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The Secret to Mahershala Ali’s Piano-Playing in Green Book

Photo: Universal Pictures

If the film Green Book leaves you thinking that Mahershala Ali is a masterful jazz pianist, well, that’s because Mahershala Ali is a masterful actor who had a little help from a masterful jazz pianist.

Ali plays real-life composer and musician Don Shirley in the film, which chronicles the polished songsmith’s unlikely bond with his tough chauffeur and bodyguard (Viggo Mortensen) during a tour of the segregated Deep South of the early 1960s. And while Ali brings his A game to physically acting out Shirley’s fabled virtuosity onscreen, the genuine musicianship came from the fingers of Kris Bowers, who both composed the film’s score and doubled Ali’s piano playing.

“We worked together for about three months before they started shooting,” Bowers told Vulture at the AFI Fest screening of the film in Hollywood, describing the pair’s teamwork approach to capturing Shirley’s performance style. “[Mahershala] always said, ‘When you look at a ballet dancer on the subway, you know they’re a ballet dancer by how they’re standing.’ So he wanted to even look like a pianist when he wasn’t at the piano.”

“A lot of it was just talking about posture and making sure that the choreography of how he was playing was correct and all that,” Bowers added. “But in our first lesson, we focused on just playing a major scale. We were only supposed to meet for an hour, and we met for three hours because he was so glued on playing this scale for three hours straight. By the time we got to our lessons in the second month, we were able to start looking at some of the melodies that were a little simpler, some of the cords that he could definitely get down and play.”

At 29, Bowers is an up-and-comer in the Hollywood scoring scene. He previously collaborated with Jay-Z and Kanye West before seguing into his current career, which includes scoring the Netflix series Dear White People and an Emmy-winning song for the Amazon children’s special The Snowy Day. His own child-prodigy beginnings have left him with some easily ignored bad habits on the piano bench, but he made sure Ali didn’t absorb them.

“I’ve been playing the piano since I was 4, so I’m very comfortable with the way that I play the piano, but I have really bad posture habits,” he chuckled. “So there were times when I would run through a song for him and he’d come over and be like, ‘Yeah, but can you just sit up a little bit and straighten your back, and maybe do this a bit more?’ So a lot of it was actually me trying to adapt to his posture and the way he carried himself.”

Bowers got a little Method himself as he re-created Shirley’s sound for the film. “For the actual prerecords and all the Don Shirley music that we rerecorded, there’s no sheet music. So I transcribed all of it, note for note, and it was all about trying to make sure that we did it justice. Because he was such an incredible pianist, I wanted to make sure that I was playing everything incredibly accurately. I was practicing eight, nine hours a day. It was pretty intense trying to make sure that we were doing it justice.”

But his own dedication did not prepare him for the sort of uncanny multitasking he saw Ali achieve, he admitted. “I already had a lot of respect for actors in general, but watching how he had to not only have these lines down and have the feeling you’re supposed to portray down but also to pretend like he’s playing this instrument at times or have to do all this physical stuff that he’s not comfortable doing, but looks like he’s been doing it forever, was pretty impressive.”

The Secret to Mahershala Ali’s Piano-Playing in Green Book