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NEW! Mahershala Ali  ('Moonlight') NEW! Mahershala Ali ('Moonlight')

'The Moonlight Becomes Him'

In the brand new film, 'Moonlight,' Mahershala Ali plays an unlikely father figure to a quiet young African-American boy named Chiron. At school, Chiron is bullied. At home, he is neglected by a mother who is addicted to crack. Ali's character, Juan, is a drug dealer who takes Chiron under his wing in an attempt to provide him with some stability.

Ali, whose performance earned him an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor, tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross that he knew men like Juan growing up. "Those were the guys who had access and had money, and some felt responsible to create opportunity for other people," he says. "When I read Moonlight I was blown away by seeing characters from my own life and people that I recognized on the page."

In January, Ali won the Screen Actors Guild award for Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Supporting Role. In a moving acceptance speech, he said, "What I've learned from working on Moonlight is: We see what happens when you persecute people they fold into themselves."

Though he was never treated the way Chiron was, Ali says he knows what it is to be on the outside. "There were periods of time where I didn't feel understood," he says. "There were very few people around me that I felt like they really got me."

On his experience growing up, Mahershala is very open, very honest. "We were moving around a lot, so I couldn't really hold on to a certain set of friends. That was a little bit difficult, and also my father lived in New York. So I was going out there in the summers and meeting really interesting people. And so I would go to the big city and watch these people performing on stage and doing television and films and then I would go back to Hayward [Calif.] and it just suddenly felt that much smaller. I had this hyper-awareness of how much larger the world was."

On his conversion to Islam, Mahershala is equally as open. "I converted Dec. 31, 1999. It was a Friday. That was my second time going to the mosque. The woman who is my wife now was basically raised Muslim and she was at that point where she was deciding or trying to come to terms with her own relationship with Islam and how to embrace that for herself."

"I went to a mosque in Philadelphia with her and I just had such a strong reaction to the prayer. I felt really grounded at that time, and so to be in this prayer and the imam is doing the prayer in Arabic, and I don't understand a word of Arabic, but I just remember these tears just coming down my face, and it just really connecting to my spirit in a way that felt like I needed to pay attention to that."

Mahershala then talked to us about playing Division I basketball in college and transitioning to acting thereafter. "I wanted to get that Division I scholarship and play ball and go to school for free, and I was always about getting to that next step. I was always ahead of myself in some way, shape or form, and trying to envision how to get further along and closer to fulfilling that dream of being free and having creative agency, so to speak."

So getting to St. Mary's College was a big deal for me, because that essentially led to me getting to go to NYU. In my time at St. Mary's College I began drifting out of sports, because it was something that began to feel really finite. I could see that I didn't have the passion to sustain a career in sports."

"At a certain point basketball became the thing I was doing most, but it was really in my periphery. It was really a focus on how to, in some ways, keep moving in this direction towards something that allowed me to express myself in a way that sports didn't."

Finally, Mahershala talks about the roles he played in grad school. "When I was in grad school I sort of got lulled into basically forgetting I was black meaning that everyone you play at a conservatory, 95 percent of the characters are non-black. So, if anything, you're thinking about: How do I transcend this, how do I transform and be believable as Krogstad in A Doll's House or Sir Peter Teazle in The School for Scandal, you know?"

"Once you graduate is when you start to find yourself looking at the information in the audition breakdown and it says, "tall, black" or "African-American, built such-and-such" and you start seeing these character descriptions and seeing that, "Oh, you're only going in for the ones that are described as your look." So if anything, in my mind, I never wanted to accept that and so I have always fought against that."

'Moonlight' Official Trailer