Usman Ally is, without question, one of the most exciting actors on the scene today. While he is becoming a familiar face to audiences, his success didn’t come overnight. Born in Swaziland, Usman lived in Botswana, Kenya, Tanzania and Pakistan for the first 18 years of his life. He later moved to the United States to attend college at Lewis and Clark in Portland, where he majored in theatre and cultural anthropology. He received a MFA Magna Cum Laude in Acting from the University of Florida. Upon graduation Ally moved to Chicago, where he got his start in the business working in theatre. Through the years, poured his blood, sweat, and tears into has craft. His dedication was unmatched, and resulted in him earning the prestigious Obie Award for his performance in ‘The Invisible Hand’. Armed with an incredible charisma and an even more incredible work ethic, he established himself as one of the most versatile actors in the entertainment industry. It didn’t take Hollywood long to take notice!
Usman was recently seen as The Hook Handed Man, head of Count Olaf’s (Neil Patrick Harris) henchmen, in ‘A Series of Unfortunate Events’ for Netflix. Based on the best selling books by Lemony Snicket, the series follows the tragic tale of three orphans who are investigating their parents’ mysterious death. They are saddled with an evil guardian, Count Olaf (Harris), and must outsmart him and his goons (Ally) at every turn. ‘A Series of Unfortunate Events’ premiered in January 2017. Usman will return to comedy this spring for season six of the award-winning, HBO series ‘Veep’ reprising his role as Ambassador Al Jaffar, opposite Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Originally introduced in season five as the representative from Qatar who helps Selina Meyer (Dreyfus) negotiate a deal with the Chinese over Tibet, Jaffar returns for season six in a larger capacity. Usman can also be seen in TV Land’s new comedy series ‘Nobodies’, which premiered March 29. Executive produced by Melissa McCarthy, the semi-autobiographical series centers on three friends in Hollywood desperate to rise to fame together after seeing their friends and fellow sketch comedy troupe alums make it big. Ally shines as Gavin, an executive from a major studio in Hollywood who makes it his mission in life to destroy the three “nobodies.” It was also announced that Usman had joined the cast of Dwayne Johnson’s YouTube series ‘Lifeline’, a half-hour series about a little known life insurance company that sends it’s agents forward 33 days in time to prevent the accidental deaths of it’s clients. Branching out even further, the multi-faceted actor will soon be heard as the voice of Asav in the hit video game series ‘Uncharted: The Lost Legacy’. Set to release August 22, Usman plays Asav, the main antagonist/villain in the highly anticipated game.
Usman Ally is clearly a man on the move but, he through it all, he remains grounded. Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently had the opportunity to catch up with this star on the rise to discuss his unique career path, the challenges he has faced along the way, and what the future may hold for him!
How did you get involved with the arts early on in life?
I actually grew up outside of the United States. I think my earliest memories come from when I was living in Kenya. In middle school, I had a teacher who was very proactive about identifying which of her students had talent for performance. I remember reading “Macbeth” at a pretty early age and I really enjoyed it. The teacher said, “You know what I’m going to do? I want you to memorize this speech by Mark Antony from ‘Julius Caesar’ and you are going to perform this one day in front of the school.” I learned and performed the part and it was a real rush for me. I felt empowered in a way, even as a young boy. I think that is where it all started. As I continued through high school, I continued performing in school plays and I continued to act in college as well. I knew I wanted to be in the arts but I wasn’t entirely sure in what capacity. As I continued in college, I got my masters, and it became clear that I wanted to be an actor.
What can you tell us about your earliest roles in those formative years?
You know, it really makes a difference when you have people in your life that have invested in you creating something. I was lucky to have teachers and professors who were constantly pushing me to perform. When I was in college, I got to do “The Winter’s Tale,” which is a William Shakespeare play. It was a really great role for me in that I played Leontes. The thing that really made a difference, in an impactful way, was our college production of “Angels in America” by Tony Kushner. I played Roy Cohn, who is an ego-maniacal lawyer. It was important for me to play that role because it made me realize there were some really American stories, in the mold of realism, that I could sink my teeth into and expand on as an artist. That is what got the ball rolling there and continued into grad school. My background is in theater, as you can tell, so a lot of the roles that I have played have been in that medium, as opposed to television and film, that really made a difference. I was in a production of “Waiting for Godot,” which was my thesis production at the University of Florida. It was a huge commitment and was very educational as well. As a professional actor, I have done a lot of theater in Chicago, New York and throughout the country. There have been many plays and many new plays. The one I always like to talk about is “The Elaborate Entry of Chad Deity,” which we started in Chicago. It was about professional wrestling! We all played professional wrestlers but the play was more than just wrestling. It was talking about race, ethnicity, sexism in America but through the microcosm of professional wrestling. It was great fun and it made a difference to a lot of people. I have been very fortunate. Early on, a lot of my early roles were quite meaningful and strong.
As you mentioned, you grew up outside of the United States and moved around quite a bit. How did that exposure to other people and cultures impact what you do as an actor?
It’s absolutely something I bring to my work. I always say to people, particularly people who have grown and stayed in the same town, “You’ve got to travel and see the world.” I say that not only because it will open your eyes to the world being such a large place but because it teaches you to be empathetic and understand that even though others might have different cultural practices than you, everyone has a reason for the way they are. There’s a logic behind it as well. As soon as you start understanding that people everywhere in the world function the same way, even though they may have their idiosyncrasies or uniqueness, it allows you as an artist or actor to have a much better understanding of people who are not like you. When you are acting and playing a role, that is essential. If I’m playing a guy who is nothing like me and I don’t agree with politically, I have to understand and appreciate his logic. Having that exposure, globally, makes it easier for me. There is also that psychology aspect to it and understanding the psychological makeup of human beings and why we are the way we are. The more you can experience that globally through visiting different countries, the better off you are as a human being and an artist.
What is your typical process when it comes to bringing a new character to life?
That’s a great question. For me, I always feel it is important to trust the writing. You can find almost all the answers you would need about a character’s motivations, objectives, desires or what stands in his way from the writing. This is especially true if you are fortunate enough to be working on a television show or a play where there is good writing and you can see that the people in those writer’s rooms have taken the time to craft something. I think it’s important, especially for young actors, to trust the writing and know that you can find a lot of your answers there without having to feel you have to construct something out of nothing. I’ve recently finished working on a show called “VEEP” for season six and those are some of the smartest writers I have come across. Even the way the characters interact with each other informs you so much of the world they are living in, as well as the characters themselves. I do other things as well. For example, if I am playing someone who is wealthier and wears suits, I always try to get in the habit of wearing formal shoes. I feel like people move differently depending on how they dress and how they are accustomed to dressing every day. There are different things that are very intellectual, where I mentioned trusting the writing, but then there is the aspect of physically understanding what you are doing. I, Usman, wear a lot of sneakers, so that changes the way I move in the world. Someone who is constantly wearing a suit or who is always in business attire also moves very differently. I always have to keep telling myself, no matter what character you play, it’s always about, “What does this guy want? How badly does he want it? What is standing in his way and how is he going to get around it?” This is basic acting stuff but that basic stuff you learn when you first take acting classes is the stuff that stays with you and you have to keep going back to when you are performing.
You mentioned your role on HBO’s “VEEP.” How did you get involved and what attracted you to the series?
I was a big fan of the show for the longest time. It was may favorite show on TV when the first season came out. I was like, “What is this show and how can I get on it!?” [laughs] I used to think it would never happen. I was like, “I don’t know if I fit the world. We’ll, see … ” Then, one day, I just told my agent, “Look. If there is an audition for something, no matter how small it is, I need to be seen for this show.” There was this role of the ambassador from Qatar; Ambassador Al Jaffar. It was just two episodes and I didn’t think it would be much but it was something I definitely wanted to go after. I auditioned and got the part! Low and behold, I didn’t realize that they had much more planned for the character! I was very briefly in season five and this season the ambassador comes back. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you much about it right now but it’s going to be great. It was exciting for me to be on a show that is funny and has pointed humor. All the characters are very aggressive and I love that! Everyone is aggressively going for what they want. It’s great to see that dramatically but it’s also great to be a part of it when you’re performing. I’m really excited for people to see it when my character returns. All that I will say is it gave me an opportunity to play someone from a part of the world in a way that’s not really seen on television very much. I’m a big proponent for more representation and diversity on the screen. I really think that this role allows me to do things that hadn’t been made available in the past.
Diversity in the entertainment industry is something we’re seeing a lot in the media these days. As an actor, who is on the front lines in the industry, what are you seeing? Are things moving in the right direction?
Yeah, I think so. I think it’s always an exciting moment for an actor of color when they’re working on something where their ethnicity and race just happens to be a characteristic of the character that works. We have gone from no representation to a little bit of broad presentation to almost a false representation and now we are starting to see a more accurate representation. For example, playing someone where he just happens to be Indian and the story isn’t focusing on the fact that he is Indian … I think that’s progress. There’s still absolutely room for stories examining the life of someone who is Indian, their ethnicity and background as a huge part of who they are. I think we need way more of that. Also, there are shows like “Nobodies,” a show I’m doing on TV Land, where I play Gavin. There is no attention drawn to the fact that I’m a darker skinned person playing this role. Gavin is a network executive on the show, who just so happens to be brown and that’s OK! [laughs] I think there’s definitely movement in that direction. I’m sure there’ll be some resistance to that in some ways, as some people like to maintain the status quo but more and more people are making noise about it. In the age of social media that we live in, it’s very empowering. If you’re not happy about something or feel like, “Hey, I want to see more of myself or people who look like me on the screen,” you can make that known and I think it really creates change. The social media age has been a great tool for change.
I enjoy your work on TV Land’s “Nobodies.” The series has a great cast. What did these people bring out of you creatively?
What was really great was that I had just finished working on a couple of dramas before I worked on the show. We were shooting a scene and I remember asking, “Am I getting too big with this character? Is what I’m doing in this scene too over-the-top?” They said, “Oh! Not really. We don’t really worry about that. We just want you to have an authentic feeling to what is going on in the scene. If your authentic response is to be big and outrageous, that’s fine!” That was very freeing for me as an actor, to be on the set where you could do that and improvise as well. It was very collaborative and anytime you can work in that sort of environment where someone is giving you authority over your role, I think it really brings out the best in everybody! They reminded me that it’s okay to expand your range a bit on screen. As an actor you are often aware of not going too big because the camera picks up everything, so working on that show was very freeing in that way.
You have done drama and comedy. Is there another genre you are anxious to tackle?
I would love to do some type of horror movie or series, something like “American Horror Story.” There have been many times when I have played villain characters but those are typically in a drama. I would love to do something that is creepy …. not necessarily being the creepy guy but I would love to see what it’s like to be on the set on a project like that.
Have you always been a fan of the horror genre?
Used to be when I was younger. Look, this is a little embarrassing, but do remember when “The Ring” came out?
Yeah, I do.
That movie scares the crap out of me! [laughs] I remember watching that movie and thinking, “You! I’m good for a while with scary movies!” [laughs] So, it derailed me a little bit there! I do watch one every now and then. I really like psychological thrillers and things that are creepy because they could possibly happen. I would love to do something like that. There’re also a few shows on television that I would love to do if I got the chance. For example, there is a BBC show called “Luther” and it’s one of my favorite shows on TV! I would love to work on something like that. Right now I have quite a few projects going on and we are in the second season of “A Series of Unfortunate Events” in Canada, so my hands are full but it’s been great having the opportunity to play so many different roles, in different ways and in different genres.
You step into the world of videogames with “Uncharted: The Lost Legacy.” How did that opportunity present itself and how does it compare to what you do in front of the camera or onstage?
That happened when, it was a simple thing, they were looking for some voice actors to create the world. A lot of the story from “Uncharted” is set in India, so I can do that accent. They also needed someone to do motion capture for a character. It was all very secretive. At that time, I didn’t know what the videogame was or who the character was. I went in and did a motion capture and voice audition and I got the part. Later on, I found out it was “Uncharted.” I’m not a big gamer but I knew about “Uncharted” and it was a big franchise. It was a great experience! I play the head of a resistance movement who is also kind of corrupt himself and a thief of artifacts but it is someone who believes he’s doing it for a good cause. He’s a really egomaniacal sort of guy as well! It was a lot of fun being able to play a videogame villain. How it compares? When you’re doing the motion capture and you are in this big studio, there are cameras 360° around you. In a way, it’s almost like doing theater because when you do theater in the round, where you have an audience on all four sides of you, that’s how it feels. You don’t have to play to a particular camera because there are cameras everywhere, so in that way it feels like you are very much in a theater. However, your acting style is still very much like film or television as it’s smaller and much more intimate. You don’t have to project for anybody or make sure that the audience can hear you. It’s a fascinating combination of television and film acting with the the theater as well. For someone like me, who has experience in both of those, it was right up my alley and I really enjoyed working on it. The voiceover stuff was interesting as well. I just finished some ADR for some of the fight sequences, the yelling and screaming and stuff like that! It was a surreal experience but definitely something I would love to be doing more of! The fans of these videogames are so into it! It’s really cool to hear how much they are looking forward to it!
When you look back on your career I’m sure you can see milestones. How have you evolved?
That’s a really good question. I don’t know if there are clear milestones but I have always been very proactive and hungry. I have tried to maintain that hunger my entire career regardless of what I’m doing. Obviously, getting a chance to work on “A Series of Unfortunate Events” was a milestone for me because I have always admired Barry Sonnenfeld’s work and he is our showrunner. To be in a show that has such a large fan following, because people grew up with the books, was kind of a milestone for me. It was really interesting to be involved with the project that was based on 13 books and now we are really creating another world where these characters come to life. That’s definitely a milestone. There was also another moment where I did a play in New York called “The Invisible Hand.” I was very fortunate to receive an Obie Award for that. It was a really important moment for me because it gave me the feeling of validity and that my work was being appreciated by people that I respect. The Obie is given to you by The Village Voice in New York and it was something that I had always admired. To receive the award for my work is definitely something I look back on with a lot of pride. There have been instances like that in my career that allow me to slow down and think about where I’ve come from, doing theater in Tanzania in a small black-box theater to working on these multimillion dollar projects! It’s a surreal feeling but every now and then it’s important for me to stop and think about it.
It’s inspiring to see you build a unique career from the ground up. What’s the best lesson we can take from your journey?
For me, it’s important to always feel as if you have more to prove than the next person. Maybe for some people that doesn’t work but for me I have always felt I’ve always had to have a little bit of a chip on my shoulder. When I came to the states a lot of people thought I was just a guy from another country who probably didn’t get this kind of stuff, so I had to prove that I belonged. I think it’s always important to maintain that sense of wanting more and proving that you want it more than everybody else. The other really important thing I always say to younger actors is to get the training. It’s one thing to have a lot of charisma and to have a fearlessness on stage. However, you can always tell who the actors are who have training and went through the process of learning about their craft and those how haven’t. Of course, there are definitely outliers there and people who just have that special something. For me, a really important lesson was to get the training. And not necessarily just learned how to act but to learn more about who you are as a person. Often times that is really essential; being aware of who you are in this world and who you are as an artist. It’s important to always think of yourself as an artist.
Are you involved with any organizations or causes we could help shine a light on?
Yeah! Given where we are politically inner country at the moment, I actually give to the Southern Poverty Law Center. They do a lot of really great work, particularly toward identifying hate groups around the United States and ensure those people are being held accountable. They are similar to the ACLU in that way, which is another organization I support. The Southern Poverty Law Center has been doing a lot of good work for a very long time. It’s work that’s essential but doesn’t necessarily get the spotlight that it should. That’s my plug for them!
Awesome! It’s been a pleasure speaking with you today, Usman. I can’t wait to see where the rest of the journey takes you!
Thank you, Jason!
Follow the continuing adventures of Usman Ally on social media via Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Check out the trailer for the highly anticipated ‘Uncharted: The Lost Legacy,’ which features the talents of Usman Ally below!
Jason Price founded the mighty Icon Vs. Icon more than a decade ago. Along the way, he’s assembled an amazing group of like-minded individuals to spread the word on some of the most unique people and projects on the pop culture landscape.