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True Detective Season 3: How Mahershala Ali Helped Re-Shape The Lead Character

There's a reason why Mahershala Ali is an Oscar-winning, Golden Globe-nominated actor: he's a formidable talent who isn't afraid to offer his own thoughts on the characters he plays. As it happens, that's exactly what he did with his latest role, the time-weathered Northwest Arkansas state detective Wayne Hays on the third season of True Detective

Speaking with Entertainment Weekly, Ali revealed that series creator Nic Pizzolatto originally presented Wayne Hays as a supporting character — and a white man. When Ali heard the pitch, he was more intrigued by the possibility of what could be done with Wayne than what was already there, and so he made a rejoinder to Pizzolatto's ideas that eventually spurred the creative to re-work the character. 

"I didn't respond strongly to what I was offered. I was excited about what hadn't been done," Ali admitted, referring to the opportunity for him to portray the lead on the series, which has only ever placed white actors (Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson in the first season, and Colin Farrell, Rachel McAdams, Taylor Kitsch, Kelly Reilly, and Vince Vaughn in the second) at the forefront. 

Ali was interested in potentially portraying the lead character and of having Wayne be a black man, and felt confident that the alterations would improve the story. He wound up texting Pizzolatto photos of his grandfather, a state police officer just like Wayne, dressed in his uniform to prove his point. 

"The pictures helped show him how personal it was to me. It was more about pitching myself and presenting the idea of Wayne being a black cop and why it would work. [It was] a slightly tweaked vision inspired by what Nic already had on the page," said Ali, who previously told EW that he wanted to show Pizzolatto that black state police officers "existed in this space in the '60s, in the '70s" — and in Arkansas, where True Detective season 3 is set. 

"I got to read the first four [scripts], and 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 [the lead role].' And I'm 40 at that time. And if it don't happen now, it really may not happen," Ali shared in a separate interview with the outlet. "And I was like, 'I think your story would be served. I think the story would improve in this case if this lead character is black.' We don't have to beat them over the head with the race element, but let's write it."

Ali continued, explaining that he was "encouraging" Pizzolatto to view racism "from the standpoint of how it's experienced" rather than from the periphery or with a lens that doesn't properly reflect reality, which is always more nuanced than drama. "Racism is not experienced as the N-word all the time, right?" the actor stated. 

Ultimately, Ali's counter-pitch worked in a massive way, and Pizzolatto quickly got to work re-shaping who Wayne Hays is. 

"I came back to [Nic] and I was like, 'I want to play that part,'" said Ali. "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.'"

True Detective season 3 hasn't yet aired for the masses (and won't until January 13), but critics are already calling it a fantastic return to form. And more than the mysterious case that makes up the heart of the narrative, or the elements of religion and self-actualization, or the ominous aesthetic, or the eerie setting of the Ozark Mountains, it's Ali's performance as Wayne Hays that reviewers are practically tripping over their feet to bow down to. 

"The marvel of Ali's performance is that he's always holding something in and you rarely lose track of the anger or confusion being sublimated," wrote The Hollywood Reporter's Daniel Fienberg. Added TV Guide's Liam Mathews, "He's a master of stoicism that lets just enough pain through. He's alternately intimidating and tender, a good man haunted by demons. No disrespect to McConaughey, but it might be the best performance on any season of True Detective."

If Ali hadn't set forth his own vision for Wayne Hays, True Detective season 3 may not have ended up as wonderful as many are saying it is. 

Witness Ali in the starring role when the anthology series premieres its new season on HBO on Sunday, January 13.