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