Robbie Imes chats with the breakout star of the year’s indie game-changer Moonlight
This award season, Ashton Sanders is the actor whose life is most closely imitating art: his role as a boy on the brink has brought him to the cusp of stardom. In the celebrated film Moonlight, Sanders stars as Chiron, an awkward teenager discovering his sexuality. The breakout performance has granted the 20-year-old sudden access to Hollywood’s elite. He’s only in the first flush of a career high, and with an Independent Spirit Awards nomination, there’s already talk of an Oscar for the film.
“It’s surreal, man,” said Sanders on the morning of the day when Moonlight won a Special Jury Award at the Gotham Independent Film Awards. The word “surreal” was never far from our conversation. This gangly kid from Compton, with only a few indie films under his belt, is now being recognized on the largest possible scale. “Reading the script—the first reading was one of the most emotional experiences I’ve ever had reading a script in my life,” he said. “I was able to relate to this character so much. I was bullied growing up for being that weird kid. People in my family were dealing with drug abuse and all that, so I felt like I knew all these people.”
“We don’t have a lot of stories that truly represent ourselves, which is also why Moonlight is such a hit. It’s so relatable; it’s so real. It’s not being swept under the rug anymore”
When we met in person days later at the photo shoot (at Herb Ritts’s old Hollywood home), Sanders’s relaxed, assured attitude suggested a confidence and maturity beyond his years. But there’s something of youth still in him, the “nahs” and “dopes,” the “yos” before he breaks out into laughter. It’s not naiveté—he’s quiet and a thinker, carrying pain just below the surface of his dark eyes. He knows the world all too well.
Sanders started acting as an outlet. His dad enrolled him in an acting program at an all-black conservatory in Los Angeles, where he immediately realized the benefits of the art. “We were able to take everything that we went through in our lives and put [that]into our characters,” he said. “I thought, I can do this as a career and be therapeutic as well. It’s good for my health— I’m going to run with it.”
Although Sanders doesn’t lament his upbringing, he’s seen his share of struggle. “My mom and dad were both recovering drug addicts, so I had some experiences with that growing up,” he said. “Moonlight kind of forced me to deal with some life decisions and confront them, and doing it the only way I know possible—through acting.”
In the film, Naomie Harris plays Chiron’s mother, a desperate, selfish drug addict in need of love who’s living in her own world. When she and Sanders share the screen, their chemistry is electric. “She’s a rebel,” he said of Harris. “I was astonished and star-struck watching her put the character on and come out of it.”
Quiet and complex, Chiron conveys more in his eyes or the posture of his lips than in anything he says. That didn’t come easily for Sanders, who confesses to breaking down on-set. Harris helped him through. “I told her about my experiences [with my parents],” he said. “I pulled her to the side and said, “Yo, this is hard for me.” We were very much connected from that point on. We had deep conversations about life. We were vibing off each other, and it was a beautiful experience.”
The film’s entire cast realizes they’ve become part of something bigger than they thought. The year 2016 was a barrier-shattering one for black film. Alongside Moonlight, films like Sleight, Southside with You (about a young Barack Obama), How to Tell You’re a Douchebag, Fences, and Miles Ahead have attracted major buzz. The independent-film industry seems finally to have realized that black stories are worth telling. But why now?
“A bunch of great black indie films have come out during the Black Lives Matter movement,” said Sanders. “There’s all these influential black movies that make you kind of just love being black, and make you remember where you come from, where your culture lies. I feel like it’s so important to the black audience. We don’t have a lot of stories that truly represent ourselves, which is also why Moonlight is such a hit. It’s so relatable; it’s so real. It’s not being swept under the rug anymore.”
But Moonlight goes even deeper into the modern black experience. Writers Tarell McCraney and Barry Jenkins have crafted a story that explores the sexual awakening between two black men, and like other stereotype-shattering gay films such as Beautiful Thing, Happy Together, and Brokeback Mountain, Moonlight defies expectations. The film is cleverly structured in three stages of a man’s life: child, teen, and adult. Sanders stars in the middle segment, the cornerstone of the story. Through a sexual experience under the Miami moon, the character finally realizes who he really is.
“I’m just a rebel with a cause”
Jharrel Jerome plays Kevin, love interest to Chiron. “He’s honestly one of my best friends right now. We were boys on-set.” said Sanders of Jerome. “We gave ourselves to each other in that moment [on film]. You have to be connected on a certain level to deliver a reaction other than ‘Oh, this is a scene of two boys kissing.’ It’s deeper than that, and it’s layered. Every minor detail of the characters’ relationships was made.”
The film also addresses how the black community accepts its gay children, an examination Sanders was excited to make. “People are set in their ways, with different generations raised on certain standards and judgments,” he said. “It just becomes this collective thing in the black community. There’s people who are gay, and their entire lives you don’t know, because they put on this show and walk around trying to fit in so people won’t judge them. It’s definitely fucked up. People are more accepting and respectful, but we still have a long ways to go. This film is going to make a lot of people expose these things in the community.”
It’s clear no one is going to hold Sanders back. “I kind of do things my way,” he said. “I want to be seen for me. I’m just a rebel with a cause.”