Mahershala Ali Modeled His 'True Detective' Character After Someone Really Important To Him

Warrick Page/HBO

While each of the three seasons of True Detective bring audiences into a complicated new mystery, it's not the revelations or cases that tend to stick with fans of the show - it's the characters. Following in the footsteps of Matthew McConaughey's career re-defining role as Rust Cohle and Rachel McAdams' gritty performance as Antigone Bezzerides, Mahershala Ali's performance as Wayne Hays in Season 3 could serve as yet another highlight in what has been an impressive few years for the actor. While the story of Season 3 of True Detective is completely fictional, Mahershala Ali's True Detective character is inspired by a real person — his own grandfather, who was a state police officer.

The character that Ali plays was originally written for a white man, and Ali auditioned for the supporting role of the lead's partner. But Ali wanted to be the lead.

While the character of Wayne Hays wasn't actually written with Mahershala Ali's grandfather in mind, the actor convinced the show's producers to place him in the role after showing them a picture of his grandfather, as reported by Variety. Ali recalled that he said, "‘See, we existed in this space. In the ’60s and the ’70s. State police officers ... I think your story would be served, I think the story would be improved in this case, if this lead character was black.'"

And it is. It allows the show to to tell a story not just of two missing children, an old man suffering with dementia, and the ins and outs of the Ozarks police forces, but also of race relations in America at the time.

The conversation about race is subtle in the new season. Ali told Toronto Now, "I didn’t feel like there needed to be n-words flying around ... [The racial disparity] could be easily addressed in subtle things, like a character being directed not to look at me when I ask a question but instead look at my [white] partner Roland, viewing him naturally as the authority figure." Ali's character may not be directed based on any real-life figure, but the realities of being a black police officer as depicted in True Detective reflect, at least partially, the realities of being a police officer of color in the late-20th century and even today.

Ali's character in one of the time jumps is suffering from dementia, and that too, is based in some reality. Pizzolato told Entertainment Weekly, "I was thinking about a couple people close to me who have been touched by this affliction and I was wondering if it would be possible to tell a man’s life story in the form of a detective story."

True Detective has always succeeded by combining the bleak realism of police investigations with transcendental surrealism, whether someone is suddenly seeing a galaxy while in pursuit of a killer or being haunted by hallucinations of one's past while walking through the desert with an open wound. Season 3 of True Detective seems to lean harder into the show's realism than ever before, crafting not just the realistic scenery of the Ozarks but also placing the story firmly within a realistic cultural context.