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Swan Song’s Mahershala Ali Reveals What It’s Like To Have Himself As A Co-Star

Mahershala Ali is face to face with himself in Swan Song
(Image credit: Apple TV+)

Learning about the study of actors, and/or listening to professionals talking about the craft, one common lesson you’ll come across is that “acting is reacting.” It’s an emphasis on the idea that a performance isn’t just about delivering lines, but also finding a proper emotional response to what’s happening to a character in a given scene. Of course, there are instances where this is particularly difficult – such as when making a movie with extensive use of green screen, or when playing two separate roles that regularly interact in a story.

In the making of writer/director Benjamin Cleary’s Swan Song, Mahershala Ali found himself facing the latter challenge in a fascinating way, as the movie sees him star as two versions of the same person, albeit separated by extremely distant perspectives. Ultimately the material provides opportunity for the Academy Award-winning actor to deliver some of the best work of his career, and during a recent interview he dug into the process that created the performances.

I had the pleasure of speaking with Mahershala Ali last month during the virtual press day for Swan Song – which is now available to stream on Apple TV+ – and my first question of the interview was about what it was like for the actor to have Mahershala Ali as a co-star. He laughed, giving himself a modest appraisal, but more seriously gave great praise to his collaborators, specifically his double Shane Dean and Benjamin Cleary. Said Ali,

You know, I did ok. I did ok. I'm super happy for it being... That it worked, you know, and that was truly a collaboration with my double, Shane [Dean], and our director – just really trying to communicate what I saw in my head. Because usually you have two actors that get to dance with each other, you find the chemistry, the director comes in and tweaks, and you have a scene. But in this case, I had to communicate what I was trying to do to sort of discover the chemistry that I was seeing in my head.

The feature directorial debut of Benjamin Cleary, Swan Song is set in a not-too-distant future where a man named Cameron Turner (Mahershala Ali) finds himself provided with a fascinating option following the reception of a terminal medical diagnosis. With his condition inoperable, he is informed about a brand new technology that will allow him to be cloned and replaced – the most important thing being that nobody among his family or friends, including his wife (Naomi Harris) is notified of the switch. In preparation for this, Cameron has to spend time with his copy, temporarily named Jack (Mahershala Ali), so that final calibrations can be made and he can be fully prepared for the substitution.

Cameron and Jack are biologically and mentally identical, but the key way in which they are different is that Cameron is preparing for the end of his life, and Jack is preparing to experience a weird kind of second chance. This is obviously more than significant enough to impact their individual emotional responses, but Mahershala Ali was in a position where he had Shane Dean able to mirror his own performance back to him when playing the other side of a given scene. When it came time to see the material edited and matched, he was impressed with the results:

Shane was able to navigate that, and we would switch sides, and then I would go and play the other character. And the next thing you know they were splitting the screen and putting us together and it looked like a real conversation! So it was a really fun exercise. It was difficult, but I would sign up to do it again to some degree. It was that much fun.

The results are fascinating – if not especially because Swan Song is most definitely not the movie that you think it is even as it unfolds. It’s a wonderful sci-fi concept that is beautifully executed, and a film that you should make concentrated efforts not to miss.

Co-starring Awkwafina, Glenn Close, Ayasha Hatendi, and Adam Beach, Swan Song is now available to stream on Apple TV+. And if you can’t get enough of Mahershala Ali, check out our guide to his movies and television appearances that you may have missed.

NJ native who calls LA home; lives in a Dreamatorium. A decade-plus CinemaBlend veteran; endlessly enthusiastic about the career he’s dreamt of since seventh grade.