Behind the story: Carvell Wallace profiles Mahershala Ali for GQ

Actor Mahershala Ali attends the 28th Annual Palm Springs International Film Festival Film Awards Gala at Palm Springs Convention Center on January 2, 2017 in Palm Springs, California. (Photo by Emma McIntyre/Getty Images)

Carvell Wallace, a contributor to ESPN The Magazine, The Guardian, The New Yorker, and MTV News—where, until recently, he was a music columnist—dips in and out of popular culture and sports journalism with seemingly effortless fluency.

He writes about familiar topics and makes them feel new. For instance, here’s his lede about the great bluesman B.B. King: “If you really want to know something about B.B. King, consider this: He saw a boy lynched when he was a teenager.”

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Wallace brings the same keen perspective to stories on the duality of Michael Jackson, the Saint John Coltrane Church (“the only African Orthodox Church for which Coltrane’s own words constitute the liturgy”), and Boston Celtics point guard Isaiah Thomas.

His gifts are particularly apparent in his June cover story for GQ (“LimeLight”), a profile of the Oscar-winning actor Mahershala Ali.

What follows is another installment of Behind the Story, in which we’re given a peek behind the curtain at how a story was conceived, reported, written, and edited—as told to CJR by the author, Carvell Wallace.

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About a year ago, Devin Gordon, an editor at GQ, came to me about a cover. We kicked around a couple of random things I might do for the magazine, including something on the Golden State Warriors.

A year later, April 27, I’m sitting there working and I get this email from Devin: Hey. Do you want to do a cover? And can you talk right now? We get on the phone that day, and he asks if I’d be interested in a cover on Mahershala Ali. Of course I am. But he wants me to book a flight to LA immediately.

Devin told me the timeline would be constrained, but I didn’t know how constrained until a week later, when I got on the phone with Christopher Cox, the story’s editor. We talked through my ideas and thoughts about Mahershala. That’s when he told me about the quick turnaround: Once the interviews were over, I’d have two days to write a 4,000-word draft. Which was fine, because the reality is, that’s how I write; I procrastinate for super-long and then I write it all in a crazy 24-hour session. I was like, OK, you guys have done the procrastinating for me.

 

Carvell Wallace. Photo by Tai Power Seeff.

 

I prep for every story the same way; I read everything about the subject. I read everything they ever wrote, watch everything they’ve done. Then I write questions in a long, rambling document. I never refer to the document during the interview, because the conversation inevitably takes its own course. But planning out all the questions gives me a sense of where I’d like the interview to go.

I went out there May 5 and met with Mahershala that afternoon in Los Angeles. I’d coordinated with the celebrity wrangler to figure out what activity we’d be doing; GQ typically does two two-hour sessions with a subject. The activity enables the reporter to get some background in a colorful setting. Maybe it’s clothes shopping or a trip to his favorite rock-climbing gym. It was decided that our first meeting would be in a café.

For me, interviewing a person is like guiding a conversation, rather than asking questions. You know an interview is going badly when you ask, How did you get the idea for this song? And they say, It just came to me at night. And then you go, Uh huh. Are you surprised by the success of it? They’re like, No, not really. I knew it was gonna be a good song. When it’s question, answer, question, answer … it’s going to be fucking hard.

Often, my first question is, “What are you up to today?” And the answer will unfold. Yeah, the traffic, blah blah blah, my kid… Oh, how old’s your kid? Well, my kid is seven. Are they in camp? Blah, blah, blah. Then I’ll say something about my kids and, at this point, we’re having a conversation. Then I can get to the important questions, of which there’s usually only two or three.

Was his handsomeness a distraction? I don’t think so. I did briefly wonder if he would think, What a dumpy, poorly dressed loser! But that wasn’t a major part of the experience for me, partially because I knew there was no room for that. I’m not a very good interviewer if I’m thinking about myself. Anyway, we connected as people so quickly that there wasn’t much time for me to feel self-conscious. But there were moments. I ordered some oatmeal and thought, as I was eating it, What do I look like eating oatmeal next to this guy?

I did buy two new shirts when I was in LA because I needed new shirts anyway, and I thought, I’m not gonna go interview this guy wearing a nacho stain from 2013. I knew he was gonna look relatively crisp and clean, and I didn’t want the way I’m dressed to be a distraction.

On left-leaning social media, white people have stumbled over themselves to post pictures of Mahershala, saying things like, This guy’s so beautiful. I love him. It’s been called the “internet boyfriend” phenomenon, and it’s the idea that there are certain people who it becomes trendy to like and support and make heart-eye emojis at because you love the way they look, the way they dress, and their politics. And I felt that Mahershala was in that category. That’s part of how he was being used by people. I asked him if he felt that way, if he felt that people were using him to virtue signal that, Hey, I’m not racist because I think this black man is beautiful. Looks like my work here is done.

 

The June 2017 issue of GQ

I didn’t have that question just for him, because I’ve seen the pattern. I had that question with Idris Elba two years ago. I had that question with Lupita (Nyong’o) three or four years ago. Both those people seemed to have disappeared entirely. They became very hot for a summer and a half, maybe a year. Everyone said, This is my husband. This is my mum. This is my sister. And then they’re gone. And I asked Mahershala if that was possibly the case for him. He said, essentially, “I accept that as a possibility, but I can’t think about that too much because I’m here to do my thing. If that’s how other people want to use it, that’s on them.”

After the first interview, I spent the weekend transcribing. I picked through the recordings to figure out, What did he say? What didn’t he say? What’s between the lines? What might I dig further on? Then, the following Monday afternoon, on May 8, we went bowling. We bowled for half the time and talked the other half.

There were a couple of questions I had that I didn’t get around to asking. So I emailed him later. Mahershala actually sat down and recorded his answers to the questions and sent me a Dropbox recording. That was unusual, of course, but we have a lot of biographical overlaps, he and I, and a lot of what I try to do when I interview a subject is figure out what our human connections are, what historical events or family background shit we have in common. Because then, at a certain point, it becomes less like an interview and more a conversation where you’re getting to know someone new. Oh, no way. I want to school there. I used to live in that town. Oh, shit, my dad was also a cabdriver. We had enough of those commonalities, which is why, I think, he said, Look, if there’s anything you forgot to ask, shoot me an email and I’ll just make you a recording and we’ll do a Dropbox.

I’ve talked to a number of other actors. In general, they tend to be really easygoing. That’s the flavor of the moment—of, say, the last 15 years. Before that, they’d be aloof or hung up on their celebrity. But the current model of celebrity is for actors to surprise you with how easygoing they are. That’s part of the branding: I know I’m a celebrity, but I’m super cool. If you read any GQ profiles of actors, the writer almost always mentions it, and How they were genuinely interested in me. They asked me questions about my life! The easygoingness is not a red flag, necessary, but you can’t allow yourself to get swept up in that. You have to be careful because there’s the celebrity glow that people have. It’s a chicken or egg question: Do they have the glow because they’re famous? Or are they famous because they have that glow naturally? My theory is people tend to have that, and then it becomes their job to express it, to know how to put people at ease and make them feel important. That’s part of how they move through the world.

Probably the most important interview question I know of is, Say more about that. Because people never say the whole thing the first time. They’ll sort of cast about to see if you are willing to hear it. If you let them know you’re willing to hear it, they’ll keep talking.

In general, I don’t pay a lot of attention to existing media. I know I’m easily influenced, and I might forget what I’m doing if I spend too much time reading everyone else’s stuff. I just do what seems right for the story without dwelling on the expectations. But I do know there are certain marks you want to hit. There’s always a particular combination of structure and freedom. If I’m writing a GQ profile, it’s not even gonna make it past edits if I just write about Mahershala’s shoelaces for 3,000 words. Which I could. I’m weird and obsessive enough that I could try to use the shoelaces as a metaphor for everything in the world. So I have to hit certain marks: I have to introduce the reader to the character really early on; there has to be some unique thing that they do, or say, or wear, or drink. Then, at a certain point, I have to go back to their biography and say, This is where they came from, and this what they did, and this is where they are in the world now. Then I have to wrap it up by saying, This is what them being in the world means and this is what the future looks like for them. I need to hit those points, but outside of that I can do whatever I want.

The main question that I had going into the interviews was: How does it feels to be a black Muslim celebrity in Trump’s America? Now, whether we were gonna get to that organically, or whether I was gonna have to sort of steer us towards that question, would be revealed. But I needed that, because you have to put the story in context of where we are in this moment in time. To me, that was the most obvious thing about him and his career. The rest of it came as a surprise. I didn’t know he would talk about his dad. I didn’t ask him about it, but it came up. I was like, Yeah, say more about that. Probably the most important interview question I know of is, Say more about that. Because people never say the whole thing the first time. They’ll sort of cast about to see if you are willing to hear it. If you let them know you’re willing to hear it, they’ll keep talking.

I record everything. I don’t take notes during interviews because I can’t focus and, also, it takes a person out of the conversation. If they say something personal about their childhood and I’m like, Interesting, and start taking notes, it’s hard for the interviewee to stay in the flow.

I had two recorders on the table, the phone and a back-up digital recorder. Then I proceeded to lose the digital recorder, which was on loan. I borrowed it from a friend of mine, because I don’t have one, and then I lost it in LA. So, I ended up having only the phone recording.

All the recordings I’ve ever done, with rappers, celebrities, athletes, I’ve done on my iPhone. The voice recorder has never failed. I suspect the waiter might have snagged the digital recorder. He kept stumbling a bit over himself, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he found it and kept it.

After the second interview, I started writing immediately. The biggest challenge was the biography section. But it’s gotta be in there. It’s usually in the middle, after you introduce the situation—you describe the flowers and all the beautiful stuff—and then you have to go back and say, This person was born here. They did this. They overcame this. And then, at the end, you get to say all your beautiful, big thoughts. But I find that middle section is always difficult to write. It’s tricky to maintain the flow while keeping the emotional tension and the stakes intact.

The emotional center of the biography section, I found, was this story about him almost quitting acting and going back to Oakland to work on a boat. And then a hand reached out, in the form of Kenneth Washington, a professor at the Guthrie Theater, and says, I know you feel like you don’t belong here, but I’m gonna make sure your ass stays here because you belong here.

I rewrote the lede maybe three times. At one point, the editors wanted to open with Mahershala finding that photo of his dad in the storage locker. So I wrote that and they were like, This doesn’t work, either. Let’s just open in the café. So we open in the café, which I thought was a little bland. But then, very late in the drafting, that sentence came to me: There’s not actually a golden light shining down on Mahershala Ali from the ceiling of the Santa Monica café where I first meet him, but it feels like there is.

It’ll do all the stuff we need it to do; it’ll give us a sense of magic, a sense of light. It tells us that there’ll be some playfulness in it, some lightheartedness. There’s some supernatural beauty, but it’s also about how powerful a person he is. Okay, I thought, everything is in place.

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The digression about the photo of Mahershala playing basketball and my own father was in the piece from the beginning. It was just too freaking obvious a connection between Mahershala and me not to write about it. There were lots of biographical overlaps, but my dad’s story was the most emotionally salient point of connection. I think it works because it goes to that question of, What if? The photo of young Mahershala playing basketball evokes the question, What if this guy was treated like just another black person for his whole life? What if this guy had stayed working a blue-collar job and putting together a life in the union? My dad is that guy, but he had no Kenneth Washington come and say, Hey, you belong here.

The fact that I got to write about how my dad went to school for journalism was beautiful because here I was, writing on this big stage and living out my dad’s dream, and there’s Mahershala living out his dad’s dream.

We don’t just wake up every day hoping for some black shit to happen so we can tweet about it. We would much rather be interested in a regular life.

Islam was a character in this story. It had to be in act one. I came up in screenwriting and theater; I still think of everything in three acts. In act one, I had to establish the situation and the stakes.

That Islam quote came on the Dropbox. It was a terribly thoughtful answer. As a writer, I felt a responsibility to make sure that thoughtfulness was reflected in the piece, that it didn’t ring hollow. We live in a time when people have really strong feelings about Islam, and a large section of the US population is like, Muslims are all terrorists. But I think the bigger portion is people who don’t know what to think of it and who suspect there must be some relationship between terrorism and Islam. I thought it was important for them to hear other things about Islam. Things that I have seen and experienced with my own father and with all the Muslim people in my life: the kindness, the generosity, the reflection, the faith, the patience, the meditation. I wanted people to hear that, but I didn’t want it to seem like GQ was trying to do propaganda. It had to be reflected in who Mahershala was. You had to see that in him as a person, not just in what he said.

About that line: He is a winner in a country that seems to want people like him to lose. I don’t remember if I wrote “seems to” or if that was inserted by editors. But I can tell you this: If I wrote it, I wrote it because I knew that if I said what I really thought—that “seems to” isn’t at all necessary—the reaction would be, Well, wait a minute now. I recognize the audience I’m writing for, and I know what people are gonna be comfortable hearing. Whether or not this actual editor’s hand was in there, I know that my internalized editor hand was in there.

But of course, it doesn’t ring true. What I learned from doing Shakespeare all those years is that, rhythmically, the line doesn’t scan. I’m always thinking about rhythm, especially when I’m wrapping up a piece and really delivering. You’ve gotta be flowing. The sentences have to be the right length, and the stressed and unstressed syllables have to have a certain flow. Otherwise, things jump out. A winner in a country that wants people like him to lose—that flows. A winner in a country that seems to want people like him to lose—that “seems to” sticks out like a sore thumb, just in terms of poetry. It’s also equivocal and rhythmically not direct.

I almost always write the endings early. That’s how I know what I’m doing. I can’t write too much without knowing the ending. Once that is written, I can breathe easy because I know where I’m going, what I’m building up to, what I’m laying out in the breadcrumbs. The ending paragraph usually comes to me all in one fell swoop. I don’t edit it. Whereas the middle part—the narrative shit—is comparatively hard to write and I have to struggle for every sentence.

I’d originally ended with something much longer, but I cut it. That’s a direct result of the first profile I ever wrote, of Steph Curry for The New Yorker. My editor, David Haglund, gave me this note: This needs to be more narrative in time. I always think about that when I’m writing anything because it reminds me that, no matter how deep your thoughts are, readers respond to narrative stories and time. First this, then this, now this. There has to be some element of that, no matter how big you’re going. And a celebrity profile has two layers of that story: One is the story of the person’s career; how they got to this moment. The other one is the story of the interview. I first met them here, then we did this. The next time I saw them, we were at a bar. I knew that by the end I had to get the reader back to the part in the narrative where the two of us are hanging out together, and it’s coming to an end. It’s classic sunset, act-three stuff.

I’ve talked to a number of other actors. In general, they tend to be really easygoing. That’s the flavor of the moment—of, say, the last 15 years. Before that, they’d be aloof or hung up on their celebrity. But the current model of celebrity is for actors to surprise you with how easygoing they are. That’s part of the branding.

It was during edits, which began after I filed on May 10, that I realized the importance of the photo of a teenage Mahershala playing basketball. It juxtaposed everything we think we know about him today. But that young kid, that anonymous Mahershala, is actually the story. Here’s this guy who grew up playing a particularly cultural role as an urban black kid and doing the stuff you’re supposed to do. And then, through a series of random happenstances, he finds himself with a Shakespeare company. The switch between cultural contexts, and the things that one must necessarily do in order to successfully navigate those contexts, was his story. From that high school basketball player to the guy in the gleaming white tuxedo at the SAG Awards.

This was GQ’s America issue, so I looked for America’s story in young Mahershala. When you look at the face of that basketball player, do you see that potential? Do you see that beauty, that strength, that wisdom, that talent, that intelligence? And the fact that we don’t, that’s America’s problem. Because it’s all there. He’s the same fucking guy.

The fact that Kenneth Washington is not initially described as black is because of fact checking. I had written that. But here’s what happened: When Mahershala talked to me, he described Washington as “the only black teacher I’d had up until that point.” Those were his exact words, so that’s what I wrote. But the fact checkers, who are crazy thorough, discovered that early on, in his first acting class at St. Mary’s, Mahershala had a black teacher. So the whole line was cut, and the editing was happening so fast that I didn’t notice it. But really, they should’ve just taken the word “only” and left in the fact that he was African-American, because that part was really important.

Just to give you a further sense of the fact checking: They called my dad to check everything I’d said about him in the piece. They got him on the phone and were like, Did you want to study journalism? Are you from Pittsburgh? Did you have 11 siblings?

We quickly went through all the edits. There are many levels of finalizing. By May 25, the work was essentially done.

Mahershala is on a high wire. Like I wrote, he’s been a black man in America for a long time. He knows you have to choose your words carefully. And he does. Not because he’s equivocal. Not because he’s not really down for the cause. None of that. He’s choosing his words carefully because he’s smart enough to understand how this all works, and the risk of not doing so. And that supports the thesis of the piece: that he has a difficult time enjoying his full humanity in America 2017.

We all feel it. We don’t just wake up every day hoping for some black shit to happen so we can tweet about it. We would much rather be interested in a regular life. That’s what we want. The difficulty of being a human being—the toll it takes on you—is such that it has to be addressed.

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Elon Green is a writer in Port Washington, New York. He's an editor at Longform. Find him on Twitter @ElonGreen.