Mahershala Ali and Rafael Casal: Envy Is A Hell Of A Drug
Hey, it’s Anna. I remember exactly where I was standing in my kitchen when I heard the episode we're going to share with you today. It was my first time hearing it because I was on maternity leave. It was 2019, and actor Mahershala Ali was one of our guest hosts while I was out. He’d been a guest on the show before, and then he went on to win two Oscars. And we we thrilled when he agreed to do an interview for Death, Sex & Money. Mahershala is from Oakland, and he asked to interview another actor from the Bay Area: Rafael Casal.
RAFAEL CASAL: I'll be honest. The conversation is such a blur because I was sitting across from somebody I deeply admire who was asking me questions about me, which was wildly uncomfortable because I was like, I want to ask you everything, but I'm going to try to resist. 'Cause that's not the prompt.
I called up Rafael in California, where he’s preparing for the premiere of his new TV show Blindspotting, which is based on an indie movie he made with Daveed Diggs by the same name. I asked Rafael what he remembered about his conversation with Mahershala.
RC: I think mostly what I remember is that Mahershala is a very generous conversationalist. Um, and he, um, he's one of the more active listeners I've ever encountered. Um, and so it felt like he very safe conversation, um, not in terms of subject matter, but in terms of, um, the, the care that every moment was, um, was handled with.
That spirit of generosity… and listening… really came through for me, when I heard this episode. And I’m excited for you all to hear it today—especially if you’re new to our show, and haven’t heard this one before. And by the way, if you want to hear any of our older shows, including with other guest hosts like Jason Isbell, Ellen Burstyn, and Tressie McMillian Cottom... you can find them by clicking on "Archives" at deathsexmoney.org.
There’s more from my recent phone chat with Rafael Casal at the end of the show, but for now, here he is, in conversation with Mahershala Ali, from back in 2019.
RAFAEL CASAL: I think for so long, I was just so happy that I didn't end up in prison, which like I don't think I was aware then was so close.
MAHERSHALA ALI: Hm.
RC: You know, now I'm like, oh man. There was like a few moments where I remember just kind of sitting there going like, the shit that’s in this room right now is twenty to life. I need to get out of here.
MAHERSHALA ALI: This is Death, Sex & Money.
The show from WNYC about the things we think about a lot…
And need to talk about more.
I’m Mahershala Ali, in for Anna Sale.
And last year, I saw a movie that I loved. I loved it so much, I’ve watched it like three times and it’s called Blindspotting.
It’s set in Oakland, California. I'm originally from the Bay Area, and I think Blindspotting captures the Bay Area so well.
The film is all about the messy intersection of race and class and rapid gentrification that's happening there right now.
MILES: What the fuck is this green juice shit doing up in here?
CASHIER: It’s good for you.
COLIN: How much?
MILES: What is this, the blood of fucking Jesus? The fuck is in it that it costs $10?
COLIN: Let me get one.
MILES: I’m sorry, what?
These are the two best friends at the center of this movie. Colin is the one who just bought the juice. He’s a young black guy who recently got out of prison, and absolutely doesn't want to go back. Miles is the one with the attitude. He’s white, likes to wear a gold grill, and is always, always stirring up trouble.
Their friendship is complicated. And I think it represents something I haven’t really seen before on screen.
MA: The way in which races and people, culture, really naturally mixes and melds together in the Bay Area.
RC: To me that's a, that's a result of, because the Bay is so eclectic,
RC: both in like the melting pot that it is, but also like the diff -, there's really sort of obscure backgrounds that people come from.
This is Rafael Casal. He plays Miles—the white guy—in Blindspotting, and he co-wrote the movie too. Like me, he was also born and raised in the Bay Area.
RC: I think there, we've developed this muscle to sort of really like take how somebody has given themselves to you
RC: and read that as fact.
RC: Because we really cherish authenticity in the Bay, right?
RC: So everyone really guards their authenticity with everything, which means it's out front, which also means that that authenticity out front maybe is not packaged for easy consumption.
RC: So we're all so good at going, "Oh, you're a white dude. But you got that kind of southern drawl and that hard R, and you're like holding your jeans and you've got, you know, and you're tatted up,
RC: but you're not hipster tatted up.
RC: I know who you are.
RC: You're like my boy Paco.
RC: He's like that too.
RC: He's from East 14th," you know. That cultural meld is fascinating to watch.
Rafael knows firsthand about that particular cultural meld. The actor, writer, poet and rapper grew up in Berkeley in the '80s and '90s, in a working-class neighborhood with parents of Irish and Spanish-Cuban heritage. He drew on that childhood of growing up white in a diverse neighborhood when writing his character, Miles, in Blindspotting.
RC: We always described him as a minority among minorities. Like that's, that's how he feels. He feels like he's the minority.
MA: Right right right. Yeah.
RC: You know, which is, which is at times how I felt growing up around my friends was like,
RC: But I'm the only dude who looks like me at this sideshow.
RC: Like, I'm the odd man out.
RC: You know, like I'm the -, I'm scared out of my fucking mind right now. We're doing doughnuts in cars and everybody is looking at me to make sure I'm here with some people.
RC: You know, that's my entire upbringing.
MA: Um, let's talk a little bit about, about, you know, growing up. You described yourself as, as this sort of rebellious kind of knucklehead to some degree, like growing up who was sort of inclined to, to a certain type of trouble. So you had - have that aspect to you. But then on the other side, you're this poet, lyricist, thinker with a real activist vein to you. Like, how do those two personalities exist in one person and when did they sort of converge?
RC: Yeah, still converging. [Laughs] Yeah. A lot of the, the sort of younger years with being a, just like a little street kid was, I mean it was uh self defense entirely, right? It's like offense is the best defense. I think, I was small, like super small kid, and so I think you start, you start puffing up and doing stuff
RC: to just like send out a warning call to everybody. Like, you know, you might whoop my ass but, but I'ma get a hit in,
RC: or, or I'm not, you know, I'm not a pushover.
MA: So you were trying to preempt anything that you could
RC: Yeah, I think probably had a -
MA: deal with as a result of what you were seeing happen in the -
RC: Yeah, and little things that had happened to me that I was like, oh, we're not gonna let that, we can't let that keep going. Like if that happens twice, people see you get pushed around that way, you got to, you know, push back. And Berkeley High at the time was, was like violent and scary for like an eighth grade little kid going in. You know, I remember when you got to Berk-, the, like my first day of Berkeley High, I remember like walking in, back from lunch or something, just saw like twenty Bloods beat the shit out of some kids from another school who came there to jump somebody. And I just watched this and was like, "This is where I go to school." You know?
RC: And I'm tiny.
RC: And I'm looking at my old skater friends who are like just folding over and living in fear. And so I really found this misfit group of people throughout high school that were like, we just kept each other safe, and part of that safety was, you know, just doing what, what like young, rebellious people do when they get a group of friends that make them feel powerful for the first time. You know? Try to sort of find camaraderie in your shared discomfort,
RC: or, or you know, or or whatever that is that sort of derails teenagers. And, for me, I was also dropping out of high school. Like I was failing in class. I'd always had an attention problem. I'm sure I have chronic ADD as they've tried to prescribe me many times. But like I just, my parents are Berkeley parents, they're not putting me on pills. So -
MA: And how were they reacting and responding to the trouble you were finding yourself in,
MA: how were they trying to to sort of course-correct you?
RC: It was, I mean it got, it got real bad in high school. I think that was, like my pops was sort of a - like a thug growing up in in Logan Heights in San Diego, right? Like he's sort of from Barrio Logan. So he gets like, you ride for your homies, you do your thing. This is a period that you go through in your life. So he was more concerned about like the extreme parts of the danger. He was more just like, am I just making sure that my kid isn't going so,
RC: so hard that he can't come back from, he’s not gonna end up in prison. And so that was the, that was the line I felt like he was guarding more. I think my mother was like, you're creative and smart and you've always had like an overactive imagination. You can do anything if you can just kind of figure out your way through this.
Around that time, in his early teen years, Rafael saw the movie Slam…the Saul Williams film about a young man who ends up in the prison system, but has a real talent for poetry.
RC: I remember sitting there just going like, "I could do that. Like I, I want to do that. I want to, I want to be able to say what I mean like that." And my sister was pushing me to go to these poetry slams, and I went and did that for the first time, I did terribly. But it was this acknowledgement of intelligence and creativity. You know, and in class I would see the kids who were good at math and history and science and all that, you know, they, they had had so much help and so much,
RC: they were so far ahead of everyone else and all my friends were kind of like, "We're lucky if we can get outta here, you know, let's just try to get through this shit." But over here in this poetry slam, I can excel because it's new for everybody. And suddenly like we're sitting around at home writing and sharing each other's stuff, and I was just so happy that there was a thing that I was good at, um that pulled me out of the obscurity of just kind of feeling totally lost.
RC: And the, the, the sort of lost space was just me and friends sitting around like drinking and smoking and not going to class and whatever.
The drinking and smoking and not going to class led to Rafael getting expelled from high school as a sophomore. But his interest in poetry had sparked, and he started competing in the local slam scene. He got really good. And at 18 years old, alongside people like Talib Kweli and Kanye West, he was invited to perform on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam in New York City.
MA: You did a, you did a piece on, on uh, on abortion.
MA: Extraordinary piece. Share with us a little bit about the, the, the story behind that poem. What it was about.
RC: Yeah. I, I never watched that one. I don't know why. It might just be too close to home. I wrote it because, maybe a week before I got on the plane to go out there, my girlfriend at the time was like, I'm pregnant and I'm gonna, while you're gone, I'm going to get this taken care of with my mother. I don't want you to come. I don't, like I want you to go do that. So it's just the only thing I could think about, I think as a, I'm like a kid, you know.
MA: How conflicted were you about about the choice she was making?
RC: I think it was just the absence of choice. I - I think it was presented to me as a done deal.
RC: And so then I was just sort of forced to just decide how I feel about it even though it's inconsequential how I feel. Um, I had nev- I - I think at the time I was trying to write things that I had never heard out of someone like me’s mouth before. So I was like, well what do I, sort of what do I have to offer in this moment? And I think I just ranted and was like, this is, you know, this is how I feel about fatherhood, and this is how I feel about where my life is.
[CLIP: "Abortion" from Def Jam Poetry:
Swimming backstrokes through bushes / petitions against what we / but ultimately what I am agreeing to do / but I can't be no father. Mother make me your son again / cause I can't do it / mom tell her please tell her I'm too young for man shoes / Son, daughter sorry but I am not ready for you.]
RC: Then I came back, I for, uh maybe I was just trying to be dramatic, but I, like I didn't tell my parents what the poem was about.
RC: So they, they found out about it on TV. That was probably like, we were probably still like navigating our distance too, you know.
MA: You and your parents?
RC: Me and my parents were probably still navigating our -
MA: Okay. So you guys weren't close at that time?
RC: We were close. But like in, in a, I I mean I guess we weren't. I guess high school had really pulled us apart in a lot of ways and we were really just trying not to be angry, uh, because, you know, they, they didn't understand a lot of my choices of like, well I'm just not going to fucking go to school anymore,
RC: and now I'm going go, I'm gonna go get my car and I'm going to do poetry and like,
RC: and I'm going to do rap music and that's going to be my life.
But after a few years, that life started to lose its appeal.
RC: God, this can't be it. I don't want to be this like 40-year-old traveling poet person. This isn't, this was a stepping stone to something else. What is it?
Coming up: Rafael finds a creative partner who helps him figure out what that “it” could be.
What Rafael just said about “navigating our distance”—man, when I was listening to this episode for the first time, it just hit me. I thought it was such a beautiful way to describe family from the perspective of a teenage boy. And those words stayed with me, so much that I quoted Rafael in my new book, Let’s Talk About Hard Things, in the chapter about family. I told Rafael that I really liked the line when we talked recently. And it turns out, he already knew.
RC: My mother saw that, um, sentence, I think maybe you had posted about it or you mentioned it in an article that was sent to her. I think one of her friends read it and she just sent me that quote, like in a text. That just said "navigating our distance." Um, and I think she just wrote like, "Great" or "That perfectly sums it up." Like that also landed really well with her, which - I don't think she had heard that interview. Um, and that, I think that was a very rough time for my relationship with them. I think sometimes like moments of clarity like that get a little bit of like loving closure to something that we just sort of - you know, suddenly we were, we worked hard to be friends again as adults. And you sort of don't want to talk about it later because it feels like, well, what if we stir something up again? Or what if we don't agree on how it went? And so to a certain degree, like we, we joke about it, but we don't talk about it. So I think that whatever came out of my mouth in that moment, in that interview gave some peace, I think, to my mother about it? Uh, which was beautiful to get to say that sort of indirectly to her through, through the interview.
AS: Wow. I love knowing that postscript! That’s so cool.
On the next episode, I talk with writer and musician Michelle Zauner. In her new memoir, Crying in H-Mart, she explored her relationship with her late mother, Chongmi, who died of cancer in 2014. She told me about their conversations in her mom’s final days.
Michelle Zauner: She said to me, um, when you were younger, like you always, you always were - used to like cling to me. And like here you are now, still clinging to me.
This is Death, Sex & Money. I’m Mahershala Ali, in for Anna Sale.
Rafael Casal co-wrote the movie Blindspotting with his creative partner, Daveed Diggs. We’ll get to the story of how they connected in just a minute. But by 2014—a decade into their creative partnership—they’d done a lot together. Music, plays, YouTube series. They’d left the Bay, and moved to Los Angeles. And they’d started co-writing the movie script that would go on to become Blindspotting.
RC: We kept almost making it and then money would fall through and we’d get a director attached and they would have to split off to make something else and you know you, you just get that that rollercoaster
RC: is exhausting of sort of the universe dangling your dream in front of you. And then Daveed got cast in a show called Hamilton, went to New York.
MA: Wait, first of all, first of all I gotta say a quick little story. Um I was in like, I was living in New York and I was there right before Hamilton came out. And I remember I was in like a Starbucks and there was this girl in front of me who looked like a theater girl, like a musical theater girl,
RC: Yeah yeah yeah.
MA: you know, and she was describing this musical or workshop she had just come back from and she was like, "Yeah, it's all like, you know, historically accurate, but it's like they're rapping," and like she's going on about it. And I thought to myself, I was like, that sounds terrible!
MA: Like what is she talking about?
RC: Yeah yeah.
MA: And then a few months later, this play hit.
MA: I went to see it and I was like, this is genius.
MA: But uh,
RC: But also -
MA: what was your reaction when Daveed explained it to you?
RC: But also - same reaction he had. He was like, that sounds like a terrible idea, but I'll do it 'cause Lin and those guys were all his friends.
Daveed went on to win a Tony and a Grammy for his roles in Hamilton. He also got cast in the ABC series Black-ish. Basically: his career blew up. But, that didn’t mean the end of his partnership with Rafael.
Okay, let’s rewind for a second. Ten years earlier, back to 2004. Rafael was 19 years old, running a music studio in Oakland. Daveed had just recently gotten back to the Bay Area, after graduating from Brown University. And one night, he stopped by the studio.
RC: One of his friends was the older brother of one of my friends and was like, hey, Rafa’s got a studio. They're looking for artists. You should go over there, and it was like, he sat down, we had a bunch of like goony motherfuckers in the studio. They all left. My guard came down, his guard came down and we stayed there until eight in the morning. We made like, I don't know, six, seven songs. Then it was just like, oh, me and Daveed do everything together now.
MA: But you'd met before that though. You met in high school, right?
RC: I met him in high school. Yeah.
MA: You just crossed paths a bit.
RC: So he's four years older than me,
RC: so he was a senior and I was a freshman, so like I knew him and he was in the poetry scene.
RC: But he was like a very free spirit dude. Like wore pajama pants every day, you know, like he was like the the like cool artsy kid.
RC: You know, and I think I was like the goony kid who like secretly was an artsy kid.
MA: Yeah. What did, once you and and, and Daveed sorta clicked up, what did you find that you gave each other?
RC: I think then it was just like a lot of, a lot of co-validation. Diggs was not only doing music, but he was in plays. I knew he came from poetry, he wanted to make weird music and I was around some real, just like hood dudes who wanted to make like trap hood Bay shit.
RC: And he was like, let's stray over here. And, two months later we're like writing a play together. And uh, I think we just realized that someone who can jump between mediums with you but knows you and all the other mediums knows what you can do
RC: and can help you find the throughline between them.
MA: Which is, and also, it's a rare gift to have that kind of friend that could sort of be a mirror and, and,
RC: Oh yeah.
MA: and validate you in in so many different mediums where it's hard to find people that you just connect with on one of those things that you may do well, let alone being somebody who has, has -
RC: Do you have anybody like that?
MA: Um, you know, uh, I've found for myself, I've had to, I - I - I didn't - ... no, not really. My father was in musical theater and, and he died before I started acting, but I was doing poetry at that time and performing my poetry and, and -
RC: Did he get to see you do that?
MA: Yes. He did, which, which for me told me I wasn't crazy and, and really helped me locate something in myself. But to like come across someone who, who one, perhaps gets what you do, but also does what you do. Those are different things.
MA: I have, all my friends get what I do, but none of them necessarily do what I do. So to see what you and Daveed as, together and individually, have have accomplished is, is really inspiring for me and just so timely and something that I've needed to see as I - I have opportunity to move into doing, doing, branching out in a real way that reflects old talents or things that have, that have haven't been nurtured, right,
MA: in a long time. But so I’m I’m just actually just speaking to uh how amazing that is that you two have found each other.
RC: We we talk about that shit all the time.
RC: We’re just like this is, we’re, we got so lucky.
RC: Um, but the constant now is like, we remember being in a warehouse trying to record on a shitty mic in a shitty computer just to get an idea out. So when now we're sitting there going like, do we want to do this movie? We just step back and we're like, this is ridiculous.
Rafael and Daveed are now working on a second movie together, after the success of Blindspotting. It even made Obama's list of best movies of the year. But Blindspotting wasn’t a Hollywood blockbuster.
RC: We put a movie out and everyone back home thinks I'm on.
MA: Yeah yeah.
RC: And I'm like, that was an indie movie.
RC: I lost money.
RC: You know what I mean, like -
MA: No, and that’s really hard to explain to people. Like when I'm like I basically paid to do Moonlight essentially, like -
RC: I paid to, yeah.
MA: Yeah. Like, between PR, what you get paid
RC: I knew that.
MA: and what PR, like bro, I, it was like a college project. You pay to do it in order for for that to put you in a different place once you're done with that, right?
RC: Yeah. But economically you're still poor.
MA: Yeah. You and Daveed go back many years and what's hard for you, for the two of you to talk about? Is there, there a space or or subject matter, anything that is that is challenging for you two to get, get into?
RC: I think we're both so hypersensitive to the other’s comfort that we found really good communication language to bring up things that are just super uncomfortable. Like, when we get an offer and my number is so much lower than his, how do we negotiate that? And we've, what we've created is -
MA: Knowing how you both individually in a room contribute to something. Is that what part of it is?
RC: Well yeah, like something that we're going to evenly work on.
RC: But the offer came in huge for him
RC: and nominal for me.
RC: We just sort of discussed early on like, hey, for stuff we're going to do together, let's just make it even.
RC:We got this other project we're working on and I was like, hey man, I, I really just want my name first on this one ‘cause I, I didn't get it on the last one
RC: and I just think a lot of people think like Blindspotting was like you and then a little bit of me,
RC: and he was like, yeah, yeah, I did feel that people thought that. So we'll just switch it. Like it’s just, we just fix it.
MA: Do you ever have a moment or any kind of fear of, of not having your own identity? Because of working so closely with Daveed
MA: who has a certain type of shine and attention on him as a result of a lot of work that he's put in. You know, but -
RC: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. And I think that was a thing that I think I prepped for hard when we were going to make the movie. But also we have this phrase that we say together we say "energy up, expectations down." That's been sort of the model of our whole career. It's like we're doing this out of sheer enthusiasm, but we don't really expect to get much.
RC: Um, and I think envy is a, is a hell of a drug and it's very, very easy to get caught up in it.
RC: I would hate it if somebody I was less close to but partnered with had an explosion and like made money and got all this fame, that might stir me differently. I don't know that I can withstand that with everyone.
RC: But I think what people miss are all the years that Diggs propped me up
RC: you know, as the front man.
RC: And was just there. And they don't know that, but I do.
That was Rafael Casal in conversation with Mahershala Ali in 2019. Rafael is starring in the TV adaptation of Blindspotting, which premieres on Starz on June 13. And he and Daveed Diggs both produced it.
RC: The fascinating thing about television in 2020, 2021 is that the only way to do it is to do it in a pandemic, so you really have to love the story or it’s just not worth it. You’re asking 270 people to risk their health and safety every day to come in and tell a story that you dreamed up with your friend and a couple other writers, so I think it made us even more eager to do the work to really love the show itself so it felt like it was worth asking people to take that risk.
AS: Did making a TV show mean that you have a little extra padding, where you've been able to buy something nice for yourself that you wouldn't otherwise been able to?
RC: I - what a cool question. I, you know, independent what I think we, me and Mahershala talked about this on the interview that like making a small film is not profitable at all. Um, television does pay better. You know, like, I feel really good about what, what I, what I made and television definitely - you know, if you do it for a long time, you can be a rich person. Um, but I think I'm still in this like, man, the last 15 years, we're just scraping by and then you have a, and then you have a great year. And you're like, oh, that's fantastic. But I still have a poor man's mentality about money. Like I, I don't spend a dime. Um, 'cause I don't have any faith that more is coming. Uh, and so I've been getting pressure from my folks and from, um, you know, my girl to like, you know, get a nice car! You know, like the whole time we were doing the show, I was driving like my 2008 bucket, like Honda Civic with peeling paint that like smells funny. And my, you know, and like my - people that work for me are pulling up and like Benzs, and Audis a d Lexuses and shit. And I'm like, I'm the showrunner. You know, but I, I have very like clear goals for myself for the show. I was like, I'm trying, I'm trying to buy a house. I just want to own a house.
AS: Do you want to buy a house in LA or in the Bay?
RC: I would love to buy a house in the Bay. Um, I, my folks are there and they're getting older and my, my niece is two and a half and my sister is there. And, um, I feel more grounded when I'm there. Um, but a lot of my friends are here in LA, too. So I think there's a lot of desire to kind of be in two places at once. And so I, anytime I look at houses just to like dream - we're all like addicted to Redfin and Zillow and shit. 'Cause that's how you know you're in your thirties. And I'm like, "Oh my God. Look at these high ceilings!" It's just like - "Who am I? You were a rapper! You remember? What happened?" Uh, but I think the, the fun of like living at home would be to be around the folks that I grew up around. But I, I also, um, you know, I, I, I sometimes just think about like weird sometimes when you move home out of the desire to like, be closer to those things, you also wonder, like, have I become a different person? And will that make me revert back in a way that maybe looks good on paper, but isn't actually good for my humanity. And so I, I, I wrestle with that. I wrestle with going go back to the Bay or sort of continuing on and seeing where life takes me.
AS: Rafael, you are navigating your distance with the Bay.
RC: [Laughs] I'm navigating my distance with, with all things um, from my younger times. You know, the expectations of a younger you loom big. Where you need to be at this point in life. And what your friends thought of you when you were a teenager, and what you said you were going to do and what you actually did or didn't do. Those things really stay with other people sometimes more than they stay with you.
RC: And, um, and they're powerful. They're powerful forces. They're omnipresent all the time. So I, I, I like to go home most often in small doses and then get back to the bird's eye view of myself.
Thanks again to Rafael Casal and Mahershala Ali. Mahershala has also been busy. He filmed a movie called Swan Song, with Glenn Close and Awkwafina, during the pandemic. And he’s been cast as Blade in the upcoming Marvel movie. We’d have him back as a guest host any time. For now… I’ll let him wrap things up.
MA: Death, Sex & Money is a listener-supported production of WNYC Studios in New York. Our team includes Katie Bishop, Anabel Bacon, Emily Botein, and Andrew Dunn. Our intern is Emily Nadal.
The Reverend John Delore and Steve Lewis wrote our theme music.
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You can follow me, Mahershala Ali, on Instagram. If you're bored.
MA: What scares you about the next three to five years?
RC: I just don't know what I'm doing. I say this thing all the time, that I keep getting through another door and I keep thinking that the adults are in that room. And then I get in there and it's just me and my friends. [Laughs]
MA: Yeah yeah.
RC: We’re like, oh, it's the next door.
RC: All the grownups who know what they're doing are in that room.
I’m Mahershala Ali, and this is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC.