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Hot 20 2009: The Rising Star: Mahershalalhashbaz Ali, Actor

Photography by John Lee.

If you don’t recognize the dashing Mahershalalhashbaz Ali from The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, don’t feel bad. He was caked under three hours of makeup to assume the role of an aging Tizzy, Brad Pitt’s father figure in the film. “There were a couple of moments where I was like, ‘Hmmm, I don’t think I would look this old at 48,’” says Ali. The role, which Ali says just “clicked for him,” propelled the Berkeley actor into the limelight. This fall, look for him in Law and Order and starring alongside Julia Ormond in the original Lifetime film The Wronged Man, in which he plays the role of Calvin Willis, a man sent to prison for a crime he didn’t commit. He’s also starring in the pilot Lights Out, set to debut next year on FX.

Though he says he’s “retired,” Ali is also an accomplished rapper and has performed with notable artists such as Planet Asia and the Oakland group Hieroglyphics.

On the subject of his first name (the longest Hebrew name in the Bible), Ali chuckles. “I know it’s the last thing you’re supposed to do in Hollywood, but I decided that at least professionally, I’d go by Mahershalalhashbaz. But if you meet me on the street, I’ll just introduce myself as ‘Ali.’” Somehow, we don’t think that will stop him from getting recognized.

Check out the other 2009 Hot 20.