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Mahershala Ali on his 'prophetic' “Leave the World Behind” character and film's mysterious ending

Mahershala Ali on his 'prophetic' “Leave the World Behind” character and film's mysterious ending

Plus, the two-time Oscar winner shares his thoughts on what the disaster film has to say about modern society's "prison of convenience."

Warning: This article contains spoilers for Leave the World Behind.

Mahershala Ali says there's a certain level of fear involved when he chooses a role.

And his latest, Leave the World Behind, certainly fits the bill. The film begins with the Sandford family — played by Julia Roberts, Ethan Hawke, Charlie Evans, and Farrah Mackenzie — as they opt to stay in a gorgeous rental home outside of their life in Brooklyn for a brief family vacation. It all goes to hell, though, when the rental's owner G.H. Scott (Ali), and his daughter, Ruth (Myha'la Herrold), show up on their doorstep bearing news of a widespread blackout and cyberattack that takes them all off the grid... maybe forever.

"The circumstances were something that really caught my attention and felt like it was an opportunity to play a character who was moving through a very heightened and intense situation, and those make for really interesting circumstances and for great drama," Ali tells EW. "And there's some difficult moments in there as an actor as well that I tend to feel a little bit, I don't know if scared is the right word, but certain moments will make me nervous in reading the script."

He continues, "But I also know that that's the very reason why you do it, because you're questioning, how are we going to pull this off? How am I going to do this? And I always get so curious that I end up finding myself really wanting to do it as a result of perhaps feeling some anxiety around certain moments, just a lack of clarity as to if I feel like I could pull it off or not."

It's not a spoiler to say that the two-time Oscar winner does, in fact, pull it off in the disaster film, which is adapted for the screen and directed by Sam Esmail. Ahead, Ali talks about his "prophetic" character, how shooting during COVID made the film feel more uncomfortable, his take on the movie's ambiguous ending, and what the thriller has to say about modern society's "prison of convenience."

<p>JoJo Whilden/NETFLIX</p> Mahershala Ali as G.H. and Julia Roberts as Amanda in 'Leave the World Behind'

JoJo Whilden/NETFLIX

Mahershala Ali as G.H. and Julia Roberts as Amanda in 'Leave the World Behind'

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The characters of G.H. and Ruth are probably the most changed from book to screen — what elements of the character, either from the book or the script, intrigued you the most?

MAHERSHALA ALI: There's nothing about the character that I think is particularly explosive or surprising per se, but I think what was interesting was exploring a character that is in an unfamiliar position for me as a Black man. And I hate to sort of lead with that because we should continue to have these conversations around diversity and things of that nature, but I don't want that to take over the conversation per se, about the character. But I think in all honesty, I'm always attracted to something that feels different from what's out there and different from me personally in terms of things that I've gotten to play. And so I feel like there's some elements in that character in terms of how sort of linear and practical he is. But I do think that there's something really intriguing about his approach to how he studies the market.

He has this prophetic characteristic where he can look at the market, study the numbers, and draw a conclusion from what appears to just be something that is mathematical. He can derive other things from that information. And in his experience, he has been right before. Some of those things are in the book. Some of those things were in the script. And when you look at a movie that's running two hours and 30 minutes, everything can't make it. But that information was still there for me as an actor to pull from to help develop the character. I think that world of finance is a bit of a mystery to me as an artist, just in how that world functions. And to get to take on a character that felt like he had some elements of him that were unknown to me is always inherently interesting to me.

Each character in the film handles the apocalypse very differently. Which character do you feel you'd most be like in this disaster scenario?

I feel like I probably would have elements of all those characters — there's elements with G.H. that I recognize in myself. But there's the things that Ethan's character struggles with, trying to make himself step up, trying to do things the right way, sort of challenging himself as a man to step up in a way in which he perceives a man is supposed to step up. I think a lot of people wrestle with those things, especially in the era we're in, where we're questioning all the ways in which we may have been socialized or raised in a certain way. And I'm sure I would worry in the way in which Julia's character worries. So I imagine I could pull a little bit from each of these characters and see myself probably responding similarly, which is also why it's great, because I think people can probably see a little bit of themselves in any of those characters.

Did working on Leave the World Behind make you think more about cyberattacks or apocalypses in general? Was the likelihood of that a topic of discussion on set?

We started in February 2022, and if you remember — at least in this industry anyway — we were testing for COVID three or four times a week I want to say. Doing that film wasn't a huge leap or a departure from some version of something we were already experiencing where, look, we've never seen the world so disrupted in that way for so long. At the time we were filming it, clearly it's always possible, but it felt very possible and a little uncomfortable at times because of things we were experiencing in that moment as far as COVID and people having friends and family who had passed away from it, things of that nature. So there's a real awareness that things were and are changing in the world.

<p>JoJo Whilden/ Netflix</p> Mahershala Ali as G.H., Myha'la Herrold as Ruth, Julia Roberts as Amanda, and Ethan Hawke as Clay in 'Leave the World Behind'

JoJo Whilden/ Netflix

Mahershala Ali as G.H., Myha'la Herrold as Ruth, Julia Roberts as Amanda, and Ethan Hawke as Clay in 'Leave the World Behind'

The ending of the film is somewhat ambiguous. We get flashes of what's going on in the outside world — nothing good! — but not a ton more answers. What is your read on it all, and do you think these two families decide to stick it out together?

What I love — I think if you really just watch how the story unfolds and you really pay attention — there's some real resistance between them at first, clearly. And I think by the end, the circumstances with the larger event that is happening, you feel like [these families] are at a good place, sort of coming together. It feels like they would end up working together for whatever time that they had left, because clearly, that's what they're doing by the time the movie ends — they're all working together and in unison and trying to survive this thing together. So I feel like they would continue to work in that way because I think there's a real awareness about how helpless they all are in this situation. No amount of money is really going to improve anything for anyone. So then it just becomes a matter of relationships and how you treat each other and what you're willing to do for each other, for each other's surviving. So I feel that they would probably hole up in the bunker as best they could, but who knows for how long — you see at the end this mushroom cloud and things happening. I don't know how long they would survive, but I feel that they're going to go out together.

What conversations do you hope people are having after watching Leave the World Behind?

One of the main things is questioning and having conversations around our dependence on technology, which doesn't appear to be going away in terms of our total dependency on it — it's almost like we live in a prison of convenience. And at some point, as the film shows, those conveniences, which we have all grown to depend on and that have moved from being luxuries to necessities, is something that we really have to question.

Also, I think you want people to begin to have conversations or think about who we are as animals, the human condition, who we are as people when there's these larger catastrophic events. Do we love and trust? And are we willing to help and be generous and look out for each other? Or do we all become isolationists in some way, shape, or form? I feel like the movie wants us to look at us as animals, as humans; how it is that we approach living in community and approach looking out for one another and surviving and taking care of each other? And then, also examining what are the repercussions of needing all these things that are really outside of us? What is the impact of not being able to do basic things without the help of technology?

Leave the World Behind is available to stream now on Netflix.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

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