'Green Book' Star Mahershala Ali & Director Peter Farrelly Talk Bringing Don Shirley's Music to Life

Patti Perret/Universal Pictures
Viggo Mortensen as Tony Vallelonga and Mahershala Ali as Dr. Donald Shirley in Green Book, directed by Peter Farrelly.

“He was a great man, a great musician,” Farrelly says. “He wasn’t a revolutionary [but] he knew what he was doing was making a difference.”

Before Mahershala Ali read the script for Green Book, he had never heard of Don Shirley, the classical/jazz pianist he portrays in the film. But now, a part of Shirley lives within him. 

“I was blown away by some of the things he accomplished and by hearing his music and how much talent he had, his capacity for language, his passion for education. There’s a part of him that’s just naturally part of me that the character has allowed me to come more to terms with. I can be fairly meticulous about certain things and Don Shirley certainly has that quality. I know that we share that quality, that’s something that I’m even more aware of now,” he tells Billboard with a laugh. 

The Peter Farrelly-directed film, which opens on Thanksgiving Day, tells the true story of the elegant, refined Shirley, who lived in a lush apartment above Carnegie Hall, and coarse New York City bouncer Tony Vallelonga (played by Viggo Mortensen), whom Shirley hired in the early '60s to drive him on a concert tour through the Deep South. The buddy picture from Participant Media/DreamWorks takes its name from a travel guide for lodging and dining options for African Americans during the time of segregation with Jim Crow laws still in effect. As the trip progresses, Vallelonga turns from racist to ally and the pair build a friendship that lasted until their deaths a few months apart in 2013. 

Farrelly, best known for making such blockbuster comedies with his brother as There’s Something About Mary and Dumb and Dumber, developed the story based on interviews Vallelonga’s son had conducted with his father about his time with Shirley and on the 117 love letters the senior Vallelonga wrote to his wife while he was on the road. “It’s the easiest script I’ve ever written because of all the material we had,” Farrelly says. “We moved things around. We took some dramatic license. We had to make up the dialogue. But some of it is actual quotes from Tony and some stuff we we pulled right out of the letters.” 

In telling the story, it was essential that Ali’s performances seemed effortless. Though the film’s composer Kris Bowers pulled double duty -- not only scoring the film, but also playing the majority of Shirley’s music in the film and all of it on the soundtrack -- he and Ali worked together for months on Ali’s technique. “The focus for me in doing that was to not to take away from the experience of the audience,” Ali says. “For them to be able to watch the film and they can watch and still be in the flow of believing and going on this journey with these characters.”

Ali’s first weekly lesson with Bowers was slated for an hour at a Steinway showroom but lasted three. “He just played the C-major scale for three hours,” Bowers says. “He was so focused.”

“Anything I do, I’m always going to try to commit myself to learning as much as I can about it, because you just need to know how that’s going to inform and affect your work,” Ali says. “The dexterity and the focus and the precision that it takes to play the piano and play on that level was something that I spent my time in those three months working to understand. It definitely served and influenced and affected the performance, for sure,” he says.

A diligent and talented student, by the second month Ali was ready for Bowers to begin teaching him some of Shirley’s easier musical passages, “so that he might be able to get it under his fingers,” Bowers says. By month three, Ali could play well enough that in the movie he plays the piano in some scenes. “It was really important for Peter to be able to use as much of me as possible,” Ali says. “It’s essentially a composite of Kris and me and we have to approach it like doing a stunt. You just want to make sure they can use as much of the principal actor as possible.”

The Academy Award-winning actor not only practiced playing, he picked up mannerisms from Bowers and studied his body movements, even frequently correcting Bowers on his technique. “Don Shirley carried himself more like a classical pianist,” Bowers says. “I’ve developed so many bad habits as a jazz pianist. I never had to worry about my posture like a classical pianist and Mahershala would come over and tell me to straighten up my back. I look like Schroeder when I play, head down, shoulders hunched.”

Ali bursts into laughter when reminded of his stern words for Bowers: “I did tell him, ‘Man, Kris, you’ve got to sit up a bit because the footage I have of Don Shirley, he was sitting really straight up -- almost like if you can imagine a ballet dancer sitting down at a piano.”

To make the musical scenes even more realistic, the actors rounding out The Don Shirley Trio, Dimiter D. Marinov and Mike Hatton, are playing their cello and bass, respectively. “I only read people who played the instruments,” Farrelly says. “I had my hands full with the piano, so I needed the other guys to be OK.”

All involved hope the movie shines a light on Shirley and he claims his rightful place among the leading jazz artists of the time. “He was a great man, a great musician,” Farrelly says. “He was an original. There was no one like him. He was a brave guy. He was doing these concert tours at a time the you were taking your life into your hands. He wasn’t a revolutionary [but] he knew what he was doing was making a difference.” 


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