When Mahershala Ali first read the script for award-winning filmmaker Benjamin Cleary’s Swan Song, the story grabbed him, pulled him in and wouldn’t let him go. He knew he had to be a part of taking it from page to screen.
“From the first time I read it, the story just felt unprecedented,” he tells ESSENCE. “I hadn’t seen anything like that before. And I just had such a strong emotional reaction and connection to the story that I just really wanted to be involved in any way I could.”
That involvement would come in not just starring in but also becoming a producer for the Apple TV+ project, which is both a futuristic story and a gut-wrenching drama that leaves you wondering how far you would you go to protect the peace of the ones you love. It follows Ali’s character, Cameron, as he grapples with a major decision following the news that his illness has become terminal.
The actor was taken with the story, and equally so with Cleary. The writer and director also won over co-star Naomie Harris, who plays Cameron’s wife, Poppy.
“I just remember having my first conversation with him and he’s just so genuine and so heart-centered, and just so gorgeous,” she says of the filmmaker. “He just draws you in and I’m just like, ‘Oh my God, I want to work with this person.'”
Both Ali and Harris were also ecstatic about the opportunity to work together again. They starred in 2016’s Moonlight, which garnered the pair Academy Award nominations (his first Oscar win). It also created a bond that was evident as they opened our interview, catching up with each other on their current work and life changes in joyous tones. While their time together for that film would be short, as it was shot in 25 days and she was only around for three of them, this film, shot over a span of nearly three months, was a “deep dive” that reminded both parties of what they value about one another.
“I felt so honored that Mahershala asked for me to be part of this movie and wanted to work with me again. And I think everybody knows he’s an extraordinary actor, but I think what’s so special about Mahershala is that he’s just one of the nicest people on the planet,” she says. “Not only is he incredibly hard working, but he’s so giving as well, as a performer and as a person. So I knew that [it] was going to be an amazing experience.”
The feeling was mutual.
“The thing that stood out to me in our brief time of getting to work together was the fact that Naomie is fully committed and goes all in from take one to take 10,” he says. “She was going to be all in. And so that was something that I think brought me so much peace, ease and confidence was to have Naomie as a partner with this story.”
“Seeing Naomie in Moonlight do what she had to do, and just pop up on set, and just change like that and commit to it in such little time, it just taught me so much about how to approach this work moving forward,” he adds. “So on this, I have not had a better experience working with somebody in my life. I felt like we were just, we were in it together.”
But the biggest draw was getting to play these complex characters. For Harris, she fell for Poppy’s big heart, her “love-centeredness” as she described it.
“She’s sort of sacrificial in a way. Like everybody comes first and she’s just always taken care of everybody and so full of love. I’ve never played a character like that,” she says. “I really sort of hesitated because I was like, I don’t want her to seem like a kind of walkover or too weak, or what have you. But I really loved exploring somebody who’s just so open and so centered in that much love.”
As for the two-time Oscar winner, the richness of the characters and the “fear” that he felt in the emotional stretching required to tell Cameron’s story attracted him.
“I usually know I’m in the right place if something scares me,” he says. “And what concerned me was just the deep, emotional connection that this character has to have to his family.”
The film certainly takes one on a rollercoaster. Nothing is predictable as you wonder what path Cameron will take, and what that means for both his family’s future and his own. The story is also a testament to the power of love; the sacrifices one makes, the vulnerability required, and how loss changes the way you show it.
“What I learned about love is there’s a difference between being around and being present,” Ali says. “I lost a couple of people, [a] couple close family members recently. The movie popped up in my head…just some of the things around being present with the ones you love and doing everything that you can do in the moment and really working to achieve balance in your life. People we love end up being sacrificed for other things.”
He adds, “I think what you see Cameron experience in the story is this epiphany about being deeply present, and being awake in every moment with the people that we love and the people that we cherish. It’s almost impossible to do, but it is a very rich reminder to be present.”
Swan Song will be released in theaters and on Apple TV+ December 17.