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What Mahershala Ali hopes "Moonlight" audiences will take away

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“House of Cards” fans will know actor Mahershala Ali from his role as lobbyist Remy Danton, but now he stars in a very different role in the new movie, “Moonlight,” which swept the Gotham Awards and is garnering Oscar buzz.

On “CBS This Morning,” Ali shared that his “House of Cards” character was almost “a hindrance” to him landing the “Moonlight” role.

“I had worked with a producer, Adele Romansky, on another project, and I played a character from a similar world, and [director] Barry [Jenkins] had known me from ‘House of Cards.’ And when she pitched the idea of me in the role, he said, ‘Well, he’s a little too straight-laced,’” Ali said. “And then Adele showed him some footage from another film, I had two scenes in this movie that she produced a year before ‘Moonlight,’ and that was essentially my audition tape.”

The film chronicles the life of a black man, Chiron, from childhood to adulthood, as he struggles to find his place in the world. Ali plays Juan, a drug dealer who becomes a mentor to young Chiron. In one tender scene, Juan teaches Chiron how to swim.

“So what world would you see a drug dealer teaching a boy how to swim? Our playwright who wrote the source material, Tarell McCraney, has shared a story several times about the drug dealer, the person who this character was based on, teaching him how to ride a bike. And those are the stories, those are the moments that -- those qualities, those things are some of the things that people need to hear about, about some of these people,” Ali said.

Ali said the film touches on “persecution” in addition to a boy struggling with his sexuality – “some of these things that make it that much more difficult for people to accept and embrace who they are and live life on their terms.”

During the filming, Ali was juggling four different characters over a short period of time. To keep the them from bleeding together, he turned to music for help.

“We all are attracted to different things sonically and carry ourselves in different ways, and so I made these playlists that were really specific to each character and they helped me kind of zone in on the day and get comfortable and kind of step into the shoes of that character,” Ali said.

Ultimately, Ali hopes “Moonlight” will create “a shaft of light for empathy so that when you see other people who you believe that at first you can’t identify with, that perhaps because of this movie, that it will kind of help people see the commonalities between us all.”