If you don’t watch House of Cards, you may not recognize Mahershala Ali—yet—but the Oakland-born, Brooklyn-based actor is poised for a huge breakout in the The Hunger Games: Mockingjay—Part 1. Ali, who plays Commander Boggs, has been woodshedding for more than a decade, heretofore appearing most notably in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Place Beyond the Pines, and in House of Cards, as lobbyist and former press secretary Remy Danton. We met Ali at the Park Hyatt in Midtown, where the Hunger Games cast were staying while in New York, to talk about returning to Brooklyn, becoming Tributes-famous, and where to find the best chocolate chip cookie in the world.
There are dozens of Hunger Games fans outside right now; you could barely walk without being stopped for autographs and photos. It doesn’t get much bigger than this franchise.
It’s been surreal, but a really wonderful experience. I’ve never done anything quite this size. I did Benjamin Button, which was a blockbuster, but had a very different type of audience. The best part has been working with so many people I’m such a fan of, as an actor. I saw Jeffrey Wright [who plays Beetee Latier in the film] do Angels in America in 1991, and that was the first straight play I saw. So to now be in a film with him and Julianne [Moore] and Jennifer [Lawrence] has been remarkable.
You moved here to go to NYU’s MFA drama program.
Originally, yes. My father was in Washington Heights for a good part of my life, until I was about 20. Then I moved here on my own in 1997. I was in South Slope, then Prospect Heights before it changed a lot. I left in 2000 and came back again last year. I have been in Crown Heights since then.
What do you like best about living in Crown Heights?
There’s just this activity going on, this energy that you can take for granted. I’ve been on the west coast a long time—born in Oakland, spent quite a bit of time in Los Angeles—but I think what Brooklyn in particular offers that LA doesn’t is this energy and activity and community out on the street. You can get kinda lost in that, in a positive way. I really appreciate that about Brooklyn. When I walk around with my wife, she’s always saying hello to people, because Brooklyn neighborhoods are like small towns.
What are your favorite spots in Crown Heights?
I’m not a vegan, but there’s a spot on Sterling and Washington—The Islands—that has a vegan curry chicken dish that’s out of control. Also my wife and I love this small sandwich spot, Lula Bagel, that we just discovered. And I go and get a chocolate chip cookie every single day from BCakeNY. Seriously, the best chocolate chip cookie on the planet, with a little bit of sea salt.
How did you know you wanted to be an actor?
I didn’t know. I’ve always been a dreamer, though. I would sit around and daydream about things I wanted to do, but I couldn’t get specific. It was a matter of being guided in a direction where I got to express myself through some creative vessel and not be distracted by some other thing I enjoyed or could do decently. Acting emerged as the best source for self-expression and creativity. I did this play my senior year, and I didn’t know what I was gonna do coming out of undergrad. I did it on a whim and had an amazing time, but I didn’t necessarily feel that it would lead to anything. But Victoria Trussel, a communications teacher of mine, wrote me a card—I still have it by my bed. She said “You need to go to a place where you can be around the best teachers and actors, because I feel like you’re an actor. When I saw you I thought, born to it.” It’s so important to have these people who recognize something you may not be able to see in yourself.