Two-time Oscar winner Mahershala Ali celebrated a major milestone on Friday night with the AFI Fest debut of “Swan Song,” which marks his first film project in a leading role and first narrative feature as a producer.
“It was an emotional day, for me, I gotta say,” Ali told Variety on the red carpet outside the TCL Chinese Theatre. “I went on a nice long walk trying to calm myself a bit, and really take in the moment.”
“It’s been a long time coming, but, in some ways, it went by very quickly. In a larger sense, I think I feel prepared for the moment as best I can,” he added. “I could have done it a year or two earlier, but with a lesser film probably, so to get to do it with this film that just feels so rich and [have] the characters and the supporting cast [be] phenomenal, I’m just really grateful.”
Ali does double duty in the near-futuristic family drama — playing both a terminally ill man named Cameron Turner and his clone, crafted through experimental technology to take his place and spare his family the grief of losing him. It’s an existential (and ethical) conundrum, but with his pregnant wife Poppy (Ali’s “Moonlight” co-star Oscar nominee Naomie Harris) and son Hugo (Dax Rey) to consider, the real question is, what choice can Cameron’s family survive?
The story comes from the mind of writer-director Benjamin Cleary, who tinkered with the project for a decade before Ali came on board. Explaining why he decided to take on the challenging role with the added pressure of filming amid the pandemic, Ali said, “It was a perfect film to do during this time.”
“It’s a great place for me to put my energies; it’s the healthiest place that I’ve found thus far creatively,” Ali explained. “[Filming] during COVID, it was just a gift to finally get to go back to work. I think everybody felt that. And it was I’ve been on some pretty great sets, but it was the best that I’ve ever been on.”
As part of the 2021 AFI Fest slate, the red carpet event was held in the courtyard of the Chinese Theatre, under the watchful eye of a massive billboard for “Eternals,” in which Ali technically made his MCU debut as Blade earlier this month.
So how did Ali land on the voice, since fans would get to hear his take on the iconic character before ever seeing his face? The actor smiled at the question and quipped — “Give me two years and we’ll have that conversation, I promise.” — before hurrying to the next interview.
(To note: fellow MCU star Awkwafina, from “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” was also on hand to promote her supporting role in “Swan Song,” which also features Glenn Close and Adam Beach)
Cleary, an Oscar winner himself for the live action short film “Stutterer” also waxed poetic about seeing his directorial debut make its world premiere at a venue as storied as the Chinese Theatre.
“It’s a complete honor, and for a first-time filmmaker, I couldn’t ask for more,” Cleary shared. “It’s been a long process; I had this idea ten years ago and I’ve been writing this for five years. I had to shine a light on a lot of deeply personal things to get into the shoes of the character. It feels a little bit like a beautiful dream.”
He also gushed about working with Ali, calling the experience “the best collaboration he’s ever had.”
“I’m so proud and honored that he chose to make this movie with me as his first lead role,” Cleary said. “I remember the night before we met — I was obviously nervous, but incredibly excited — but I read the script with him in mind and his beautiful voice and soul in mind, and this script that I’ve been so close to, had done so many drafts of and had lost all objectivity about, I was back crying. It was alive again.”
The two-hour first meeting that followed further solidified the fact that Ali was the right person for the complex role. “[I became] even more and more energized as the conversation went on. I knew I was sitting across from such a special person, a great mind and someone who just completely got the story,” Cleary added. “It was an incredible journey, and he’s just a wonderful person, as well as a phenomenal filmmaker.”
Ali’s co-stars Nyasha Hatendi (who plays his onscreen brother-in-law, Andre) and Rey also shared a word about their fearless leader.
“Mahershala taught me two things that I am going to use the rest of my life,” the youngster shared. “He told me that being sensitive is a good thing sometimes and [how to] be still on set; it just lets him do his thing.”
Hatendi was a little more broad in his characterization of working with Ali, discussing what it means to see another Black man step into that number one spot after decades of work.
“I deeply admire and respect everything he’s done, particularly because he’s had to go through so much,” Hatendi began. “I think any young actor of color going through, there’s things that you have to do — that age old saying, ‘You have to work twice as hard to get half the distance.’ — and he’s done it with so much grace. His choices have been so well-meaning and full of love.”
Speaking to his own experience of working opposite Ali, Hatendi said that it felt like playing jazz, with the Oscar-winning actor finding a way to exude “generosity, goodness and kindness, and [his] ego is full in back,” despite the pressure of performing dual roles and producing the project.
“I know there was a lot of pressure [on him]. It’s a lot of work,” Hatendi added, saying that he’s hopeful Ali’s achievement will “usher in a whole new era of actors who aren’t afraid of stepping up and doing this kind of work, and realizing that they will be accepted and they are afforded the opportunity to do something like this [movie].”
“Swan Song” debuts in theaters and streaming on Apple TV plus on Fri., Dec. 17.