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Ashton SandersLuke Austin

Talking to the breakout star of the must-see film Moonlight

We talk to Ashton Sanders about his gut-wrenching performance in the coming-of-age story that everybody’s talking about

“This movie changed my life” says 21-year-old Los Angeles native Ashton Sanders. If you’re unfamiliar with the name, get to know, you’ll soon be hearing anyway. Moonlight, and his role in it, have been drawing praise from everyone who’s seen it.

“There have been so many times I have seen a man wanting to weep but instead beat his heart until it was unconscious,” Nayyirah Waheed wrote in Salt. Every blue moon, a gripping cinematic tale ditches stale tropes and captivates audiences with a fresh outlook.

This year’s game changer is Barry Jenkins’ film Moonlight, a breathtaking adaptation of the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney. The semi-autobiographical film traces the journey of Chiron, a young boy coming of age in a minefield of homophobia, toxic masculinity and life in the projects. Unfolding in three chapters, with Miami’s Liberty City at the height of the War on Drugs serving as a backdrop, viewers are offered an achingly beautiful meditation on the intersections of Black masculinity and queer sexuality, all with the overlay of masterful storytelling, stunning cinematography and scoring guaranteed to thrust you into your feels.

The haunting question first posed in the trailer, “Who is you?” serves as a canon throughout the film, forcing viewers to question: Who bears the brunt when boys and men are deprived of healthy intimacy in the name of masculinity? What happens when we teach boys manhood is inextricably linked to the desire and conquering of women? How many people have we known and never truly seen?

Moonlight holds a lens to these quandaries while conveying emotional information through the unspoken – a longing glance, an unshakable loneliness, a desperate plea to be seen and simultaneously invisible – so much so that dialogue between its characters almost seems secondary. It’s a story rooted in love, anguish, vulnerability, relationships, disappointment, healing and the universal experience of grasping for space to be who you are. Intrinsically personal and intimately Black, with a potency lingering long after leaving the cinema, it offers the type of cinematic kinship and refreshing humanity that Oscar dreams are made of. Here, we talk to breakout star Ashton Sanders about getting into character, the magic of multidimensional storytelling and the infinite routes to manhood.

People were overwhelmed with emotion after first watching the trailer months ago and that’s only been amped up with the film’s release. How are you dealing with the reception?

Ashton Sanders: Seeing the trailer for the first time was surreal; I got chills. Even now, it feels like I’m on the outside looking in and experiencing all of this with everybody else. The feedback has been overwhelming, amazing and really humbling. This was a passion project for everyone involved.

Did you know right away you wanted to be involved after reading the script?

Ashton Sanders: Absolutely, when I first got the script I recognised Tarell Alvin McCraney’s name on the cover. He actually went to DePaul University, where I was studying at the time and we’d performed some of his work in our theatre program. I appreciated how every character in the film was reminiscent of someone I’ve known in my life or encountered in passing—whether it’s someone struggling with identity, sexuality, a family member on drugs. Every character can be related to someone we all know.

How did you prepare for the role of Chiron?

Ashton Sanders: The script gave me so much to work off of. I had to dig and confront a lot of uncomfortable things from my past, things I’d pushed to the back of my mind but needed to channel in order to make Chiron human and fully embody the character. Things that had affected my self-esteem. I got bullied as a kid for being different, starting in elementary. I was lanky, I was into the arts instead of sports. Like Chiron, I’ve had people in my family who’ve struggled with drug addiction, not as extreme as his circumstances, but those personal experiences gave me a lot to pull from. And the aesthetics of the environment: the ocean, the people of the community. Miami was definitely its own character.

I had to fill in the gap between ages 11 to 16 of everything my character went through. How would I feel when someone who was a father figure to me disappears from my life? How would I feel having to wear the same clothes every day because I can’t go home because my mom is strung out?

Also, not being able to see younger and older Chiron’s scenes (played by Alex Hibbert and Trevante Rhodes, respectively) or see each other on set helped me focus on my section. Barry (Jenkins) didn’t want any of us to meet during production since we’re all Chiron at three very different stages in his life. The Toronto premiere was the first time we all met each other, it was amazing seeing how well everything came together onscreen.

You’ve mentioned your two weeks of filming Moonlight healed you more than years of therapy probably would’ve?

Ashton Sanders: Oh man, the entire process was so therapeutic and the most emotionally vulnerable I’ve ever had to be while acting. I had to completely give myself over to the character. The movie hit everyone hard, not only the cast but every person on set. This was something special and very rare. I was spoiled working with such a great playwright and director, and being surrounded by so much love while making this project. It was an incredible experience.

One of my favourite underlying themes is the emphasis on showing Black men being tender with one another. We get to see the characters engage in intimacy usually reserved for women and frowned upon among men. Men hugging, preparing meals for each other, giving positive words of affirmation, crying, nonsexualnonviolent touching.

Ashton Sanders: That’s important, we all need that intimacy. Growing up, Black masculinity within the Black community is like a social mask people put on to fit in. I think the film will help open up that conversation and show you don’t have to be super hard or macho. A lot of people may see those empathetic actions as being feminine, or emasculating, but it's important to show how human and natural men actually are. Society puts this stereotype on how we have to be in this world, when in actuality it's just a natural human response out of respect and love for another person.

I grew up in a world where I was the odd one out because I didn't really fit the "Black masculinity" stereotypes. Everything outside of sports, body type, and so on definitely came into play. I was easily targeted because I was on a different wave, an artistic wave, but it's important to stay true to yourself and dare to be different, no matter what you are "supposed to be." This was very much a story of love and tapping into those different levels and circumstances. I didn’t put a gender on it. It was about connection and love for me.

What was your favourite scene?

Ashton Sanders: That’s really hard, there are so many but I loved all of the scenes with Naomie (Harris). Working with her was awesome and super emotional. She’s incredible. And she filmed all of her scenes in three days!

Moonlight resonates with people from all walks of life, while giving a loving nod to queer Black boys and men. For that kid struggling to find his sense of self and community, the boy wrestling with his sexuality and navigating hypermasculinity, what do you hope this film will mean?

Ashton Sanders: I hope he finds that self-love that he needs for himself, and that he understands it's okay to be who he is. It’s okay to not let anybody dim your light because of who you are. Love yourself! I hope to continue tackling projects that resonate with society. I believe acting is recreating life so I want to do just that, recreate life and stay true to my artistry, it's so important.