(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."
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.