10 Things You Should Know About Mahershala Ali

5 minute read

Mahershala Ali has graced our screens for years, appearing in everything from House of Cards to The Hunger Games. But with recent star-making turns both on the silver screen (Moonlight, Hidden Figures) and on television (Marvel’s Luke Cage), the 43-year-old Ali suddenly feels like he’s everywhere—and with a supporting actor Oscar win and a SAG award for Moonlight under his belt this award season, he’s being recognized for his craft too.

A recent spate of late-night appearances and interviews suggest that the actor should also be garnering accolades for his downright charming disposition and ace sense of humor. Here’s a list of nine reasons you should be watching out for Ali:

He’s not afraid to stand up for what he believes in: Ali’s proud of his faith. One of the most poignant examples of this came during his powerful Screen Actors Guild award acceptance speech for Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Supporting Role.

Ali spoke about the need for tolerance in his emotional speech delivered soon after President Donald Trump issued an executive order halting travel from seven Muslim-majority nations.

His name isn’t actually Mahershala: In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Ali revealed that his birth name is actually Mahershalalhashbaz Gilmore. His first name comes from the Bible and his mother decided that it would be his name after she had a dream about it. Ali changed his last name from Gilbert to Ali after converting to Islam.

Contrary to popular belief, he wasn’t always the dreamboat he is now: In an interview with W Magazine, Ali revealed that his first girlfriend dumped him within 10 minutes of them “going together,” after he had enthusiastically told all of his peers that they were going out. Granted, Ali was in first grade, but the real kicker is that she broke up with him for talking too much.

He could have been your next Game of Thrones fave: During an appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, Ali reveaked that he auditioned to be on the third season of Game of Thrones in the role of a merchant in Westeros.

In preparation for the audition, Ali had completely memorized his lines and even practiced specific “power moves” for the character with a chair. When Ali got to the interview, however, there were no chairs at the audition. “That was one of the worst auditions of my life,” Ali recalled on the show with a laugh.

He’s proud of his hometown: Ali was born in Oakland, Calif., and grew up in Hayward, a town about 5 miles from Oakland, which means that even though he now lives in Venice, Calif., he’s still North California for life. Ali even attended undergrad in the Bay Area, St. Mary’s College in Moraga, a suburb of San Francisco.

He’s a former Division 1 basketball player: While Ali’s show-stealing acting chops and charming persona are reason enough to sit up and pay attention, the actor is a man of many talents, one of which includes his skills as a baller. The 6’3″ Ali went to college on a basketball scholarship at St. Mary’s in the ’90s. In an interview with GQ, Ali revealed that while the NBA could have been a possibility, he eventually chose to attend grad school at NYU for acting.

He’s a major hip-hop head: Take a quick scroll through Ali’s Instagram feed and you’ll see that many of his posts are about his favorite rappers, ranging from Biggie Smalls to J Dilla. His greatest homage to a hip-hop artist, however? He named his cat after Queens legend Nas, which might give you a good idea of where his loyalties lie in the Nas/Jay Z rivalry. Cue up “Ether” now.

He’s a cat person: While Ali is a big fan of his cats Nas and Noor, he told GQ that it’s also a practical thing—he’s allergic to dogs and as a Muslim, he can’t have dogs in the house.

He’s married to musician and artist Amatus: According to Essence, Ali and his wife Amatus-Sami Karim-Ali met while they were both studying at NYU and have known each other for nearly two decades. In an interview with ELLE, Ali revealed that he looks to his wife to give him perspective. “She and I have known each other for a really long time—we just got married a year ago—but we’ve known each other for 17 years,” he said. “So, at this point, she’s seen a big shift in things, but at the same time, she’ll ground me real quick if I start feeling myself a little too much. She’s very real, like, seriously.”

He just won his first Oscar, days after becoming a father: Ali and wife Amatus welcomed daughter Bari Najma Ali on February 22, 2017. In his acceptance speech for his Best Supporting Actor win for Moonlight, Ali thanked his wife for her support during the process, especially since she was pregnant during awards season and gave a shoutout to his beloved new daughter, Bari. “Lastly, I just want to thank my wife, who was in her third trimester during awards season, who just had our daughter four days ago,” he said in his Oscars acceptance speech. “I just want to thank her for being such a soldier through this process, and really carrying me through it all. So thank you, I really appreciate it. Peace and blessings.”

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Write to Cady Lang at cady.lang@timemagazine.com