Did Mahershala Ali really play the piano in Green Book?

26 February 2019, 14:07 | Updated: 26 February 2019, 16:26

By Maddy Shaw Roberts

Here’s exactly how Mahershala Ali became a virtuosic jazz pianist in the space of a few months (hint: he had a little help from a real-life virtuosic jazz pianist).

Mahershala Ali gives a very good impression of being an exceptional jazz pianist in Green Book, the controversial winner of Best Picture at the 91st Academy Awards.

Ali, who picked up an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his performance, plays the real-life black composer and classical and jazz pianist Don Shirley. The film follows Shirley’s battle with racism during his concert tour of the US Deep South in the early 1960s.

But the real musicianship comes from Kris Bowers, the extraordinary 29-year-old American composer who wrote the film score for Green Book and doubled Ali’s piano playing.

Mahershala Ali poses at the 91st Annual Academy Awards
Mahershala Ali poses at the 91st Annual Academy Awards. Picture: Getty

Bowers, an up-and-coming composer in Hollywood, previously collaborated with Jay-Z and Kanye West before writing the music for the Netflix series Dear White People. He has been playing the piano since he was four, and worked with Ali to improve his posture and movement – not just at the piano, but throughout his scenes in the film.

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“We worked together for about three months before they started shooting,” Bowers told Vulture. “[Mahershala] always said, ‘When you look at a ballet dancer on the subway, you know they’re a ballet dancer by how they’re standing.’ So he wanted to even look like a pianist when he wasn’t at the piano.

“A lot of it was just talking about posture and making sure that the choreography of how he was playing was correct and all that,” he added. “But in our first lesson, we focused on just playing a major scale. We were only supposed to meet for an hour, and we met for three hours because he was so glued on playing this scale for three hours straight.”

Kris Bowers attends The 24th Annual Critics' Choice Awards
Kris Bowers attends The 24th Annual Critics' Choice Awards. Picture: Getty

Speaking to W Magazine, Ali said: “The goal, honestly, was not to learn how to play Chopin in three months. That’s not happening. But it was to give myself an opportunity to really sit at that piano and discover how that would inform the rest of my performance.”

Don Shirley, who died on 6 April 2013, was an extraordinary composer-pianist who wrote symphonies for the New York Philharmonic and Philadelphia Orchestra. He also wrote a number of piano concertos, three string quartets and a set of 'Variations' on Offenbach’s opera, Orpheus in the Underworld.

Ali’s portrayal of Shirley earned him his second Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in Green Book, after picking up the award in 2017 for Moonlight. Watching the film back, Bowers told Vulture he was overwhelmed by Ali’s performance.

“I already had a lot of respect for actors in general, but watching how he had to not only have these lines down and have the feeling you’re supposed to portray down but also to pretend like he’s playing this instrument at times or have to do all this physical stuff that he’s not comfortable doing, but looks like he’s been doing it forever, was pretty impressive.”