Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, which opens in Atlanta today, is already one of the most critically-acclaimed films of 2016. It’s a brilliant film that examines the life of Chiron as he grows from childhood to adulthood over three specific points of his life. In exploring Chiron, the film also touches on the topics of sexuality, race and masculinity.
As an adult, Chiron is played by Trevante Rhodes, and throughout the film, Chiron’s mother Paula is played by Naomie Harris. At a recent press day for the film, I was able to speak with both Rhodes and Harris about how they got attached to the film, their experiences and more.
How did you get attached to Moonlight?
Trevante Rhodes: Well, for me, it was a typical audition process. My manager called me and said I needed to stop whatever I was doing and read the script, because it was the best thing she’d ever read. I did, and it definitely was. I initially went for the role of Kevin, the role that Andre Holland plays, and Barry stops me. He said, ‘No, I want you to read for the other role.’ Two auditions later, I get the call, and I get the role.
Naomie Harris: Jeremy Kleiner, our producer, had wanted to work with me on another project, but it hadn’t really worked out. So he approached my agent, and said, ‘I’d really like for you to do this project,’ and sent along the script. I read it, I loved it, I thought it was absolutely beautiful, and then I always do my due diligence and look at the director’s work. So I looked at Barry’s previous film, Medicine for Melancholy, and it was one of the most beautiful films I’ve ever watched. So I desperately wanted to do it, but was caught in this kind of…I had a dilemma because here was this amazing script and amazing filmmaker, but I’ve always said that I would draw the line at playing a crack addict, because I really wanted to make my choices as an actor based on portraying positive images of women in general, and black women in particular, and I didn’t think a crack addict was one of them. So it took a conversation with Barry basically convincing me, asking me to play his mom, before I said yes.
“I had to ask, ‘Why? How? What’s happened? What’s caused this?’ and fill it all in. But that’s what you do for any character, it’s just that normally all those gaps are filled in for you.” – Naomie Harris
Naomie, because of the structure of the film, you play the same character over three radically different periods of her life. In some ways, it’s almost like you play three different characters. Given the short period of time you had to shoot the film and work on the character, how did you approach playing Paula?
NH: To be honest, it’s the same journey that you would take for creating any character, which is: you do your research. For me, the biggest thing I needed to find out and connect with – well, two things, actually – were, I’m British, so culturally it’s very different from being American, being from Miami, so I had to make that connection. And do a lot of research about that. And also, I had to connect with and understand addiction, because I felt at that time, “I don’t have any addictions, I’m Miss Clean Living. How can I connect with that?”
So I watched a hell of a lot of YouTube documentaries and also interviews with people with addictions. I had a lovely lady who was kind enough to sit down with me and share her story of addiction, and once I had all that information, I had to go back to the script and chart Paula’s development, and fill in the gaps. There were huge chunks of time and massive transitions Paula makes between these chapters, and I had to ask, ‘Why? How? What’s happened? What’s caused this?’ and fill it all in. But that’s what you do for any character, it’s just that normally all those gaps are filled in for you. But you know, it was fun that it wasn’t all laid out for me, and that I got to use my imagination and I got to come up with scenarios for myself, because I could find something that made sense for me, and gelled with the information that I picked up from doing my research as well.”
And Trevante, you get to play Chiron as an adult. How did you get into who Chiron is at this point in his life?
TR: It was really understanding that this person was someone who’s incredibly tormented, someone who had a lot of self-hate because he didn’t understand who he was. So it was about inhabiting this skin and walking around L.A. feeling like I had this disdain for myself, or this disdain for everyone else, having this secret that I had to hide from everyone, and I felt like if I were to connect with someone, they would see the secret, they would see the insecurities, they would see the little boy who just wants to dance around and they would judge me for it. So it was really just kind of not having any kind of social connection to anyone, you know what I mean? Inhabiting that and walking around in that skin, and just trying to translate that to the film as best as I could.
Moonlight has already been shown to audiences, and the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. Are there any particular responses to the film that have stood out to you?
NH: For me, I think one of the most moving was at Telluride. That was the first time we had shown the movie, and Barry was so nervous, I remember. And we got a standing ovation after the film, and then we walked outside, and the audience had waited outside to applaud us as we came out of the theater, which the organizers of Telluride said had never happened at the history of Telluride.
And then people started coming up to us and sharing their experiences with the movie. A 70-year-old white guy ended up crying in the arms of Barry. A black girl came up to me and was telling me about her experience. She ended up bursting into tears, and was sobbing in my arms. So that was the first time I realized just how profound and how deeply this film connects with people’s hearts. I’ve never been a part of a movie that moves people in this way, and I’ve been working since I was nine years old, which is 31 years doing this. That’s when I realized this is an incredibly special movie.
TR: Being at all of the festivals, and literally seeing after every screening, we get a standing ovation, and it doesn’t stop until Barry says, “Okay, guys, please! Sit down, please!” For me, the first moment was when the first trailer dropped. A two-minute trailer. I’ll never forget, it was literally an hour later, and I was at the gym. This guy comes up to me. He’s shaking, his eyes are red, and he’s tearing up, and he tells me that this is his story, and he appreciates us for telling this story so much. And that just hit my heart, because from a two minute trailer, an hour ago, you were affected. It showed me how powerful this whole movement is gonna be, or at least I hope it will be.
“I like to say I have 5% of Chiron in me – he’s like a foot or something. I’ve exhausted 100% of that 5%, so I’ve learned so much about myself in being this other person, in being this extension of myself.” – Trevante Rhodes
For anyone who hears about Moonlight and is interested, but maybe on the fence about going and seeing it, what would you say to them to push them over towards seeing it?
TR: My thing is, if you have any hesitance towards going to see this, then you really need to see it more than anybody, and if you have a friend that’s hesitant, grab them, put them in a headlock, pay for their ticket if you need to, but get them to see this movie, because this is something that literally everyone needs to see, everyone needs to understand. For me, being a part of it, it helped me so much.
How did it help you?
TR: I was brought up differently. My mother was someone who really instilled in us that understanding and love are the most important things. So I get to have this opportunity, which is crazy, because thematically that’s what it’s about, but finding more understanding about myself… I like to say I have 5% of Chiron in me – he’s like a foot or something. I’ve exhausted 100% of that 5%, so I’ve learned so much about myself in being this other person, in being this extension of myself. I’ve learned how to love myself more, and that allows me to love other people more. I walk around everywhere with an open heart and an open mind, because I don’t know what happened to them five years ago, let alone when they were five years old that causes them to walk around with a frown on their face. There have been times where I walk up to someone who looks like they’re having a terrible day, and I ask them what’s wrong, and the frown goes upside down. They smile, because all they needed was someone to connect with them. So for me, this experience allowed me to be more open to people and receive people more.