Born in Oakland, Calif., and raised in the neighboring city of Hayward, Ali wasn’t interested in acting until his senior year of college.
Participating in the Shakespeare Festival after graduation, Ali then attended New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and has been acting full-time for 13 years. Garnering supporting roles in blockbusters like Predators and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Ali also appeared in USA’s sci-fi series The 4400, HBO’s Treme and most recently the independent movie The Place Beyond the Pines.
The Place Beyond the Pines depicts Luke, a motorcycle-stunt rider played by Ryan Gosling, who realizes he has a son after a one-night stand with Romina, played by Eva Mendes. When he tries to care for his child, he’s too late. Romina is already living with Kofi, played by Ali, who is stable and the antithesis of Luke. Kofi is the surrogate father to the fleeting couple’s blond, blue-eyed son, Jason Cancan. The cultural mix is never outwardly acknowledged in the film, except with one line from a bully in the school locker room.
“The film doesn’t spend a lot of time talking about Jason’s black father, Kofi, or the fact that his last name is Cancan,” he says. “I think — and I’m sure a lot of people won’t agree with me — that this reflects where we are in America or the direction we’re going, where race isn’t something people want to discuss. In the film, when you see Kofi holding this little white, blond-haired baby with blue eyes during a christening scene, it shows a stable, religious family.”
Like Don Cheadle and Will Smith, Ali has the ability to play characters across color lines, which can only help him. And thanks to the success of House of Cards, which begins filming its second season soon, Ali’s name is hot among casting agents. It seems up to the California native where the limelight will lead him.
“I have been up for some stuff that I think, prior to House of Cards, I wouldn’t have. I actually booked something terrific, but it didn’t work out with my schedule for the second season,” he says. “The playing field is changing, and I think it’ll take some more time to manifest, but I have seen the difference. It’s exciting because you always want to feel like you’re growing.”
Hillary Crosley is the New York bureau chief at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.