Learn the Name Mahershala Ali

The acting vet's been around for more than a decade, but House of Cards might make him a household name.

Mahershala Ali (Jemal Countess/Getty Images)
Mahershala Ali (Jemal Countess/Getty Images)

(The Root) — When White House Senior Adviser Valerie Jarrett spoofs your television show at the prestigious White House Correspondents’ Dinner, you know you’ve made it. For Mahershala Ali, who plays the wily Remy Danton on the Netflix series House of Cards, it’s been a long road.

“I am beginning to reap the benefits of a lot of hard work,” Ali told The Root in a baritone voice over the phone from Los Angeles. “I’ve been plugging away for a long time.”

In February, Netflix, the digital-movie rental company, made a bold move by producing and premiering the $100 million original series House of Cards. Produced by David Fincher, director of The Social Network, it stars Kevin Spacey as ruthless Majority Whip Francis Underwood. Ali’s Danton is Underwood’s former employee-turned-lobbyist for an energy company. The 13-episode debut immediately created a cult fan base around Washington, D.C., and among Netflix customers. Because House of Cards is on-demand online, fans don’t have to wait weeks between storylines; if a viewer is game, the 13-hour season can be devoured in one weekend.

“After House of Cards was released, people kept coming up to me on the street raving about the show, saying, ‘I’m hooked,’ and that they’re binge-watching,” Ali said. “That’s rare in L.A. People see actors all the time here, so there’s an apprehension to approach us. I personally don’t get approached a lot, but the attention has shown me how important and well-received this show is.”

In his scenes as Danton, Ali’s demeanor is strong, silent and vaguely threatening, especially when he not so subtly propositions Underwood’s wife, Claire, played by Robin Wright. And while it’s sometimes hard to predict a hit in Hollywood, the 6-foot-1 actor said he felt good about House of Cards from the first cast meeting in a Baltimore hotel.

“With David Fincher’s backing and the money Netflix was putting behind it, I knew they were committed to a quality production. We all talked for an hour about backstory. That set the tone for me, and how I wanted to approach working with Remy,” he said. “It was really exciting and helped me get a sense of what I was a part of and their vision.”

The lines on the page didn’t call for Danton to be a black man, but as an actor, he said, you have to be adept at traversing “different worlds.”

“It might be a lot of work but you have to learn how to … fit in seamlessly and do well, especially as an actor,” he said carefully. “As a student in undergrad at Saint Mary’s College [in California], the population was maybe two or three percent black. You have to be comfortable in your skin wherever you are, and that translates through your work when you’re the minority.”