true detective

Mahershala Ali’s True Detective Character Was Originally Written As White

Mahershala Ali,
The truest detective. Photo: Presley Ann/Getty Images for MVD Inc.

Offers for Green Book and True Detective arrived within days of each other, Mahershala Ali told John David Washington for Variety’s Actors on Actors series. But Ali, fresh off an Oscar win, had to convince True Detective showrunner Nic Pizzolatto that the show’s lead cop could be black. “True Detective was written different. The lead was white, and the other cop was black. And once you see the show, you’ll see that is different from the other seasons, in that the lead character, he’s at the point of the arrowhead,” Ali said. “I could have played that second lead, the supporting character. But in my mind I was like, ‘I’ve done this my entire career. I’ve never done that.’”

To convince Pizzolatto that the show’s lead could believably be a black detective, Ali used photos of his own grandfather, a state police officer. “I went on my phone; I’m hitting up some cousins and whatnot. And they send me some pictures of my grandfather in the state police officer uniform. So I texted them to [Pizzolatto]. And I was like, ‘See, we existed in this space in the ’60s, in the ’70s, [as] state police officers. This is in Arkansas.’”

In True Detective’s Ozarks-set season three, Ali plays detective Wayne Hays, who’s investigating a crime involving two missing children. Ali said he told Pizzolatto that “we don’t have to beat them over the head with the race element,” but that he encouraged him to think about how showing racism could serve the show. “I came back to [Nic] and I was like, ‘I want to play that part.’ And he thought about it a couple of days, got back to me, and he was like, ‘Yo, let’s do this. I’m down.’”

Mahershala Ali’s True Detective Role Written for White Actor