Light Mode

“Ali”: Nona Gaye Interview

Marvin Gaye’s daughter, Nona Gaye, is already a musical artist in her own right. Now she’s been bitten by the acting bug, too.

Imagine it’s your very first major feature film role. You’re going to work with director Michael Mann and superstar Will Smith–on the year’s biggest sports movie. That movie also happens to be about Muhammad Ali, perhaps the greatest athlete in American history.

Think you might be a little apprehensive?

You might be, but first-time actress Nona Gaye, the daughter of the late, great soul man Marvin Gaye, found playing Belinda Ali, Ali’s second wife, and working on the set with Smith and the others one of the most exhilarating experiences of her life.

- Advertisement -

We talked to Gaye during the filming of the movie about how she’s been bitten by the acting bug, her musical background, and how her late father still guides her in everything she does.

Tell me a little about your part in Ali.

Nona Gaye: I’m playing Belinda Ali, Muhammad Ali’s second wife, a devout Muslim. She was 17 years old when she married the 25-year-old Ali. They had four children together.

Did you get a chance to meet her?

Gaye: No, I haven’t met her, but I did get to meet her daughters, her sisters and I had an opportunity to meet her mother–bunch of wonderful women. I think the hardest thing about the part is playing someone’s mother and having the children watching. I want to make sure I’m doing a decent job and am giving an accurate portrayal. They say I’m doing all right, and it’s important to me that they feel that way. I really can’t believe I got this role. Still.

How did you get the part?

- Advertisement -

Gaye: My agent sent me out. It was my first audition…

Wait, didn’t you have a small part in Harlem Nights in 1989?

Gaye: Gosh, I don’t believe you know that! Yeah, well, it ended up on the cutting room floor. I gave Richard Pryor some extra [poker] chips.


Too bad we didn’t get to see it.

Gaye: [Laughs] Anyway, I auditioned for the casting director and was absolutely positive I blew it. As sure as the seasons change, I was sure I didn’t have the role. So I waited a few days, thinking, forget it, no way. But they called me back and said Michael Mann wanted me to read again. I was like “Oh my gosh!” So I went in, read again, waited a few more days, and then they called and wanted me to meet with Will [Smith]. I read with Will and then I read for Michael again, by myself. I think the total was about six times that I went, and by that time I was half-crazed. It had been about a three-month process. And finally Michael called me and said I was the one. Wow! It was wonderful.

- Advertisement -

That’s a great call. How was it working on the set?

Gaye: Everyone was so nice! And I’m not saying that just to say it. I didn’t meet one person on this project that I didn’t like. There wasn’t one person who didn’t receive me with open arms, welcoming me because I’m a rookie. I’m the only rookie on this film. I worked with some heavy hitters, and I’m not going to lie and say I wasn’t intimidated and nervous when I first started.

But Will Smith must have been a lot of fun to work with.

Gaye: Oh, he was awesome, he was so sweet. He made it really easy. And there was [co-stars] Jamie [Foxx] and Jeffrey [Wright]-it was a bunch of really great, fun loving people. It was really hard to stay introverted and scared when I was surrounded by all this wonderful, positive energy.

How was Muhammad Ali on the set?

Gaye: He was so cool. [Even though] the Parkinson’s made his speech a little difficult, if you paid attention, you could understand what he was saying. And it was usually something you didn’t want to miss. He was a jokester on the set, ran around and made people laugh. He was a really cool man. I was honored to be part of the movie, to tell this story.

What do you think people are going say about Will Smith playing Ali? It must have been a great challenge to play someone this important to the world of sports.

Gaye: [Will] is going to rip it up. What I think is cool is that without doing an imitation of Ali, Will captured the man’s essence.


How does your acting debut compare to recording an album?

Gaye: Completely different experience. Music is something I’ve always done, that’s always been in my heart and I feel unnatural when I’m not doing it. But this is a completely new experience. It has become another calling for me that I wasn’t aware of before. I wanted to broaden my horizons, and I’m so glad that I have. It’s incredible.

Being the daughter of such a legendary musician as Marvin Gaye, it must be wonderful to know he shaped a whole generation of music.

Gaye: [My father] is with me wherever I go. He seems to, even from the beyond, speak to me, through his music, whatever. He told me I got the part, actually.


Gaye: I asked for a sign if I was going to get the role or not. I always do this. I’ll turn on the radio and I’ll give him a five or ten minute period–‘Alright, Dad, if you come on in five or ten minutes then I’m going to go with that.’ If I don’t hear him, then I know it’s not going to happen. So when I asked him about this part, I turned on the radio and the first song I heard was “Let’s Get It On.” So, it was like, O.K., I got the role.

Wow, that’s pretty amazing.

Gaye: He does that to me all the time. It always happens.

- Advertisement -