Mahershalalhashbaz Ali Interview On 'Benjamin Button,' Brad Pitt, David Fincher, His Wild Name
Mahershalalhashbaz Ali plays a father figure to Benjamin in the most buzzed about film of the year, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Starring alongside Brad Pitt, in the titular role, and director by David Fincher, Ali had a strong feeling that this film was going to be a hit. “This was my first film having done a lot of TV,” Ali told Uinterview in an exclusive interview. “I knew it was special from the day I read it.”
Born in Oakland, Calif., as Mahershalalhashbaz Gilmore, Ali was originally named after one of Isaiah’s son in the Bible. He appeared in several films including Umi’s Heart in 2008 and Making Revolution in 2003.
Now, Ali is reveling in working opposite Pitt — or at least someone who looks a lot like him in Benjamin Button. “The scenes that I had worked on with Benjamin were really played by little people who were later changed to look like Brad Pitt,” he told Uinterview. “They put Brad’s face onto about 12 little people.”
It’s funny. I actually did. This was my first film having done a lot of TV. I knew it was special from the day I read it. Scripts are usually around 100–120 pages tops. And the first version of the script was 260 pages. I don’t think it’s much shorter now. The first day I got it I didn’t start reading it until 11pm and didn’t finish it until 2:30am. I actually remember crying at the end. The script felt special. The reading felt special. The work was special. The people who’ve seen it are really moved by the film. I don’t believe that there’s a story that’s been told in this way before that’s what also makes it a remarkable piece.
I play gentleman by the name of Tizzy, he’s the cook at the hospital. He finds Benjamin. He and the character he’s dating, Queeny, take Benjamin in. He's kind of a father figure for him. You see him giving the fatherly lessons throughout the years. Helping to raise him in a certain way.
The first day working on the film I got to do a scene with Taraji Henson [who plays Queeny]. I just remember working outside. It was cold. It was freezing outside, but I was having the time of my life. It was just this feeling that I was a part of something that was incredible. My character does a little Shakespeare in the piece for Benjamin, which I hope came out well. That was a blast.
The scenes that I had worked on with Benjamin [the character played by Pitt] were really played by little people who were later changed to look like Brad using computer effects. They put Brad’s face onto about 12 little people, who played Brad throughout the years. Now, watching the movie, I feel like I’m seeing it for the first time. That wasn’t my experience of filming it at the time. It’s kind of strange seeing it now… Brad seemed like a really cool guy, very down to earth.
You hear all these stories about how David Fincher wants to do 40 takes some times, but that wasn’t my experience with him at all. I just remember I had walk down these stairs about 20 times to get it perfect. The camera was on my feet. That was the one time I had to do multiple takes to that degree. He’s so specific in what he wants. He wants the extras to be doing things in a certain way. He directs to that extent. He knows exactly what he wants and he works until he gets exactly what he wants. We had to fly a whole cast and crew back out to New Orleans because he wasn’t happy with how a wig looked in the dailies. I personally love that because he’s a perfectionist, and I could work all day and all night. When you have someone who wants to get things as good as humanly possible. That’s inspiring for me. I loved being around him. I loved working with him.
I was at St. Mary’s College, and I took an acting class for an elective because I didn’t want to take a second semester of Spanish. I ended up getting scholarship to the California Shakespeare festival. I got into graduate school at NYU and was there for three years. I’ve basically been working professionally ever since. My first big break was in the Great White Hope at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. I went out to L.A. with one bag on an airline buddy pass and booked a TV pilot. Then I was a character named Richard Tyler in the USA network show 4400. I got to stretch my wings a bit as an actor. I played a character from the '50s who had been abducted by aliens who returns and hasn’t aged at all. So, there's a theme–agelessness–like in Benjamin Button, but there’s no sci-fi element in the movie at all. That movie feels very real–like it could actually happen.