January 27, 2016

Character Builder

Actor Usman Ally ’04 transforms scholarly insight into compelling characters.


Studying the liberal arts often leads to unexpected outcomes. When alum Usman Ally ’04 began his studies at Lewis & Clark, he had some high school theatre experience but never dreamed of acting as a potential career. But after meeting Professor of Theatre Štĕpán Šimek and starring as outlandish villain Roy Cohn in a production of Tony Kushner’s sprawling play Angels in America, Ally was hooked.

“Consider a double major. It’s a lot of work, but it is worth it. My studies in theatre and sociology/anthropology enriched and informed each other. Take advantage of the opportunity to dive into more than one discipline!”Usman Ally’s advice to L&C students

“When I came to college, my parents basically told me, ‘You have to become a lawyer.’ I wasn’t very good in the sciences, so becoming a doctor or an engineer like a lot of my peers seemed out of the question. The law was kind of my thing,” Ally says. “But instead, I started to take some theatre classes, and I just stuck with it.”

Ally, who was named Lewis & Clark’s 2014 Outstanding Young Alumnus last February, has now been acting professionally for a decade, and has shown himself to be a thoughtful and versatile performer. He has won acclaim and a slew of awards for such disparate roles as a basketball-loving Indian-American professional wrestler; a prickly mergers-and-acquisitions lawyer; and Bagheera, the panther father figure in Disney’s The Jungle Book.

<strong>Baskerville</strong> at the Old Globe. Playing the role of Dr. Watson. Photo: Jim Cox Baskerville at the Old Globe. Playing the role of Dr. Watson. Photo: Jim CoxA Third Culture Kid, Ally was born in Swaziland, spent most of his childhood in Tanzania, and lived in Pakistan for a couple of years before moving to the United States for college. The Mary Dimond scholar majored in both theatre and sociology/anthropology. While in Portland, he also began participating in poetry slams and performed with the hip-hop group Prisoner of Politics. These experiences led him to pursue graduate studies at the University of Florida, where he earned a master of fine arts degree magna cum laude. In 2015 Ally won an Obie Award for his performance in The Invisible Hand by Ayad Akhtar. Obies are the off-Broadway equivalent of the Tony Awards.

In between acclaimed stage performances, Ally has also found himself doing more and more screen acting, appearing in recurring roles on cable and network dramas including Boss, Damages, and Madam Secretary, as well as smaller roles in films, including J.J. Abrams’s 2013 Star Trek Into Darkness.

“I think a good actor is someone who can not only access the emotional side of the character that they’re playing, but also understand and access the psychology behind an individual, the politics of an individual, the environment they grew up in, and how those sorts of things affect that character,” Ally says. “Having that background of academia in general and social theory in particular has helped me understand, when I’m playing people who are nothing like me, where they are coming from.”

Read the full version of Character Builder by Ben Waterhouse BA ’06, originally published in The Chronicle Magazine.               

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