Upon meeting Ashton Sanders in person, the first thing that hits you is his poise. I spot him from a distance in a sharp green suit, black turtleneck and white sneakers; when we greet, he has a deep, commanding voice that belies his boyish face. Whereas the character he plays in Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight is self-conscious and brimming with sorrow, Sanders walks into the expansive lobby of the James Hotel looking like he owns the building.
“Moonlight has changed my life externally, but also internally... spiritually as well,” the young actor describes. “Mentally.”
Although Moonlight isn’t Sanders’ first film, it is undoubtedly his major movie debut. Taking on the role of Chiron, the 21-year-old plays the lead character in a triptych narrative, the second of three performances depicting the life of one troubled soul struggling to accept his homosexuality against the decaying backdrop of south Florida’s urban sprawl. Chiron is played in childhood by Alex Hibbert and in adulthood by Trevante Rhodes. Of the three, Sanders’ teenage Chiron is burdened with the darkest, most visceral chapter of his life: stoical in the wake of profound loss, coming to terms with his mother’s addiction to crack, and brimming over with repressed sexual desires. He’s forced to face an identity he can no longer control, and, like a pressure cooker left too long on the flame, things reach a boiling point and erupt into chaos. It’s a portrayal that masks fury with lost stares and an awkward gait, until it cracks open to allow the tears to flow. It’s the kind of performance that leaves a scar.
“To be that lonely at such a young age for so long, you would feel a certain type of way,” says Sanders of the role, which he fastened to his psyche like an appendage he can’t quite remove. “That’s how deeply I dug into his personality. Even talking about it right now, man, it’s super-sad, and you feel it...” He cracks a smile to deviate from falling back into his character. “I had withdrawals from playing Chiron.”
Moonlight – which has seized the American zeitgeist during a year in which the nation’s marginalised are feeling particularly threatened – may be the first film of quality to categorically expand the notion of black masculinity to include the LGBT experience. While there have been many depictions of black queerness in cinema, the plotlines have veered toward stereotypes that include stories of unwanted gay sexual abuse from family members, closeted men cheating on their wives, or punishment narratives about HIV or drug addiction. Often, gay black characters are used as punchlines about crossdressing, feminisation, small dogs, or all of the above. Moonlight, with its nuanced coming-of-age narrative, recognises upfront as a primary narrative truth that black gay men are tasked with overcoming tremendous social adversity in order to reach personal fulfilment. As cinema, it’s breathtaking. As a subject, it’s groundbreaking. But there was no way the actor could have known any of this in advance.
“I auditioned for Moonlight without knowing anything,” Sanders recalls. “I went in the room and I didn’t know the lines as well as I should have. I didn’t know a thing about the script. I wasn’t told anything. I heard it was a low-budget film and my agent told me to do it. I was super-ignorant to it.”
“I read that script and my soul immediately became attached to the project. The world that Chiron lived in was relatable. Moonlight has changed my life externally, but also internally... spiritually as well” — Ashton Sanders
After auditioning a few times for casting director Yesi Ramirez, Sanders was given a copy of the script. “I saw on the title page, ‘Story written by Tarell Alvin McCraney’, and it said Barry Jenkins was adapting (McCraney’s drama-school piece In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue). Honestly, man, I read that script and my soul immediately became attached to the project. The world that Chiron lived in was relatable. I know people in my life who are like Chiron, or Teresa, or Juan,” he says, invoking the film’s core characters. “I went through experiences in my life of being bullied from elementary to middle school, growing up with family members on drugs and dealing with alcohol and substance abuse.” When Sanders read the script, he says, a relative of his had relapsed with drugs and alcohol, much like Chiron’s mother Paula in the story. “Immediately I knew that I had to do this project, because I knew it would be therapeutic for me. And it was.”
“Discovering Ashton was a cool process,” recalls Jenkins. “He was the first person to come in and audition for Chiron. Because Ashton was the first person to read for it, I built up a block in my psyche: the first person just cannot be the right person, it does not work this way.” Jenkins and Ramirez therefore requested to see Sanders multiple times. “What came out of that process was that, each time he came in, he and I got to know each other better and he got to know the character better, and I got a feel for the best way to direct him. I saw the line between Ashton and Chiron, and I knew where that line was. It was different for Ashton than for any of the other actors in that he had such a head-start. By the time we got on set, we weren’t finding the character. We were in real-time, creating the story. Ashton was doing it in a way that was fully lived-in, and I think his presence jumps off the screen because of that.”
“I had to lose myself in order to fully embody Chiron,” Sanders says. “It’s the little things: being on set in the environment of the Pork & Beans (locals’ nickname for a housing project in Miami’s Liberty City neighbourhood) where we shot. It’s the hood of Miami, (the place) where Barry and Tarell grew up. It’s being in the clothes – there are scenes where Chiron is wearing the same clothes for two or three days at a time. You have to think about that: Damn, I haven’t changed my clothes. I have to go to school knowing that I’m going to be teased. Subconsciously, all of that would make you closed off. There’s a social mask that Chiron is wearing, but almost everyone in the film is wearing one. Juan’s social mask is that he’s a drug dealer, but he is the sweetest, most caring guy. Paula loves her son but her social mask is that she can’t show it. And in the third act, Kevin says something to Chiron, like ‘I was being what everyone else wanted me to be.’ This film touches a lot on that. We all have to wear social masks in our daily lives to get by.”
“There are scenes (in Moonlight) where Chiron is wearing the same clothes for two or three days at a time. You have to think about that: Damn, I haven’t changed my clothes. I have to go to school knowing that I’m going to be teased” — Ashton Sanders
Touring the film through festivals and award shows (after we meet, Moonlight won the Golden Globe for best drama, and is now up for eight Academy Awards), Sanders has grown irrevocably close with his castmates, despite the fact that, due to the structure of the film, many of them did not shoot together. He refers to Mahershala Ali as a mentor, and his co-star (and Chiron’s love interest) Jharrel Jerome as “one of my best friends”. He also mentions offhand that he’s become close with Sasha Lane, the star of Andrea Arnold’s American Honey. Two of the year’s most distinctive breakout stars, they’ve experienced a parallel rise with big independent films from the hot distributor A24, offering them a rare connection. They also share certain philosophies about fame and the film business – mainly, that industry politics can be “sus as fuck”, in Sanders’ words, and that awards are secondary to the inherent victory of producing art that moves people – but their gateways into the business could not have been more different. Lane was discovered on a beach during spring break, but Sanders has been a working stage actor for half of his life.
“It’s going to sound cliche, but I started acting as an emotional outlet,” Sanders explains. “Growing up, I felt like all the other kids had that (with sports) and I really needed it at that point in time. I used to bug my dad like, ‘Yo, I really wanna do this. Please enroll me in acting class.’” After years of persistence proved he meant business, Sanders’ father finally enrolled him in the Amazing Grace Conservatory, an all-black acting programme based in Los Angeles. “It was a place to come and be yourself, to be surrounded by art, to build relationships and to not be judged,” says Sanders. “I fell in love with that place, man. That’s where everything started.” Sanders attended Amazing Grace from sixth grade until he graduated from Central Los Angeles High School No 9, a downtown performing arts high school now known as Grand Arts.
“It was kind of like Fame, almost,” Sanders says of the school. A glimpse at his extended CV reveals an impressive list of formative credits for a young theatre actor, like Francis Nurse in The Crucible, Ren in Footloose, The Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland, and Jimmy Early in Dreamgirls. “I started acting to escape my reality, so the more I can get lost in a character and not think about what’s going on in my real life, the more connected I am,” he says. With Chiron, Sanders found his first screen role he could fully immerse himself in, plumbing the depths of the bruised teenager’s soul to portray his emotional state. Given that he did not have much dialogue, the task became even greater.
“I started acting to escape my reality, so the more I can get lost in a character and not think about what’s going on in my real life, the more connected I am” — Ashton Sanders
All signs indicate Sanders’ process yielded success. As Moonlight has made the awards rounds and pundits wonder who from the ensemble ought to be singled out, it’s been tough. All three of the actors portraying Chiron in the three stages of his life give star-making performances, but a consensus is forming that Sanders’ work provides the biggest emotional gut-punch. Revered theatre critic Hilton Als wrote in The New Yorker: “Watching Sanders play Chiron at this stage of his life is rather like seeing Montgomery Clift act for the first time, or Gloria Foster in Nothing but a Man. There’s no accounting for talent like this. Sanders has a conjurer’s gifts, and an intuitive understanding of how the camera works – how it can push into an actor’s face and consciousness, and how the actor can push back against the intrusion by inhabiting the reality of the moment.”
Jenkins elaborates: “He had a unique way of controlling this thing that, in presentation and on screen, seems uncontrollable. It’s this passion, and this breaking that the character goes through in the course of the second chapter of this film. Ashton has this thing about him, a rawness and a vulnerability that’s inherent. What’s great about him, and what his gift is as an actor, is being able to control and cajole and caress and finesse that rawness. A lot of people might have that thing, but they can’t control it. And if you can’t control it, it becomes very dangerous.”
For Sanders, that control extends to his business ethic. He recently made the tough decision to drop out of college. “I had two choices,” he says. “I could either go to school to do what I’m doing now, or I could do it professionally. I think I made the right decision.” At DePaul University in Chicago, Sanders had been immersed in the theatre program, studying Stanislavski and Bartenieff, all the while dreaming of becoming a full-time movie star. He had previously signed with an agent from a boutique firm called the Savage Agency, after being scouted during a high-school production of Peter Pan. “They’re super-loyal, which is really hard to find,” he explains. Recently, powerhouse agency UTA came knocking, and Sanders arranged for them to split their percentage with Savage in a dual representation deal. “I have a big thing about trust,” he says. “Besides, that would be like dropping (Savage) when they made me who I am, and that’s not cool with me.”
In entertainment reporting, the ‘plucked from obscurity’ storyline tends to get a lot of mileage. Less attention is paid to artists who do the hard work and relentlessly pursue their dream for many years. Perhaps this is because there is always an element of luck in Hollywood, and the more arbitrary or coincidental the circumstance, the more impressive (or anecdotal, at least) it comes across. Yes, Sanders devoted his energies to theatre from a very young age, but so have thousands upon thousands of other actors. To what does he attribute his lucky break?
“I don’t do this for the money! I do this because I love this art. I would have done Moonlight for free, as long as they flew me out... But I would love to be the first black Joker” — Ashton Sanders
“Prayers go up, blessing come down,” he says, with a coarse laugh. “I feel like there is a law of attraction, almost. This might sound super-spiritual, but it worked for me. You think that something’s going to happen without having any opposing forces about that thought. Everything that’s happening to me right now is surreal and also scary, because this is where I kind of knew I was going to be in this moment. I knew I wasn’t going to finish college. I knew that something was going to come up. I had a feeling. That’s why I follow my soul and intuition on everything.”
As these things tend to go, Sanders is now on the receiving end of a generous pile of scripts, most of which he’s turned down. (After our conversation, it will be announced that he’s signed on to join John Goodman in a sci-fi film called Captive State.) “I’m not about to sign on to any project unless my soul and my spirit tells me to follow through with it. You can’t force your destiny,” he says. When I suggest he might change his tune if a big-budget superhero movie comes calling, he looks at me like I’ve gone temporarily insane. “I don’t do this for the money! I do this because I love this art,” he says emphatically. “I would have done Moonlight for free, as long as they flew me out.” He pauses and tacks on an exception: “But I would love to be the first black Joker.”
For now, Sanders is intent on enjoying the ride, while still taking much-needed breaks to decompress whenever possible. Recently, he has taken to social media to provide candid glimpses into what his life is like away from the limelight: on Instagram, you’ll find videos of him and friends blasting Childish Gambino and singing R&B vocal runs about the mundane details of their surroundings, keeling over with laughter. That said, he is also learning that promoting a movie has its perks. His Moonlight tour has brought him interactions with established Hollywood brass like Tom Hanks, Ava DuVernay and Emma Stone. “I was at this Deadline thing in Los Angeles two or three weeks ago, and I was about to go onstage to do this talk with the cast, when Emma Stone came out and grabbed me. She was like, ‘Oh my God! Your performance in Moonlight!’ and I was like, ‘Yo, but you’re Emma Stone!’ I’m having to remember that actors are just regular people and they see movies too. Actors aren’t superhuman? Woah.”
A whirlwind such as this could be traumatic for someone less prepared, but Sanders already possesses a grace under pressure that would suggest he is up to the task. Chalk it up to years spent getting used to performing in front of an audience. “As far as this breakout thing, it’s surreal,” he says. “It’s almost numbing, too, because everything is happening so fast that you don’t really have time to take everything in. You have to just get adjusted to the lifestyle you’re in now and run with it and know that you’re supposed to be where you’re supposed to be in this moment. You have to know who you are before you come into this industry, but I know 21 is still very young. I’m college age, and I could be doing a bunch of reckless shit, but I have to force myself to mature. I have to focus on my career.” He breaks into a laugh that betrays his own words. “Fuck man, shit is crazy. I just dropped out of school two months ago. Talk about life moving super-fast.”
Moonlight is in UK cinemas from February 17
Grooming Mira Chai Hyde at The Wall Group using Bobbi Brown and R+Co, extra Tyson David Hansen, photographic assistant Mark Underwood, styling assistants Katie McGoldrick, Gigi Fernandez, Brittany Brown, Kieran Fenney, Marcos Mitchell, Carolina Zucchelli, production Yusuf Yagci at Rosco Production