Having played a host of different characters over the years, Mahershala Ali (whose full name is Mahershalalhashbaz) knew there were certain elements he had to bring to the role of the military commander Boggs in “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1.”
“With soldiers or lawyers there are stereotypical clues. Soldiers carry themselves a certain way. There were certain general things I had to do to get across the idea of playing a lifelong soldier,” Ali says.
Boggs is a career military man who gets what appears to be the unworthy assignment of being the body guard to Hunger Games winner Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence). He leads the team she travels with outside the secure military district to create propaganda films designed to light a fire under the rebellion.
He’s not initially happy with the assignment, but he eventually comes to respect Katniss. It was up to Ali to show both the soldier doing his duty out of respect for command and later out of a new appreciation for the unlikely hero.
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Ali picked up a few extra pounds to make Boggs look less like his role in the Netflix series “House of Cards,” where he plays a former press secretary. Ali wanted to get across how Boggs had been a career military man living in an underground world all his life — prepping for this big moment.
“The only thing he’s heard about and trained for his entire life is the coming revolution against the Capitol,” Ali says.
The 40-year-old Ali got his first big break in acting with the TV series “Crossing Jordan.” Since then he’s been in the TV shows “Threat Matrix,” “The 4400” and “Treme,” plus the films “The Place Beyond the Pines” and “Predators.”
The Bay Area native didn’t grow up wanting to be an actor. He attended St. Mary’s College (just east of Berkeley) on a basketball scholarship (he once traveled to Fresno State for a game).
His switch from athletics to acting started when he decided to delay a second semester of Spanish and take an acting class instead. By his senior year, he knew acting was in his future.
As with his fellow actors, Ali read all of “The Hunger Games” books to have a better understanding of his character. He doesn’t get too deep in the psychology of a character, but he likes having a back story to play.
The more important thing he got out of the books was an appreciation of the writing.
“The situations, the propaganda for the war, all of the characters, there’s something there for everyone to connect with. This is a film for a wide audience,” Ali says.
The books do have a broad audience, but a majority of the readers are young. Becoming a part of “The Hunger Games” world has opened Ali up to a new generation of fans.
It didn’t take much thinking when it came to becoming part of “The Hunger Games” franchise.
“‘Hunger Games’ was so successful that by the time ‘Mockingjay’came around the franchise had a reputation for being a quality project. What surprised me was how good it was,” Ali says.
He was also surprised by Jennifer Lawrence. What amazed him most about “The Hunger Games” star was how easily she could drop in and out of character.
In one heavy moment, Ali explains, Lawrence is reduced to an emotional wreck. As soon as the cameras would stop, she would be happy and joking with cast and crew. Once filming resumed, Lawrence reverted back to the emotional mess. Ali watched her do it 10-15 times without a mistake.