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How Mahershala Ali's Grandfather Landed Him The Lead Role In True Detective

"True Detective" has certainly had its fair share of ups and downs since it first premiered back in 2014. The first season of the crime anthology series was widely acclaimed for its direction, writing, and the incredible on-screen performances of Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey. HBO immediately attempted to follow that success up with a rushed and chaotic second season, which was panned by critics and fans alike, and put the entire future of the series into jeopardy.

Four years after the second season almost killed the show for good, Season 3 managed to get the series back on track, due in no small part to the powerful performance of Mahershala Ali in his lead role as Arkansas detective Wayne Hays. Hays is a man haunted by time: a Vietnam War Veteran whose survival skills are put to the test when he becomes embroiled in a missing person case involving two children. Ali's performance in Season 3 earned him a nomination for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series at the 2019 Emmys (per IMDb), and Ali has even gone on record to express his own personal attachment to the character.

That said, it may surprise some fans to learn that when Ali first auditioned for the role, Hays wasn't even supposed to be the series lead –- and that it was only because of Ali's grandfather that the role ended up changing into such a big role at all.

Ali's used a photo of his grandfather to land his role in True Detective

During a recent interview with GQ, Ali revealed that he was originally offered the role of Roland West (eventually played by Stephen Dorff), but he pushed for the lead role instead. He explained to series creator Nicholas Pizzolatto that he had spent 18 years playing supporting characters, and that he needed a different experience if he was going to take on the role. To further convince Pizzolatto of his connection to the role, Ali actually sent him several photos of his grandfather. Ali described his grandfather as a "stoic, beautiful man" who was a military officer that eventually turned to police work in the late 1960s – just like Wayne Hays.

"To engage in the conversation of playing this lead cop, I felt like I needed to support that with a real picture," Ali explained. "And say that, 'we existed in that time, and that there was some degree of presence and empowerment, because here is my grandfather as a California State police officer." 

Ali says the pictures had a huge impact on Pizzolato, who agreed to rewrite the series so that Hays would take over as the lead protagonist, and he worked with Ali to drastically change the character before filming. In the end, it's extremely clear that Ali's grandfather had a massive impact on his performance as Wayne Hays -– on the screen, as well as behind the scenes.