Episode 1: How Did I Get Here?
Who or what is in your own past right now that you need to face, but aren’t facing—and why not?
Carvell Wallace has a theory that maybe this whole nation is just 320 million people who all need to talk with someone they're afraid to talk to. He certainly needs to do that himself.
Actor Mahershala Ali joins Carvell to talk about family, America, and grace.
Mahershala Ali recently starred in Barry Jenkins’ Academy Award Best Picture drama Moonlight, for which he received the 2017 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. He also stars in the highly acclaimed feature Hidden Figures, directed by Ted Melfi, but is perhaps best known for playing ‘Remy Danton’ on the award-winning Netflix series House Of Cards, for which he received a 2016 Emmy nomination.
Prior to his recent critical success, you could also see him in Gary Ross’ The Free State of Jones opposite Matthew McConaughey, the final installments of The Hunger Games franchise, Mockingjay Part 1 and Part 2 as ‘Boggs,’ and the Marvel/Netflix series Luke Cage as ‘Cottonmouth.’ His other credits include Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines, opposite Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper, and David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.
Ali received his master’s in acting from New York University.
Episode 1 Transcript
HOW DID I GET HERE?
Closer Than They Appear: Episode 1
[0:00] Carvell Wallace: Every morning when I wake up, I look in the mirror. And I see that my skin is oily. That my eyes are still red with sleep. I see that my hair is nappy, and my beard unkempt. I look for beauty, but I see a man who is sometimes considered less than human. I see a man who has been homeless, who has been hungry. Who has slept on park benches and in apartments with no electricity. I see a man who has been the only black person in his entire world. Who has been told he has evil in his eyes. That he is too loud. That he is too big. That he makes white people feel unsafe.
CW: I look in the mirror and I see a father and a friend and a magazine writer.
[1:00] CW: I see a man who once worked 26 hours straight, fueled only by coffee, water, and a vape pen. I see a man who prays daily. Who makes a list every night of all the things in his life for which he is grateful. His health. Having a bed. A job. Two children, who are alive and beautiful.
CW: I look in the mirror and I see a man with a past, living among a people who have a past, in a country that has a past. I see a man who, like the nation that birthed him, has up until today, always looked toward the future. Always pretended the past isn’t there or that it doesn’t matter. But it is. And it does. And now, in order to go forward, I see a man, and a country, that has to face it.
[2:00] CW: I’m Carvell Wallace, and this is Closer Than They Appear.
CW: I don’t want to talk about this, but I have to. A year ago, right after the election, we went out and we got passports for our kids. We didn’t know if we would make it here anymore. I know people whose marriages have come apart since then. People who no longer speak to their siblings. Nazis are parading through public parks. We are a nation of 320 million people and all we have in common is that we don’t like each other. Beyond that, we don’t know what to do, how to go forward.
CW: I personally don’t know what to do. Or what we can do. So...
[3:00] CW: I’m going to ask. I’m going to ask a bunch of people, some prominent, some not so prominent, from all over the country, what we can do. What is the deal with our past and how can we have a future? I’m also going to go into my own past. To places I haven’t been for 30 years. To the small steel town where I was raised. To speak with the white woman who partially raised me: My aunt Bea.
CW: I’m not going to tell you the whole story of Aunt Bea right now. But I do want you to think about this one thing: Who or what is in your own past right now, that you need to face, but aren’t facing, and why not? See, because I have this theory that maybe this whole nation is just 320 million people who all need to talk with someone that they are afraid to talk to. So...
[4:00] CW: I just want you to think about that. But I’m not going to make you do it alone.
Mahershala Ali: Hey, how are you doing Carvell?
CW: Good to hear you, man.
CW: So I personally needed someone to help me work through all this stuff, and so I thought, why not start with Mahershala Ali?
CW: How have things been?
MA: Things have been good, man. I can’t complain.
CW: Yeah, that Mahershala Ali. Actor, the Academy Award winner, one of the most beautiful people ever to walk the face of the earth.
MA: Life is good, how about yourself?
CW: Good, good. Busy, but all with good things.
CW: And no, people in my life, I’m not setting you up with Mahershala Ali. First of all, he’s married, secondly, you’re supposed to be my girlfriend, so what the hell is that?
MA (at SAG awards): Thank you.
CW: Anyway, he, like me, has been doing all this work in his own family, and his family, like mine, embodies a whole host of contradictions, the same contradictions America is facing…
[5:00] CW: ...right now.
MA (at SAG awards): My mother is an ordained minister. I’m a Muslim. She didn’t do backflips when I called her to tell her I converted seventeen years ago.
CW: Anyway, you probably remember this speech he gave at the Screen Actors Guild Awards. Here’s the part I’m still thinking about.
MA (at SAG awards): But I tell you now, we put things to the side, and I’m able to see her, she’s able to see me. We love each other. The love has grown, and that stuff is minutia, it’s not that important. [applause]
CW: Now when I hear the applause, I hear two things happening: One is people saying, oh, how beautiful, like, this is so great, and the other is people saying, oh good, he’s not mad at us. Truthfully, I’d like to believe that we can all, in moments, be as full of grace as Mahershala is in this speech. But can we be that way as a country?
[6:00] CW: Should we be? Is it safe to be? A lot of times, I don’t feel like it is, at least not for me personally. I mean, how much grace should I be extending to someone I think might just want me dead?
CW: When do you feel like in your own upbringing you first became aware of race and racism in your life? Like, when did you first become aware of the darker, the uglier sides of that?
MA: Huhhh, that's such an interesting question because the way in which I, I sort of intuitively want to answer that question is that I think I, you're almost born with an awareness, like you can't, when can you...
[7:00] MA: ...when do parents, like as a parent, you have two children...
MA: ...12 and 14. When could you say you actually started teaching them? I think we start educating our children very early on, as far as like, who to watch out for, who to stay away from, who to trust, who not to trust. Who you hand your child over to? Like, those things become these messages and so I think we begin to experience those things from, from such an early age. And I think some people have very clear experiences, like myself...
MA: I can remember a kid who I was hanging out with quite a bit, and who was a real close friend of mine and then one time, I was about seven years old, and I had... this was early, this was like '83 or something like that, and we get, you know, eighty, eighty maybe '81 something like that. But we get some messages on our answering machine, you know, answering machines are...
MA: A pretty new thing.
[8:00] MA: But like you know, he was this kid, Mike, and his sister and his sister's friend were on the answering machine calling me the n-word and kinda like joking around and giggling.
MA: And my mom told me that I couldn't play with them anymore. And that was, that was at that time, that was, I had a lot of fun over at Mike's house, like he had like…
CW: Ha, right.
MA: You know?
CW: Right, right.
MA: He had like ColecoVision, and like we would do sleepovers and have cereal and eat all this crazy stuff and just have a blast and be up all night.
MA: But, just something he said, that I couldn't really feel the full resonance of at that time. Obviously, you're aware of what the n-word is from, from a very early age. But I think that right there really clued me in consciously that there was, there was something that he could say to me or a white kid could say to me or a non-African American could say to me that would affect me, but there really wasn't something that I could...
[9:00] MA: ...equally say to them to elicit the same response.
MA: That that’s where I could articulate that I or we as a people, were different cause I couldn't come back at a white kid...
MA: ...with an equal insult. I just couldn't. So...
MA: In that way, I felt inferior.
CW: Because there's no history behind it.
CW: So like, that's the thing is cause I think a lot of people are like, "Well, if you call me a honky, that's like the same thing." Or if you… But like I always feel like, not really, because there's not this whole history behind it, and in some ways, that's the thing I think is so weird about being that age, is that you're not just introduced to a situation. You're suddenly introduced to generations upon generations...
CW: ...upon generations of meaning.
CW: And you don't know yet what it is, and it's such, so funny that you tell that story because I have the exact same story.
CW: Like literally to a person.
MA: What was your relationship to the, to the other person?
[10:00] CW: So I'm in this small town called McKeesport, Pennsylvania, which is where I lived from ages eight to about 13.
MA: Okay, and how diverse was that community? Just out of curiosity.
CW: So it depends on where you lived. So, it was a steel town, like blue collar steel mills kind of thing, just outside of Pittsburgh.
CW: And it was, my experience of it at that age, like second, third, fourth grade was my group was all mixed up, it was like, a couple black kids, a couple white kids. I didn't even know what made us different. It didn't matter. We all, we all jumped the same ramps in the alleys next to my house, so it was all good. And then there was this kid down the street named Artie. This white kid. And for some reason, I wasn't really allowed to go over to Artie's house that much, but he was out and about, and he was like one of the kids, he’d ride bikes with us and he'd show us stuff, we'd take sticks or whatever. But he always was one of those kids who was a little bit edgy. He always had some deeper shit than we...
CW: You know what I mean? He was always trying to make a slingshot and like trying to turn stuff into weapons.
MA: Right. Let's kill some birds.
[11:00] MA: I got some hollow tip BBs.
CW: Right. [laughs]
MA: BB guns.
CW: So Artie was a little on that extra shit, which we thought was cool, but also kept at a certain distance. Anyway my dad, my uncle, who was partially raising me at the time, and this is a story that I'll get into cause it's actually complex. So I was raised partially by my uncle and the woman that he married, who was a white woman from Connecticut, and they're living in this small town. And at this point, I'm sure they're experiencing all type of race stuff that I didn't understand. But my uncle...
MA: Cause of just taking you in? Or just because of them just being a couple?
CW: Just being an interracial couple…
MA: Right, right, right. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
CW: ...in small town Pennsylvania in 1980-whatever.
MA: For sure.
CW: And so, and so, so… so my uncle tells me that he's walking through, he's walking down the alley behind Artie's house, and Artie had this little brother whose name I forget. And the little brother saw him walking down the street, my, my uncle like waved. It's a small town, kinda like waved at the kid, the kid standing in the backyard. And he just, the little kid just called him the n-word.
CW: Just this like little kid, like a three year old, you know…
[12:00] CW: ...said it like, the way my uncle described it, said it as innocent as can be. He was just saying like, “Hey, friend.” [laughs]
MA: Right, right.
CW: That that word was so commonly used in their house to that kid that didn't feel like anything.
MA: Right, here's a good adjective for you.
CW: Exactly, exactly, like he was just saying hi. And my uncle came home and he was livid. I mean livid, and he told me that, and he said you can't go over there. You can't play with Artie and blabbity-blah, and we had this conversation about the n-word and it was, it was the same thing. I was like third grade, maybe fourth grade. And it was the first time I learned that there was this extra power, and the way that I knew it was my uncle gave me the follow instruction: Look, when it comes to fighting, you should only fight to defend yourself, you should never pick a fight with anyone, you should never hit anyone first, you should never... blabbity-blah. And he had this whole rules of engagement about fighting, but then he was like, unless someone calls you the n-word, then you can punch them in the face.
MA: [laughs] Wow, wow.
CW: [laughs] That's literally what he told me. And that's how I knew that was something different. You know?
[13:00] CW: A few years after this, when I was in 5th grade, we moved to a part of town that was all white and when I say all white, I mean, all white. Like I was the only black person in my classes, in my neighborhood, on my school bus.
CW: It was really weird, and really isolating, and it made me feel like something was really, really wrong with me. I suddenly didn’t know how to deal with myself. How to deal with white people. How to deal with black people. And yet I had to. The rules of engagement grew much more complex and opaque.
CW: I realize now that that’s how it is for everyone, the whole country right now. So many people. So much fear and isolation. So much confusion about how to engage. So, how do we work together?
[14:00] CW: I've been thinking about group projects.
CW: And like when you're in college, and you have to do group projects and you have five people on your team. And one of them is kind of an asshole, and one of them is a little bit of an overachiever, and one of them is co-dependent, and one of them is cool. And you have to figure out the whole thing...
MA: You sound like you know this really well. [Laughs]
CW: [Laughs.] Just saying. No offense to anyone out there...
MA: Yes, yes.
CW: ...who I worked on a group project with. I'm just saying I've been there. And so, you're trying to accomplish something together and... take that, but times 320 million people.
CW: I guess the question that I think is one of the most important questions and the one that I don't have an answer to right now is, with all these people trying to figure out something together, can we all do that? Like can this country go forward together?
MA: I think if we, I think if we start with our families. I think we have to embrace the diversity within our own families, which I think becomes a school for embracing the diversity within our communities.
[15:00] MA: And I think those communities can, I think it can grow out from there. But you know, there's people who are not accepted within their own homes, you know, children, wives. And I don't know if you can have... If you can have some degree of toxicity within your own home and expect to step out into the world and not handle the world in a less, in a more impersonal way than how you do with things within your own home. And I think that we have to listen to our partners and our mates and our loved ones in a way, with an openness and we have to teach it. We have to teach it to our children because they go off to school and they either practice supporting each other or in some ways, oppressing each other or bullying. And these things, these people grow up to be adults and they carry out those same things and those same habits, but...
[16:00] MA: ...on institutional levels you know. In corporations and companies.
MA: And it sounds corny. It sounds trite, but I think we have to do a much better job of listening to each other. And when you talk about larger groups of people, when you talk about Jews and Muslims or, you know, Democrats and Republicans, or whatever, like anyone, we have to... we just have to do a better job of respecting the other person, respecting the other culture, respecting the other the other point of view, and recognizing other people as humans first and foremost, and therefore valid.
CW: And so, how do you teach your daughter for example, to recognize the humanity of people who don't validate her right to be a human being?
MA: Hmmm, hmmm.
CW: Right? Like this is something that my kids and I are really in this, because my son, for example, this summer went to travel with…
[17:00] CW: ...his, he spent two weeks with my dad in D.C….
Ezra Wallace: Yeah, I flew there mid-July…
CW: My dad who converted to Islam in 1992...
Ezra Wallace: It was primarily black…
CW: ...lives in D.C. working class situation outside of D.C. area.
EW: When you saw a white person, it was like an occasion. Like, it was like oh look at that, it’s a white person.
CW: Then he spent a week with his mother's parents, his mother is white, with his mother's parents in Florida.
EW: And when you saw a black person, it was like oh wow, that’s a black person.
CW: Right? And so, this is a Bay Area kid.
CW: Who made this triangle, this summer. So he he saw a lot of America…
EW: It’s a big country.
CW: And he came back with some questions.
CW: And, you know, his… one of his questions that I think is… a lot of our questions is just like, "Okay, I'm in Florida, Dad.”
EW: I saw four confederate flags when I was in Florida. In total.
CW: How long were you there for?
EW: A week.
CW: So, you were counting?
EW: Of course I was counting.
[18:00] CW: There are Trump supporters around me. There are people who I see flags, I see hats, I see T-shirts, I see bumper stickers of people who I know may have on some level like either... would like to or have voted for people or would support or don't mind, if I'm attacked, lynched, killed.
EW: I think that people know what they’re doing, they’re directing it at me to make a statement and they feel like white is special. And I don’t know if everyone feels this, but I think they believe in white supremacy.
CW: How do I see the humanity in those people? Like how do I? Or am I just turning myself into a sitting duck, if I don't...? And I'm paraphrasing his words, but he's getting into a central philosophical question.
MA: Right, right.
CW: Like how, you know, like how do you do that? What gives you the strength to do that or the clarity? And, more importantly, how do you pass that on to your kid?
MA: That's hard.
CW: Cause no one wants to be the first person out there being... turning the other cheek when people are out there killing people.
MA: No, I think that's that's it's challenging.
[19:00] MA: And I think you ideally want to raise your children to be critical thinkers and so I think you could teach your child, and I'm speaking as a black man who has had my own experiences...
MA: ...with profiling, racial profiling or what have you. But I think that you can teach your child to be very conscious of how they behave around police, but also teach them that there are good police officers, you know? And I think you could teach them that there are ones who definitely abuse their power. Like obviously, I've experienced it. I know, I have friends who've experienced it, but I think it would be unwise to teach your child that every cop out there is potentially going to do you harm. You know? But I do think you have to build in that awareness.
[20:00] MA: It's your responsibility as a black parent to build in that awareness that you have to be very conscious. And so, I think in some ways that is to say, and if you look at you know, what you mentioned, if you could see someone with a "Make American Great Again" hat … and that hat for a black person begins to become synonymous with the Confederate flag.
MA: And a Confederate flag begins... it feels, that means certain things to us. You know? And so the challenge, I think for me is to teach my child, who is a woman at that, a young… a girl, is to really emphasize her thinking of herself as just as good, as equal, as… and prepare her to be that. As a black man, I don't want to get lumped into the stereotypes of black culture.
[21:00] MA: I don't think any black person wants to.
MA: And you want to be able to be looked at as an individual. That's true for Muslims. That's true for, you know, everyone. And so, I think I would try to teach and try to live in a way that is, that's sort of embodies that example of really first embracing someone as an individual, and if they give me a reason to think less of them, then allow them to give me that reason. But I'm going to first step to a person, treating them with kindness and respect.
CW: What is America's problem? Why can’t we do this? You know what? Let's put America on the couch, do a therapy session. Tell me about your childhood, America. You have these fantastical ideas about freedom and emotional ideas about equality, but they’re not...
[22:00] CW: ...really working out. You’ve actually been really cruel and mean to all kinds of people and you never want to talk about it or try to address it and you get really mad when people bring it up. But then you can't figure out why you can't stay in a healthy relationship, or why you keep dating assholes. Why you’re having this big emotional breakdown right now... Why everything feels like it’s falling apart...
CW: Imagine, like I said, America is on the couch. America is willing to receive advice. America has finally admitted powerlessness over its own ridiculousness and is like, "Mahersh, help us out. Tell us...”
CW: Tell us, we're taking advice from a lot of people. We're coming to you. What should we do?
MA: Well, this is a bad start for America, if they're coming to me to fix their problems.
MA: First of all, let me just put that out there.
[23:00] MA: But we can continue, so what’s the… what am I here to fix?
CW: Yeah. So they just want to know, we’re struggling right now. We're infighting, we don't know what are path... we don't know what our future is. Things are crazy. Everything is falling apart. What advice do you have for us? What should we do?
MA: I think we have to do work in our own lives. No matter how on point we may be, to even do better, and I don't think you can… I don’t think anyone gets to let themselves off the hook from that. You know?
CW: Yeah, I know. There's something that I’m actually going to share with you, you said you were afraid before you did this interview and so was I. Like I was, like you know I had to like center myself and then I came in and it was late and there was like some crazy traffic stuff. And so while we were getting hooked up, I decided to try and center myself, to put my head down and do a prayer, and invite some kind of calmness... I went to prayer that I always go to, which is the prayer of St. Francis. Have you ever heard this one?
[24:00] MA: Hmmm. No. I may have, but please share it with me.
CW: Here's how it goes. So it goes: Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love. Where there is injury, let me bring pardon. Where there is doubt, let me bring faith. Where there is despair, let me bring hope. Where there is darkness, let me bring light. Where there is sadness, let me bring joy. I ask that I may not seek to be consoled, so much as to console. Not to be understood, but to understand. Not to be loved, but to love. For it is in giving that we receive. It is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is dying that we are born to eternal life.
CW: It's good shit.
MA: It's beautiful and centering. Absolutely.
CW: Yeah, yeah, yeah. It’s one of my favorites. You can look it up. It's the prayer of St. Francis, and I felt like...
[25:00] MA: Yeah, I will.
CW: ...yeah, and I just I figured you would appreciate that because it really feels in line with where you were at.
MA: No, cause I do the same thing. I may, I make a prayer. I made one real quick in the car, and it's just how, you know, it's how I have to respond to that and feel like I'm carrying some good energy in with me. So prayer for me definitely helps.
CW: Fear and ego can run rampant in all of us. All of us. Even me. Even Mahershala Ali, Oscar winner and most beautiful looking man to ever walk the face of the earth. It can even run rampant in him before a friendly interview. So we must do something personally to address it. To make sure that it doesn’t make us behave in shitty and terrible ways.
CW: A lot of what I keep coming back to though, is if we did this as a people, as a country -- what then?
[26:00] CW: What if we we chose to address the fear and ego that runs rampant within us, before we started acting out on each other?
CW: Is that even possible for us? Is that even possible for me?
CW: Next week, I try to figure that out. My guest will be Shereen Marisol Meraji. She’s the co-host of NPR’s Code Switch podcast, a self-described “Persia-Rican,” and a person who has a lot to say about turning around and facing those fears.
CW: I don’t want to talk about this, but I have to. In the mornings now, I Iook in the mirror at my face grown thick and old with age, and my eyes that contain secrets that not even I fully understand.
[27:00] CW: And I see that the past has a will of its own. That objects in the mirror are closer than they appear.
CW: Closer Than They Appear is the debut production of Jetty Studios. You can subscribe and listen in all the usual places, and find full episode transcripts on our website at closerthantheyappear.fm. After you listen, we’d love to hear from you. Write us a review on Apple Podcasts or find us on social media. We're on Facebook and Twitter @closershow.
CW: Our senior producer is Casey Miner, our producer is Lacy Roberts, and our editors are Leila Day. Graelyn Brashear and Paulana Lamonier run our social media and our associate producer...
[28:00] CW: ...is Meradith Hoddinott.
CW: Our show is engineered by Mark Behm, with mixing and sound design by Ian Coss. Music is by Antique Naked Soul. You can hear more from them at Antique-music.com. Megan Jones runs our podcast operations and Jessica Wang is our senior video producer. Special thanks to Mahershala’s assistant, Simone Leonora, to Myke Dodge Weiskof for recording Mahershala in LA, and to NPR West for letting us use their studios.
CW: Jetty's Executive Producer is Julie Caine and general manager is Kaizar Campwala. Until next week, thanks for listening.