The actor also talks about going from seeing 'a really beautiful side' of himself in Billy Porter's film to playing an 'ugly' character in 'Grendel.'
Getting to play the romantic lead in a feature film and getting to play the eponymous antihero in a comic book adaptation are dream roles for most actors, but they are also so far opposite each other on the spectrum of characters, it used to be rare the same person would even be considered for both types. Abubakr Ali not only already booked both types, but he will actually be seen in those roles within months of each other, first starring opposite Eva Reign in Billy Porter's feature directorial debut Anything's Possible and then starring in Andrew Dabb's adaptation of Grendel.
"With Anything's Possible I see, thankfully, a really beautiful side of myself, and within Grendel, there's ugliness. I think it's important for people to see that and learn from it. I hope they do," Ali tells Metacritic.
In Anything Possible, Ali plays Khal, a shy high school senior who spends a lot of his time offering relationship advice on Reddit but not going for what he wants in his own romantic life. That is until he connects with Kelsa (Reign), a popular and confident trans girl who also spends time talking about relationships and identity online (through social videos). In Grendel, Ali plays assassin Hunter Rose, who, at least in the comics, starts out wanting to clean up the criminal underworld but soon decides to take it over instead.
"I feel really lucky as an actor because how often do you go from one character and quite literally in every possible sense go to the opposite human being? When I think about about Grendel and the work we did, I'm actually very scared to watch it, and not in terms of the product, but in terms of, he's an ugly human being — with clear motivations and a very strong sense of purpose as a character, but it was an ugly human being. So, to work through that and then to explore that as an actor was very scary," Ali says.
While Hunter/Grendel has an extreme violent streak, Anything's Possible's Khal is "not weighed down by toxic masculinity," Ali says. "He's a human being who's unafraid to be soft, he's not afraid to allow his heart to be the thing that leads his actions, and he's a human who's not afraid to say how he feels and to be tender. To present a new version of a leading man, and hopefully be a part of a new era of leading men, was a gift."
Since Anything's Possible sets out to create new tropes and character types for its genre, including allowing its female lead to be more confident and its male lead to be more vulnerable, Ali doesn't feel like there were any pieces of pop culture that he could have used to help inform who he wanted Khal to be.
"I have two words for you: I wish," he says. "I wish there were things that I could really look up to and be inspired from and then to draw, but there really weren't. The beautiful thing is it allowed me as an artist to create a character and to really be creative."
The character of Khal is very introspective, and Ali notes that, in the beginning of the film, he is "almost disappearing into himself and into his clothes." So much so that Ali didn't feel Khal would even be comfortable dancing in the film's dance sequence. Although that sequence plays at the end of the film, under the credits, Ali reveals it was originally going to be at the beginning of the story. At that point, he felt Khal still didn't really know Kelsa and was "still a nervous kid," so he talked to Porter, and they decided the extent of his dancing would be just to wave his arms around.
"For me the dancing experience was very chill, very restful. It was a vacation from the wicked schedule of a film shoot," he says with a laugh.
To better get into the mental and emotional space of the "softness" and "tenderness" he responded to in Khal, Ali "spent a month just listening to Disney music, listening to soft pop," and the In The Heights soundtrack, he shares. The latter was especially important in getting into the right headspace for the relationship between Khal and Kelsa, he explains.
"I really leaned into the lankiness and the inwardness of the character. And throughout the movie, as he spends time with Kelsa and is inspired by Kesla, we see this character come out of that. And you see him expand as a person and gain more confidence. Even his clothes, he shorter sleeves, he's more able to stand in his body and be confident, which was a joy," Ali says.
As Khal more fully comes into his own the film, he is able to stand up to, rather than try to avoid, the drama that comes with being in a teenage romance. This includes everything from a misunderstanding about who he really bought flowers for, to fighting back against the injustice of a friend's transphobia, to advocating for himself and what he really wants.
"What's beautiful about the movie is the issue isn't that Kelsa is trans, it's more so just the relationship drama that is at the forefront of it. He's mainly afraid of just hurting people, which is really lovely. He's a kid who cares," Ali says.
"How often do we get to see two 17 year olds have a mature, honest, open conversation, where they choose themselves in relation to the relationship?" he notes. "I think so often within the genre, someone maybe throws away a part of themselves or relinquishes an aspect of themselves. [But] you're not selfish in choosing and honoring yourself. In fact, it's selfless choice. And it betters everyone around you."
Get to know Abubakr Ali:
Thus far, Ali has been known for roles on Katy Keene (Metascore: 71), Little Voice (60), Dig (49), The Walking Dead: World Beyond (48), and Power Book II: Ghost.