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Moonlight's Mahershala Ali: 5 Things to Know About the Star of the Oscar Hopeful

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Amanda Marsalis

While actor Mahershala Ali has been turning in memorable performances on TV and in film for many years (see: Netflix’s House of Cards, HBO’s Treme, The Hunger Games franchise), he’s generating a lot of attention for two current projects: his role on Marvel’s Luke Cage as the quietly powerful Cottonmouth, and his performance as sympathetic father figure/drug dealer Juan in the indie drama Moonlight — the latter of which is generating Oscar buzz.

The actor, 42, is humbly embracing all the attention, including his heartthrob status. “However I can get a supporter, I’ll take it,” he tells PEOPLE with a laugh. “I hope they always respond to the work, and then maybe a muscle or two can support the work. I’m flattered and appreciative, for sure.” 

Here’s what you need to know about Ali:

1. Mahershala is actually his nickname. 

“My birth name is Mahershalalhashbaz,” he told IndieWire at the Toronto Film Festival. “It’s from the Bible, Isaiah, chapter 8, verses 1 and 3. People say, ‘What’s the short version of your name?’ and I say Mahershala is the short version of my name, that’s my nickname. So I’ve embraced that as my acting name as well.” If you’re stuck on the pronunciation, it’s Mah-HER-shuh-lah.

2. He’s married.

His wife is singer and artist Amatus Sami-Karim. The couple married in 2013 and knew each other for nearly 20 years before tying the knot. “I know she’s a serious person,” he said on the podcast Death, Sex and Money in March. “She’s extraordinarily intelligent, she’s about the right things, spiritually grounded, a beautiful person.”

3. He’s a multi-talented athlete.

“I grew up playing sports. As early as 4 years old, I was competing very seriously,” he said on Death, Sex and Money. “First I started in BMX racing, and later got into basketball and all this stuff. I never really related to that whole thing about beating someone else, that’s just not my spirit.” For him, sports was just a means to an end: “I’m a goal-oriented person,” he said. “It became this goal to go to school for free because otherwise I wasn’t going. So I got a basketball scholarship and that was great and my education was paid for.”

For more on Mahershala Ali, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands now

4. He left House of Cards on his own accord.

After four seasons on the Netflix show, he left his character, Remy, behind. “I knew going into last season that that was going to be my last,” he told EW. “I had conversations with [the writers and Netflix] about making an exit, because I felt like Remy had said all he has to say. They were really kind about it, and we parted ways on good terms.” Leaving the show helped him make way for a film close to his heart. “I absolutely had to do Moonlight,he tells PEOPLE of the breakout indie film, about a gay black boy growing up poor in Miami and his turbulent journey into adulthood. “Other projects I wanted, I was really graciously asking for them to work around the schedule for Moonlight. And they did, which was wonderful … It was a priority for me because I understood how important it was, but also what it sort of required of me. I was basically working seven days a week for about five or six weeks.”

 

5. He’s a cat person … for good reason.

He’s got a kitty (named Nas, after the hip-hop artist). “Well, I’m allergic to dogs and not to cats,” he told GQ. “It’s also a Muslim thing. We can’t have dogs in the house.” Ali converted to Islam during graduate school after a visit to a mosque with his now-wife and her mom. “I just had this really strong response where this prayer is resonating in my body, and I’m, like, crying,” he said on Death, Sex and Money. “I woke up a week later, and I get up and I go, ‘I gotta go to the mosque.’ Long story short, I converted that day.”