Abubakr Ali, who graduated the Yale School of Drama alongside Jeremy O. Harris in 2019, made entertainment industry headlines last September when he was cast as the first Arab Muslim man to play a lead role in a screen comic book adaptation. Following TV guest spots on shows like The Walking Dead: World Beyond, Katy Keene, and Little Voice, Ali will take on the titular role in the upcoming Netflix series Grendel, based on the award-winning Dark Horse comic books by Matt Wagner. Before that, he’ll be seen starring as Khal in Billy Porter’s enchanting directorial debut, Anything’s Possible, which opened the 40th Anniversary Outfest Los Angeles LGBTQ+ Film Festival. Khal is a handsome and charming, but adorably goofy and awkward, cis teenage boy who falls for one of his classmates in their senior year, the beautiful and stylish YouTuber and animal lover, Kelsa (Eva Reign), who is trans. The uplifting romance launches globally on Prime Video on Friday, July 22nd. Read our ★★★★ review of the film.
Ahead of the film’s premiere, The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann had an exclusive conversation with Abubakr Ali about his approach to playing Khal, his experience of working opposite Eva Reign, what he took away from his time with Billy Porter, and how contrasting his role in Grendel is.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: You’ve said that working your Yale classmates taught you to have something to say behind everything you do as an actor, how would you relate that to playing Khal in Anything’s Possible?
Abubakr Ali: “The biggest thing I learned from working with those human beings was how to have a politic behind what I’m doing. Similarly, Billy Porter was always saying on this set, ‘What is your responsibility as an artist?’ Very often, if you’re working on a high school rom-com, you’re not really going to be thinking about that. So it was beautiful on Anything’s Possible to be thinking about how this is going to affect people and how this might make at least one person’s life better. This film centres Eva Reign as a Black trans girl, and a big question for me, both in my life and in my work as an artist, is how do I mobilize my privilege to uplift those around me? The crucial thing for me in this work was, how do I support Eva and lift her up and look her in the eye and tell her, ‘Hey, I’ve got you. No matter what happens, no matter how crazy things around us might be, I’m here for you.'”
The dynamics of the relationship that we see at the heart of this film, between a young cis man and young trans woman, have generally been ignored, stigmatized, or sensationalized by the media and on screen. What did you make of the way that it was written by screenwriter Ximena García Lecuona and what responsibility did you feel personally to get that portrayal right?
“You see these characters who have the very soft, innocent, pure first impulse of love and it’s nice to see characters who don’t judge that. We tend to judge love today, we really do. The second that I have feelings for someone, I judge it. I’m like, maybe I should hide it, maybe I shouldn’t tell anyone about it?! Your head just automatically puts all these walls in the way. So it’s beautiful to see these two young people—who society expects to judge their feelings, to put parameters around their feelings, and to define what sexuality is for each of them—instead choose to ignore all of that and fully allow themselves to honour that initial impulse and to give it weight, to give it space, and to give it respect.”
In the same way that Eva’s character Kelsa is informed by her trans experience but not defined by it, your character is a young Muslim man who isn’t defined by his identity, nor are his family members. That’s really refreshing and important to see, not to mention that he’s the romantic lead.
“Yeah, that’s not something we’ve really seen before. The question of the piece for me is, how do you as a marginalized person, or an othered person, balance your desire to live freely and live joyfully in relation to what society and everyone around you expects your experience to be, what they want your experience to be? With Kelsa, they view her as someone who is going to live a difficult life and people might turn against her, but she just wants to live freely and to honour her feelings for this boy. Whereas for Khal, in a more subtle sense, it’s about how does he honour his feelings for this human being and also balance the expectations of his family. What I really love about this movie is that we get to see the older generation have the reaction that, frankly, you don’t expect to see.”
“I remember reading through the script for the first time and being like, ‘Oh man, when his parents find out, the shit is going to hit the fan! They’re going to kick him out. It’s going be a whole a whole thing.’ But it’s beautiful to see that not be the case in this situation. There may be people who think that’s not realistic, but movies aren’t real. None of it is real, so at the end of the day, it’s nice for us to allow an audience to see what’s possible, what can happen and to just embrace it.”
What kind of atmosphere did Billy Porter create on set as a director?
“It was literally the best possible set you can imagine! To see an artist with the level of reach, the level of experience, the level of success and privilege that Billy has, use all of that to create a space where every single person on the set felt safe, felt like they could be heard, and felt taken care of, is just so inspirational to me. It’s something that I’ve learned so much from. I pray to God that there’s a day when, wherever my career goes and whatever level of success I achieve, that I’m able to use whatever I do have to help everyone around me feel like they can do the best work that they can do. Billy creating that space let us as actors take risks, try things, and fully explore the three-dimensional breadth of our artistry. Which is a privilege that doesn’t often happen. It was amazing to have a director that gave us that full experience. Not just for me and Eva, but for every single player on the set.”
This film is going to mean a lot to people who see themselves reflected in these characters. When was the first time that you saw yourself reflected on screen, on the stage, or on the page, and maybe felt seen and more certain about your place in the world?
“I never saw myself in a movie to be honest. I never did. So I had superimpose myself into different things that I watched. Speaking from my own experience, there’s this thing that happens with so many young Muslim or young brown boys growing up, where you have to pick something to latch on to. For me, it was cartoons because in reality there was nothing where I saw myself. Working on this movie allowed me to live that childhood dream of being the Prince Charming, of being like the loverboy, because I never found a character that that I saw myself in. I’d kind of bullshit myself and be like, ‘I guess I could be that guy, he has brownish hair, so I could be that dude.’ Growing up, my inspirations and the thing I learned from was movies. I learned how to let another human being know that I loved them and had feelings for them from movies. What a gift it is to be a part of something that is going to redefine that for a whole new generation and open new doors and allow more people to have that experience, and to have it fully and not have to superimpose themselves on to someone else.”
It’s such a gentle film, but trailblazing and powerful in its own way.
“Exactly. In terms of Khal, how often do you see a male lead who is unafraid to be tender and unafraid to be soft? In movies, we’re so used to the cis straight white thing of like, ‘I’m a tough guy, I’m charming, I’m too cool for school. I’m gonna hold my emotions in.’ Whereas with this movie, we get a human being who’s unafraid to lead from a soft space; who’s unafraid to be tender, to be kind, to be soft-spoken and not take up space as the male lead in a story.”
All the things that we need more of in the world. Next we’ll see you in another lead role in Netflix’s adaptation of Matt Wagner’s Grendel comic book series. What was that experience like?
“It was it was a whirlwind. I left to start shooting it two days after we got done with Anything’s Possible and it was quite a ride because these characters could not be more polar opposite as human beings. I wish that I could say they had something in common, but they don’t! I went from playing this kind-hearted human being to this character who is a traumatized, ugly human. It was a challenge going from the joyful beauty of this movie to being a scary person. It took a little bit of an adjustment period to navigate that, but I’m really excited for people to see that. What a joy it is for an actor to go from playing such a kind, loving human to playing a murderer”
Did you leave working on Anything’s Possible feeling lighter and brighter, with a bit of a different perspective on the world?
“Actually, I did. There was a cultivation of a playful energy on that set and it was the best thing that could have happened before going into Grendel, because when you’re operating within these dark worlds, these dark genres, these dark stories, you have to keep that voice of play and curiosity inside you. In the midst of the darkness and the scariness of it all, there’s still a sense of discovery, there’s a sense of fiery playfulness that has to exist to keep it alive, otherwise we’re all going to be miserable watching darkness unveiled.”
By James Kleinmann
Anything’s Possible launches globally on Prime Video on Friday, July 22nd 2022.