Who Is Mahershala Ali?

Mahershala Ali attended college on a basketball scholarship before discovering a love for acting. He became a series regular on Crossing Jordan in 2001, and by the end of the decade he had also starred in the science-fiction drama The 4400 and appeared in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. After landing the breakout role of Remy Danton on House of Cards in 2013, Ali enjoyed a sinister turn in the series Luke Cage in 2016. That year he also delivered a strong supporting performance in Moonlight, making Ali the first Muslim actor to claim an Academy Award, and he followed with another Oscar win for Green Book (2018).

Early Years

Mahershala Ali was born Mahershalalhashbaz Gilmore on February 16, 1974, in Oakland, California. Raised in nearby Hayward, he developed into a talented athlete, particularly in basketball. He was also exposed to theater and film through summertime visits to his father, who was working out of New York City as an actor.

Ali attended Saint Mary’s College of California on a basketball scholarship, but grew disenchanted with the demands of playing on the team. He began writing poetry and competing in poetry slams, through which he discovered the thrill of performing. During his senior year, he appeared in a production of George C. Wolfe’s Spunk.

After earning his degree in mass communication, Ali spent the summer of 1996 as an apprentice with the California Shakespeare Festival. He went on to a job with The Gavin Report, a record industry publication, but decided to resume acting, and in 1997 he successfully auditioned for New York University’s graduate acting program.

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Professional Rise

As he neared completion of NYU’s grad program in 2000, Ali nabbed the lead in the independent film Making Revolution (released in 2003) and the play The Great White Hope. Beginning in September 2001, he held down the role of Dr. Trey Sanders for the first season of the primetime series Crossing Jordan.

Sustaining that initial success proved a challenge, as Ali managed lone appearances in shows like NYPD Blue and CSI. He was cast as a series regular for Threat Matrix, which lasted less than a season, but soon found another project that gained more traction with The 4400, a science fiction drama that aired from 2004-07.

In 2008, Ali surfaced in his first major film, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. This opened the door for additional big screen opportunities, and including appearances in Crossing Over (2009), Predators (2010) and The Place Beyond the Pines (2012). Ali also delivered an acclaimed performance in the TV movie The Wronged Man (2010), and made recurring appearances on the programs Treme and Alphas.

‘House of Cards’ and Other Major Roles

In 2013, Mahershala Ali landed the breakout role of Remy Danton on House of Cards. The political drama marked Netflix’s successful entry into original programming, and Ali more than held his own alongside such big-name actors as Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright. In 2014 he joined Jennifer Lawrence for The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1, and he returned the following year for the finale of the wildly successful movie franchise.

The stars aligned for Ali in 2016, starting with his supporting role in the historical drama Free State of Jones. He earned an Emmy nomination that summer for House of Cards, and that fall he began starring in another Netflix program, Luke Cage, as the villainous nightclub owner Cottonmouth Stokes.

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In early 2017, Ali appeared in a prominent supporting role in the box-office success Hidden Figures, about female African American mathematicians in the formative years of NASA. He later opened 2019 with a return to the small screen in Season 3 True Detective.

Oscar Wins for ‘Moonlight’ and ‘Green Book’

After more than a decade in the industry, it was Ali’s contribution to the independent film Moonlight (2016) that officially made him a movie star. For his touching performance as Juan, a drug dealer who becomes a father figure to a conflicted boy in a rough Miami neighborhood, Ali earned a Golden Globe nomination and won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Ali made history as the first Muslim actor to win an Oscar.

In 2018, he starred as forgotten pianist Don Shirley in Green Book, with Viggo Mortensen alongside as chauffeur and bodyguard Tony Lip, a role that netted Ali his second Oscar win.

Personal Life

Although raised with strong Christian influences – his mother, aunt and grandmother all were ordained ministers – Ali converted to Islam while attending NYU. He also met his future wife, Amatus Sami-Karim, during that period. They married in 2013.

Possessing a love for music, Ali has said he makes a mixtape for every major role he takes on to give that character a soundtrack. His cat, Nas, is named after the top-selling hip hop artist.


  • Birth Year: 1974
  • Birth date: February 16, 1974
  • Birth State: California
  • Birth City: Oakland
  • Birth Country: United States
  • Gender: Male
  • Best Known For: American actor Mahershala Ali earned attention for roles in the TV series ‘House of Cards’ and ‘Luke Cage,’ en route to Oscar wins for his performances in ‘Moonlight’ and ‘Green Book.’
  • Astrological Sign: Aquarius
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  • Article Title: Mahershala Ali Biography
  • Author: Biography.com Editors
  • Website Name: The Biography.com website
  • Url: https://www.biography.com/actors/mahershala-ali
  • Access Date:
  • Publisher: A&E; Television Networks
  • Last Updated: February 13, 2020
  • Original Published Date: January 23, 2017


  • I think this is a good time to be an African American in this industry. I think that the opportunities are shifting and changing because people have spoken out.
  • You know, sometimes sexy is just when you’re in your power. Sexy isn’t always about sex. I think it’s about people being in the fullness of themselves.
  • My life is first and foremost about balance. I deal with trying to balance the water of spirituality with the vessel of religion. I find, that if I begin there, if I exist in that space, things fall into place in an organic manner.