Mahershala Ali: “Don’t Take Anything For Granted”

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The name Mahershala Ali may not ring a bell initially, but when you see his face, most people react with “Oh, THAT guy!” You’ve seen him in shows like House Of Cards, The Hunger Games series, Marvel’s Luke Cage, the critically-acclaimed Moonlight and soon in the true story film, Hidden Figures with Taraji P. Henson. Despite the sixteen years of steady work in Hollywood under his belt, Ali is not yet a household name.

As a kid, he went by “Hershal.” In some circles, he simply went by “Ali.” As he got older, he started to embrace the more mature “Mahershala.” But in the film The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and watch the credits, you’ll notice his real birth name: Mahershalalhashbaz Ali.

“I wanted to take on my full name, which was sort of a crazy thing to do considering that we’re in Hollywood,” he tells Vanity Fair. (taken after the longest name in the Bible) to Mahershala, which he initially resisted. He finally reconsidered after working on The Place Beyond the Pines, when he found out his name wasn’t going to fit on the poster. “M. Ali” wasn’t an appealing alternative—so he changed it.

The switch also carried deeper meaning for the 42-year-old actor. “I think if you have any desire to be a leading man or to really carry some of these stories, there’s this relationship that has to be cultivated with an audience,” he says. “People have to be able to say your name.

“I didn’t want a couple of syllables to get in the way of me having the fullest experience as an actor.”

Ali is finally having that full experience. In 2013, he landed a small breakthrough role as the perennially smooth Remy Danton on House of Cards. Audiences paid attention when Remy appeared on-screen. He had a mesmerizing gaze and a suave aura, one that promised his closet at home was full of perfectly tailored suits. Even his pajamas are suits, probably, because that’s the life a man like Remy leads. The role also earned him an Emmy nomination.

Acting was not initially a career goal for Ali. When he was younger, the Hayward, California–born star was an athlete (a “pretty good” one, he adds). His father was a New York City–based actor who favored musical theater. “There isn’t much of a connection between those two worlds,” he says. “Those two people in life don’t really hang out.”

So he began acting in order to connect with his father. Reciting poetry wasn’t too different from performing monologues,…