Actor

As he prepares for the release of his new feature film THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES (with Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, and Eva Mendes) Mahershala Ali reflects on his time at SMC and the influences that he still feels. 


Name: Mahershala Ali.
I was born Mahershalalhashbaz Gilmore, and I went by Mahershala Gilmore while at SMC.  I changed my last name in 2000, and from 2001-2010 I was known professionally as Mahershalalhashbaz Ali. 

In the spirit of simplicity, I've presently settled on Mahershala Ali. I'd love for people to be able to say my name. Especially with the work I do. So, I'm ready to embrace this version of my name now. Easier for all!

Major: Mass Communication
Class of 1996.
Born in Oakland and raised in Hayward, Ca.

My fondest memory of the Communication Department would be the Oral Communication class, taught by the late Br. Ray Berta. You'd be hard pressed to find a student that didn't absolutely love him. He was a light, and passionate about his students. Brother Ray actually changed the trajectory of my life through his Oral communication course, which was truly just an acting class in disguise.

My fondest memory in my time at SMC was doing Spunk my senior year. Spunk is a George C. Wolfe play, which features a collection of Zora Neale Hurston writings. I felt a peace during that period of time that seemed to give my life a defining purpose. At 22 years old, I'd experienced some great highs and lows, and I think I really wanted to find an in . . . an opening, a beginning. I needed something that would help me understand myself better. Spunk as a process, as an experience, inspired me in a way that nothing had before.

This might sound strange, but I don't miss SMC. At all. I miss the professors. Victoria Trostle, Denise Witzig, Brenda Hillman, Rebecca Engle, Br. Ray Berta – they all had a profound effect on me and my well being. In a sense, I didn't know where I was, or what I was doing there . . .  I was a scared kid just trying to hold it all together. 

The first semester of my junior year, I was basically failing Victoria Trostle's documentary film class. My father had died a few days before school started. I had mentally checked out. I didn't really care, and didn't feel like caring. She called me in her office a few weeks before finals, and first, talked to me about what was going on in my life. We came to an understanding in that meeting. My father's death was an absolute tragedy, yes. But it wasn't going to be an excuse to fail. And then she walked me through the necessary steps to pass her class. I can't say I miss that, but I appreciate it to this day. 

I went to SMC on a basketball scholarship. But when I graduated, I no longer thought of myself as an athlete. Honestly, I kind of resented basketball by the end of my time there. I'd seen guys on the team get chewed up, spat out and I was personally threatened with being shipped off to the University of Denver. All in the name of wins and productivity. 

I experienced a very clear, palpable transformation while in college. I started writing and performing my poetry. I competed in poetry slams, and began to take my academics more seriously. I always took school seriously, but I think I did better in college because I started to understand how I learned, as well as the concept of "finishing" began to take root.  I can't say I retained much of the information from my classes, but I understand how I learn, and I understand beginning, middle and end, which in turn leads to finishing. I can't think of two tools more powerful or useful in the "real world."

"In a nutshell, I came to SMC wanting the fullest experience as a student athlete, and left wanting to experience life as an artist and well rounded person."

My road after college was somewhat interesting. First, I knew I was taking a year off, and second, I knew I had to go back to school. Rebecca Engle, who directed Spunk, and was leading the theater program at SMC, had somehow managed to set up an audition for me with the California Shakespeare Festival, located in Orinda. Long story short, I made the cut as an apprentice, which meant I was grouped with other young actors, studying and pursuing the craft. It was an intense four months. The training was closer to my experience as an athlete than a student. At the end of the day you'd be exhausted, and then you'd have a show to do that night. I think I had an advantage in some ways. I'd done that for years as a student athlete.

Most of my peers had been acting for quite some time. Socially, I was a bit out of my element. They knew all the cool avant garde films, plays, writers. I had only read Shakespeare in pieces – a few monologues, some sonnets, but not a play in its entirety. I actually auditioned for The California Shakespeare Festival with two poems I'd written. And suddenly I'm on the main stage, with professional actors, playing Montjoy in their production of Henry V.  It was a great role for me at the time – enough for them to offer me a spot as a professional the following season. (Which never happened, because I was going back to school . . .)

My Grandmother had always told me to have three options. As I had gotten closer to graduating from SMC, I noticed she would say that more often. Cal Shakes had sort of fallen into my lap. Up until that point, I was looking at doing one of three things, grad school for creative writing, law school, or perhaps . . . just maybe . . . a graduate program for this acting thing. 

Cal Shakes was done at the end of that summer. It was 1996. I had a good, go-to, hookup job while at SMC. I could work on the ferryboats in San Francisco for almost $20 as hour, as a deckhand. But I decided against that, because I was worried I'd get comfortable, and get stuck. So, I took a job making minimum wage at The Gavin Report, a record industry magazine targeted at music insiders. I recorded spins, meaning I tallied how much a given record was played on the radio in a week – the absolute definition of boredom.  But I got a lot of free music and even met the Notorious B.I.G. the week he died. 

Again, I played basketball on full scholarship while at Saint Mary's, so the extent of my bills were probably gas, and my trusty pager.  I had done a few interviews before graduating that May, the traditional corporate entry-level positions, which are terrific if that speaks to you. That's part of the college experience, actually. Your family wants to see you grab that diploma on Saturday and walk into a great job on Monday. But that terrified me. I didn't feel suited for that.

The day I had become serious about grad school was the day Victoria Trostle, a professor from the Communication Department, handed me a card. It basically said that I needed to go further. I needed to be around other students/ actors, acting teachers that would push me. And I needed to think about getting into one of the best programs in the country. I still have that card. 

In February of ‘97, I auditioned for NYU's graduate acting program. The audition was at ACT in San Francisco. Yale and NYU were the best graduate acting programs in the country at that time. Yale received my application a day late . . .  and wrote me a letter saying they wouldn't be seeing me as a result of my tardiness. 

I did two monologues that day, York, from Henry VI, and a piece I had written myself, a poem of sorts. I was asked to stay, and do the pieces again for the legendary Zelda Finchandler. I distinctly remember her looking at her watch while I was performing. Damn. 

It had to have been an act of God, because I was invited to NYU in March for the Top 50.  50 students, hoping to be one of the final 18. And I got in. It was three gut-wrenching, soul-searching, tortured years of self expression and exploration. But I wouldn't trade it for the world. I can confidently say that I would have never gotten there if it weren't for the guidance and love I received from the professors at Saint Mary's College. 

Getting through the program was incredibly difficult. Three years, six days a week, and you're there a minimum of 12 hours a day (except Saturday – Saturday's usually a bit lighter). Voice, speech, yoga, Alexander technique, scene study, the list goes on. Oh yeah, and whatever play you're rehearsing at the time. 

I started to become more comfortable with myself, and own my individuality in a deeper way. New York forces you to do that. If you embrace it, it can really change your life. 

By the end of my second year, I was feeling pretty burnt out. I was seriously contemplating dropping out. It was so damn hard. It's not something I can really explain. That type of work takes a toll on you. Three of my classmates dropped out. Two in the first year. The expectations you put on yourself in that type of an environment can either make you or break you. I became so aware of my weaknesses, limitations, my vulnerability that it made me more conscious of my soul. And if I was going to take on the stories of other people, real or fictional, they needed to be infused with spirit as well. My search for a greater understanding of who I was, in connection to God, is probably what got me through that period. 

I finished NYU in May of 2000. I was really fortunate to walk out with an agent, and two jobs in hand. I was the lead in an indie film called Making Revolution, and that followed with the lead role in a play called The Great White Hope. A few months later, I booked a pilot and did the first season of Crossing Jordan.

I've been working professionally for 11 years. I've been in blockbuster films like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Predators; I've done a number of TV shows, including The 4400, Crossing Jordan, and Law and Order SVU, and I'm looking forward to seeing recent projects come into fruition. This summer (2011) I did a film with Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, and Eva Mendes, called The Place Beyond The Pines. I think it's going to be an amazing film. I'm really proud to be a part of it.

I'm heading to Vancouver in a couple of days to do an episode of a new show called Alcatraz. It's an amazing, complicated, troubled character, which is both the good and the challenging aspect about the gig itself. As much as I've trained and worked, auditioned and rehearsed, at the end of the day, I don't know what the heck I'm doing. So please, wish me luck. 

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. I'm healthier on that path. 

And funny enough, now I'm a sports nut. Way more than in college. I don't care to play basketball anymore, but I love to watch it. If my TV is on, it's usually on ESPN.

And it brings me great joy seeing the success of the Gaels under coach Randy Bennett. I met coach Bennett in the spring of 1991, in my junior year of high school. He was an assistant coach at the University of San Diego, and the first to offer me a scholarship. He was genuinely disappointed when I turned down USD for SMC. He was the hardest call to make upon coming to that decision. I loved that guy! I'm actually glad he wasn't at Saint Mary's when I was there, because I probably would have had a great experience as a player and never discovered acting. 

It's difficult to describe what kind of person I am, because I'm conscious of how much I've changed over the years. SMC gave me structure for the areas where I've struggled with discipline, and freedom where I've struggled with rigidity. And to this day, I have to tell myself that I'm a student. Things go better for me with that approach. When I remind myself that I know very little, I learn so much more. 

The best advice I could give to any student would simply be to listen. Listen for your life signs. And respond accordingly. Intuition is a muscle, and it's developed in the manner of call and response. 

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