From stage to screen, Usman Ally ’04 has had an impressive career. After graduating from Lewis & Clark in 2004 with a degree in theatre and sociology/anthropology (SOAN), Ally has gone on to have a successful career in the entertainment industry, earning roles in plays like Ayad Akhtar’s “Invisible Hand,” for which he won an Obie award. He has also been featured on HBO’s “Veep” and is perhaps best known for his work on Netflix’s “A Series of Unfortunate Events” playing Hook-Handed Man/Fernald.
Despite recently transitioning to TV and film, Ally was not originally interested in screen acting.
“I was always interested in the theater primarily … I was fortunate enough when I was in high school that I had always at least one teacher that (sic) was willing to sort of push me into doing drama,” Ally said via phone interview. “When I came to Lewis & Clark I worked in the theatre department and I had some professors again who very quickly saw that I had a lot of potential.”
Ally was born in eSwatini (formerly known as Swaziland) to Pakistani parents and was raised in Botswana, Kenya, Tanzania and Pakistan.
“I wouldn’t say (my parents) were supportive of a life in theatre — they chose to sort of ignore it,” he said. “They saw it as sort of a hobby, and honestly I decided to add sociology and anthropology because I felt it was a way to appease my parents because (it) sounds like a science.”
One of Ally’s most influential experiences was performing in an LC production of Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America,” directed by Professor of Theatre Štĕpán Šimek.
“I think one of the plays that really affected my sense of wanting to be an actor was ‘Angels in America’ in which I played Roy Cohn,” Ally said. “That was a really important experience for me … because it made me feel like this is something that I’m good at and that I can do and would like to pursue.”
As a double major, Ally found that SOAN and theatre played off of each other nicely.
“I found that the two majors really helped me in understanding ‘the other,’” Ally said. “I had some really great professors in the SOAN department — particularly Bob Goldman and Jennifer Hubbert. A lot of my ability in critical thinking that I have used as a theatre artist comes from taking (SOAN) classes. Being able to understand human beings and human behavior and cultural differences and similarities … all of that is incredibly insightful and useful to someone who wants to be a theatre artist in America or anywhere.”
Ally has maintained relationships with the theatre professors who inspired and encouraged him while at LC.
“I felt very indebted to them as people who assisted me in finding my voice on campus,” he said.
During his time at LC, Ally also became involved in “Prisoner of Politics,” a Portland-based hip-hop/poetry collective. There, he developed an interest in slam poetry.
“I used to perform at The Rusty Nail and at the Gender Symposium with a few other students of color,” Ally said. “Speaking on issues of race and ethnicity was vital for myself and other students of color because we were such a small minority on campus. Oftentimes people don’t realize, especially back in 2003/2004 on campus there were a lot of issues surrounding race that were not being dealt with. Performance art became a way for us to address those issues and to use it for means of social justice and social awareness.”
As one of the few Muslim students on campus during and immediately following 9/11, Ally was often targeted.
“I experienced racial violence on the campus where I was jumped by someone,” he said. “You’re on a campus where people are used to being around people who look like them … and then they’re suddenly confronted by someone who doesn’t look like them and in some way they connect that person to what they’re seeing on television. I think if I didn’t have the outlet of slam poetry and if I didn’t have the academic understanding of the world that I gained through my SOAN professors, I would not have made it those four years.”
Ally highlighted the importance of struggling early on, making your own opportunities and how these experiences increase an actor’s understanding of the human condition. He offered more insight into his thought process as an actor.
“I think it’s just really important to remember that you are playing somebody else’s truth,” he said. “Actors are not liars, we tell a version of the truth. And it’s important to create roles that audiences are sympathetic towards. It’s my job as an artist and as an actor to find a way to make the audience feel for this character even if it’s against their better judgment … you just have to find their logic and their truth and play their logic as honestly as (you) possibly can … like Hook-Handed Man on ‘A Series of Unfortunate Events.’ It’s still a character with a full logic and back story and truth to what he thinks the world is and it’s my job to make that as clear as possible and to get the audience on my side.”
Ally credited the theatre and SOAN departments with giving him a home at LC.
“I found it was difficult to feel like I was a part of the community and school and so having the Theatre and the SOAN department … gave me a sense of belonging … and that was very important,” he said. “Because when you come from another country, it’s easy to feel isolated and not accepted, and so the theatre really gave me an opportunity to channel my frustrations into art.”
Edited April 10, 2019 at 7:51 pm.