If you haven’t seen him around just yet, there’s no worries because his star has only just begun to shine. 47-year-old Mahershala Ali, star of the acclaimed dramas Green Book and Moonlight, is fast becoming Hollywood’s hottest star, appearing in Apple TV+’s latest movie, Swan Song, and soon to be the lead in Marvel Studios’ Blade reboot film.
A sci-fi drama, Swan Song centers around a loving husband and father who is diagnosed with a terminal illness. Unwilling to put his family through grief, he makes the controversial decision to replace himself with an identical clone, both played by Ali.
As the original father and husband, Cameron is an uninspired and sick designer who’s struggling to keep his marriage together despite the love he holds for his wife Poppy (Naomie Harris). In a great act of love, he clones himself and watches from afar as his clone, Jack, takes his place. Although two sides of the same coin, Cameron and Jack are not in all ways alike. As if playing one complex character isn’t challenging enough, Ali takes on both.
“I was always very clear of the fact that Cameron was in power in that relationship between the two of them so the power dynamic made a big difference in how I behaved and in each scene,” said Ali in a roundtable interview with Geek Culture.
“I’m very aware that Cameron was dealing with very serious health issues, so I imagine not having the same type of energy, so you play things a little bit slower, a little bit more sluggish. You breathe a little bit differently. I felt like Jack had more energy and more hope and so all those bunch of little details add up to impacting how you perform.”
Set some time in the future, Swan Song is a human story that focuses on grief. Whilst many films often look at grief of those who have lost a loved one, Swan Song grieves the self, the ‘What could have been’ and Cameron’s dilemma as to whether or not cloning himself is the right choice. All these add up to the main contention between protagonists Cameron and Jack.
“The real issue for Cameron is that he can’t share this dilemma or this opportunity with his wife. So because he can’t talk to Poppy about it, he feels really conflicted. Part of what Jack witnesses is Cameron wrestling with, ‘Is this okay to do or not?’ simply because he can’t talk to anybody about it. No one can give him advice that would give him comfort to move forward,” explained Ali.
“He’s having a whole other larger set of issues that aren’t just about him. Jack gets to take over his life and so it’s kind of a no-win situation for Cameron because if he decides not to move forward with it, he just feels this is too uncomfortable for him. He also knows that Jack is going to die if Cameron decides against the plan, so he’s just feeling guilty and a lot of complicated feelings all around.”
Even though cloning is something that feels very far off into the future, Ali feels that the themes present in Swan Song are relatable to viewers. Strip the futuristic aesthetics of Swan Song and the unfathomable choice of whether to clone oneself, the issues Cameron struggles with, who Cameron is, are universal experiences that many folks might have experienced at some point of their lives regardless of their age, race and background.
“We all have experienced loss or grief in some ways or have struggled with being fulfilled in the way that Cameron is struggling with it. He’s in a job that he’s not totally inspired by, but he’s good at it. He’s in a relationship that has had some difficult moments but has been working through it and trying to keep this marriage together. He’s trying to be a good father,” said Ali.
“Like there’s so many components about this that make Cameron and Jack feel so human. And so I felt deeply connected to all of it, especially as a husband and father and someone who does feel the responsibility to be as present as possible in my child and in my partner’s life.”
Despite Swan Song looking at death and endings and the term ‘Swan Song’ itself marking the final performance or activity of a person’s career, this is just the start of a very successful acting career for Ali. The rising star is not a household name yet,despite acting in award-winning films like Green Book but the odds are definitely in his favour.
Ali is intentional about the roles he plays – all of them strategically selected to showcase his range of talents. The actor doesn’t want to be known for one genre and wants to be unique.
“I hope every character I hope I’m attracted to every character because it feels unique. I hope every character that I get to play no matter if it were to be a comedy or horror film, a drama, sci-fi drama, whatever, I’m hoping that I’m seeing something there that I can relate to that I can help bring to life.
''I’m also hoping that that character feels very different from anything else that I’ve ever done, so I try to be very conscious of creating characters that feel unique and distinct,” confessed Ali.
This is a thorough selection process on Ali’s part, and yes, this even includes his upcoming role as vampire slayer, Blade, which was previously turned into a successful movie trilogy starring Wesley Snipes as the comic book character. Whilst many actors would leap to the opportunity to play in a Marvel movie, Ali treats each opportunity with the same amount of consideration.
“I don’t want to repeat, I don’t want to copy, I don’t want to get good at playing a certain type of character. I just want to embrace every new challenge, meet every new challenge and succeed with said challenge.”
This article was first published in Geek Culture.