another Netflix show, Luke Cage, as nightclub owner Cottonmouth Stokes. In the final two films in the Hunger Games franchise, he played District 13 soldier Boggs. And, eventually, Ali joined the cast of Moonlight as drug dealer Juan — a caring and attentive father figure to the film’s protagonist, Chiron, who was played at different ages by Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes — earning critical acclaim.
5. He Loves Sports
Speaking on the “Death, Sex Money” podcast in May 2016, Ali revealed that he grew up playing sports. “As early as 4 years old, I was competing very seriously,” he told listeners. “First, I started in BMX racing and later got into basketball and all this stuff. … I’m a goal-oriented person. It became this goal to go to school for free because otherwise I wasn’t going. So, I got a basketball scholarship and that was great, and my education was paid for.”
The 89th Academy Awards air on ABC Sunday, February 26, at 8:30 p.m. ET.
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