Why True Detective's Mahershala Ali Stuck With TV In The Middle Of A Booming Film Career

wayne in amelia's classroom true detective season 3
(Image credit: hbo press)

Mild spoilers below for True Detective, so it’s probably best to catch up completely before reading on.

True Detective star Mahershala Ali’s recent career boom has been nothing if not fully deserved. Ali made a name for himself with shows such as Crossing Jordan and The 4400 before landing popular series like House of Cards and Luke Cage. One might have thought he’d fully transition to film after highly acclaimed turns in Moonlight and Green Book, among others. Speaking with CinemaBlend’s Jeff McCobb and other outlets, Ali explained why he stuck with small screen work for HBO’s True Detective Season 3.

I've grown up in television. And what I mean by that is in my career, I was very fortunate to book a pilot a few months out of school, and that was in a time where once you were in TV, you stayed in TV; you didn't get in film. I came out of school in 2000, and I booked Crossing Jordan in February 2001. So my relationship with television has been ongoing, having always aspired to have a blossoming film career, because that's how you prioritize things. But over time, I found that it's less about the medium and way more about the quality of the material. So [True Detective Season 3] is just a 500-page film that happens to be captured on television.

It’s fairly easy to forget how recent a phenomenon it is for movie-focused celebrities choosing to step into television roles. And that True Detective’s masterful first season played a big role in making medium-switching performances a common occurrence these days, with Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson as its stars. Season 2, as uncelebrated as it was, followed suit with Colin Ferrell, Rachel McAdams and Vince Vaughn.

For Season 3, though, creator Nic Pizzolatto and the producers were apparently content to give the starring role to someone with plenty of experience and success in both film and television. For good reasons, Mahershala Ali was the big choice to lead this disturbing investigation as state police detective Wayne Hays.

Speaking of, the character himself played a big part in convincing Mahershala Ali to get involved with True Detective’s third outing. The way Ali put it, portraying Wayne was something of a life-changing experience. In his words:

The gift of having an opportunity to sit in the body and be in the bones of a character like Wayne Hays for six and a half months – as an experience and as an exercise for an actor – I know I'm a better man, I'm a better actor, and I'm a better husband and father as a result of my six and a half months playing this part. Because to do this type of material, to be that close to it, I think it requires you to process and reflect and think about the world and people in a way that goes beyond how I would normally do that. I'm spending so much time in the bones of another person.

While viewers will no doubt become privy to some of the less virtuous acts that Wayne has committed in the past, he’s been mostly on the up and up as far as his reputation and his skillset go. He’s a dedicated cop with a decorated military background when we first meet him. In the second timeline, he’s morphed into a family man, married to Amelia and raising two children.

Now, the most up-to-date timeline is where things are completely out of wack, with Amelia having passed away following some rough years of marriage. Plus, Wayne’s daughter is refusing to exit L.A. to return to her Arkansas roots. It can be easily presumed that Wayne’s hands were not wholly clean when it comes to everything in his life that came after the Purcell family’s woes. (I don’t necessarily think he killed his wife, mind you, but something weird is going on there.)

Mahershala Ali obviously took some highly constructive inspiration from Wayne and his twisted arc, too, by getting so deep into the character’s meticulously laid out headspace. In becoming a better husband and father, it’s possible Ali tried adhering to Wayne’s more positive attributes in that respect, and then maybe viewed the latter chunk of Wayne’s life as a cautionary tale meant to be avoided.

As far as the other troublesome moments that Mahershala Ali was faced with in True Detective, Episode 4 took a particularly pointed look at how the topic of race pushes and pulls Wayne and Roland’s partnership – from Tom’s regretful slur to the powder keg surrounding the one-eyed suspect. It’s obviously not clear if those scenes played heavily into how the role changed Ali, but he definitely gives those sequences a palpable weight.

One thing is for sure: Mahershala Ali wanted to be a part of True Detective Season 3 no matter how it was going to get presented to fans. As he put it here, it’s about the character he’s playing and the people he’s working with, and not so much the format.

If Nic was gonna do that on the stage, I would have wanted to do True Detective Season 3. The medium wasn't as important to me. And I want to continue to do film and balance it, and maybe do more film than television, but I just really want to be in a position where I'm proven as a person and as an actor, and am working with extraordinary people who challenge me, and who support me as well. I just want to get better, and that's really important.

While his overall balance between television and film is yet to be decided, there’s no denying that Mahershala Ali has broadened his horizons in recent years beyond the usual mold of serious dramas. Not only was he a lip-licking villain in Marvel’s Luke Cage, but he also voiced Aaron “Prowler” Davis in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. He appeared in episodes of the unique TV comedies Comrade Detective and Room 104, and will soon be heard voicing a character in Robert Rodriguez’s Alita: Battle Angel.

True Detective Season 3 is airing Sunday nights on HBO at 9:00 p.m. ET, and the mysteries are only getting deeper and weirder. To see what else is coming to primetime soon, be sure to keep current with our midseason TV premiere schedule.

Nick Venable
Assistant Managing Editor

Nick is a Cajun Country native, and is often asked why he doesn't sound like that's the case. His love for his wife and daughters is almost equaled by his love of gasp-for-breath laughter and gasp-for-breath horror. A lifetime spent in the vicinity of a television screen led to his current dream job, as well as his knowledge of too many TV themes and ad jingles.