Five Questions with Usman Ally, Star of ‘Nobodies’, ‘Veep’ and ‘Series Of Unfortunate Events’
Usman Ally is the quintessential Hollywood “everyman” as he blazes through roles that give him the freedom to exhibit the training he garnered after graduating with honors in Acting from the University of Florida.
Before then Ally enjoyed a vibrant upbringing that began with his birth in Swaziland, and expanded to Botswana, Kenya, Tanzania and Pakistan, which all served as vital hosts to his upbringing for the first 18 years of his life.
Ally eventually headed to Chicago to flex his acting muscles by immersing himself in the theater scene.
The training and experience has clearly paid off as Ally’s career trajectory in an industry that demands more than most are able to give is on track for a perfect landing.
The actor is currently starring in TV Land’s much-hyped comedy series, Nobodies, which premiered on March 29th, and is executive-produced by the one and only Melissa McCarthy. Ally has garnered praise for his flawless portrayal of “troublemaker” studio exec Gavin, who “makes it his mission in life to destroy the three “nobodies.”
Ally is also gearing up to reprise his role on HBO’s hit show Veep — where he plays Ambassador Al Jaffar opposite Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ Selina Meyer. There is also a strong possibility that the role of Jaffar will expand considerably, which is a true testimony of Ally’s undeniable charisma.
Ally has also been attached to additional projects like Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events opposite Neil Patrick Harris and most recently the Dwayne Johnson produced YouTube series, Lifeline — that centers around “ a little known life insurance company that sends its agents forward 33 days in time to prevent the accidental deaths of its clients.”
Based on such a diverse group of projects, it’s obvious why Ally seems to be on the radar of major players in Hollywood.
We spoke to him recently to get a more in depth look into what drives his creative choices and where he hopes to end up in the not so distant future.
You have quite the diverse background, how did you get into show business and what are some of the obstacles you still face as an actor of color.
I was very fortunate that from a young age I had teachers who saw that I had a talent for interpreting the written word. When I was 11 years old, an English teacher by the name of Mrs. Lee at Saint Austin’s Academy in Nairobi, Kenya really encouraged me towards performance art. She introduced me to Shakespeare, and coached me through Mark Antony’s eulogy in Julius Caesar. She then made me perform it in front of the entire school, and that was the beginning of a long journey in the arts. There are several obstacles that actors of color still face in our industry, but it’s my belief that all of them stem from the fact that the people who have the platform, financial resource and agency to tell stories are generally part of a pretty homogenous group, and therefore, the gaze and scope of which we tell stories of people of color becomes rather skewed in one direction. Simply put, once more people of color are “at the table” in writers and producer rooms, I think we will start to see more accurate representation and inclusive storytelling.
The landscape of television has evolved over the years to accommodate more in-depth programming, are you at all attracted to film or do you prefer the freedom of the small screen?
am absolutely eager to find opportunities to perform on the larger screen, particularly in independent films that cover stories from segments of society that are under-represented. I think the power of good filmmaking still has a huge influence on our culture. I do think that we are in an era where television has tremendous reach, what with all the various platforms from streaming to cable and network. All of this competition has encouraged studios to give the artists more license to create work that you probably wouldn’t have seen a few years ago. Shows like “Dear White People” exist because of more empowerment of diverse voices and the variety of platforms that are pushing out new content at what seems like record speed.
Who are your role models in the industry and why?
This is a tough question! I try not to idolize people because you eventually start to project certain characteristics on them without really knowing them. With that said, there are several people that I look to with admiration, respect and for inspiration. I find Ava Duvernay to be a pretty remarkable woman for her commitment to social justice and how she has climbed to a position of authority as a woman of color in a male dominated environment. For similar reasons, I would include theatre director Liesl Tommy for how she breaks open so many stories that were previously not available to certain segments of our population. As for writers, I’m a big fan of fellow Pakistani author Mohsin Hamid, and I recently watched a film called Christine starring Rebecca Hall, who gave the kind of performance that reminds me of the kind of actor I would like to be. I’m sure I’m forgetting some people, but I’m pleased to see so many of my peers doing such important work.
What are you currently working on and where do you see your career in five years?
Currently, I’m in the middle of season 2 of “A Series of Unfortunate Events” for Netflix up in beautiful Vancouver, and wrapping up some final touches on the video game Uncharted: The Lost Legacy. It’s been a busy year with a wide range of projects, so I’m quite pleased about that. In five years, I hope to have developed enough as a writer where I will have written and produced either a play, or an independent film. That’s the goal really: to stay active in all three forms of media (television, film and theatre) and continue to work on shows, both as an actor and writer, that allow me to thrive artistically. Oh, and continuing to pay my mortgage on time would be FANTASTIC.
Is diversity in Hollywood just a myth or do you believe that that change is inevitable and if so how have you been affected by the current climate?
I think change is afoot, but it’s important that whatever momentum we gain in creating more inclusive conversations is converted into something concrete and lasting as opposed to simply being a passing fad. Social media has played a massive role in helping us reach new ground. While white-washing of characters and recycling certain tropes such as the “white savior role” still happen in Hollywood, it is no longer tolerated or considered as acceptable as it once was because social tools like Twitter and Facebook allow people the space to voice their concern and displeasure. The more people who speak up about wanting to see more accurate representation and more inclusive storytelling, the more studios and networks are able to see that there is a demand and financial sustainability and reward to be found in diversity on screen and behind it. While there is much work to be done, I can say that in the last few years, I have found that roles have opened up to me that were never possible only a few years ago. My character on “A Series of Unfortunate Events,” Youtube Red’s “Lifeline” and TV Land’s “Nobodies,” for example, were not the kinds of roles I ever found myself auditioning for up until about 2014 or so. There are characters that have little to do with my ethnic background (without ignoring the fact that I am a person of color) and everything to do with my ability to interpret the character in a way that fits in the world of the show. So, there is absolutely incremental progress, and it is my hope that as we see more writers and producers of color, more actors of color will begin to share in the experiences that I have had recently.