Birth.Movies.Interview: Ashton Sanders & Jharrel Jerome Talk The Importance Of MOONLIGHT

Jacob Knight speaks with two of the young stars from 2017's Best Picture.

Moonlight is a miracle movie – a spectral painting of queer black existence that transcends the boundaries of its representational symbols to become universal in its messages concerning love, hope and acceptance. Writer/director Barry Jenkins adapted Tarell Alvin McCraney’s stage play (In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue) into a segmented passion project for all involved. Now Moonlight has been named the Best Picture of 2017, capturing the empathy of filmgoers everywhere and reminding us that there is joy and understanding in this world if we just take a moment to try and observe it. The tenderness its central characters, Chiron and Kevin, feel for one another radiates off the screen with such passion that Moonlight became the movie everyone wanted to see, talk about, and then see again, just for good measure.

We had a chance to speak with the two young actors who played Chiron (Ashton Sanders) and Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) in the film’s smoldering middle chapter, and what followed was a candid conversation about love, life, and how Barry Jenkins is one of the most affectionate artists on the planet…

BMD: So how were you both approached for the roles?

Jharrel Jerome: It came quick, that’s for sure. It came right out of high school, actually. I graduated from LaGuardia High School, and then I got representation. Throughout the summer, I was auditioning for several projects, and it was a real learning process for me. And like everything else, it keeps getting better and better the more practice you put in. Then, I get to college at the end of summer, at Ithaca. The script came in for Moonlight around October, and my managers wanted me to send a tape in. So on my eighteenth birthday, I filmed a quick, three-minute audition in my dorm room and we sent the tape off. A week later, I found out I got the part and was flying to Miami to film.

Ashton Sanders: For me, it was a casual audition. I didn’t really know much about the script going in. I was barely off-book when I initially read for the role with Yesi Ramirez, the casting director. But then they sent me the full script, and after that read I fell in love. Then I just kept reading it and reading it. Before I even met with Barry, I had [Chiron] in my head. Then me and Barry just clicked, and he was coaching me through the character. We met – me, Barry, the producer, the casting director – about three times before I booked the part. I was in the middle of my third year at DePaul University when I got it, and I actually had to take the year off to shoot the film.

BMD: In preparing for the role, did you read the original play at all?

JJ: I read the script twice all the way through. I read it before my audition, and then immediately after, right before I was set to meet with Barry. I never got to read Tarell’s play, though. I did a lot of research on it leading up to filming, but I went in with a fresh mindset and my character fully formed.

AS: I didn’t read the play, but I was familiar with Tarell Alvin McCraney because I was doing scene work in school with his play, The Brothers Size. He’d become one of my favorite playwrights the year prior to getting the part in Moonlight. So, in a weird way, it felt like everything was supposed to happen this way. It all worked out and added up. Plus, Tarell also went to DePaul University, and studied in the acting program, years before I was there, obviously.

BMD: Being familiar with his work, did that influence the way you approached the role of Chiron?

AS: I wouldn’t say so. If anything, Tarell writes from such a real perspective and everything you read of his sounds real. That’s why I really respect his work. Tarell never writes the same story more than once. All of his plays are singular works of art.

BMD: For a lot of people, Moonlight is about empathy, and the spectrum of human experience. What about your own coming-of-age? How did you bring that to the role?

JJ: Kevin is one of those characters where he is a totally different person on the outside than he is on the inside, and I think a lot of people have that within themselves. At least, for a small part of our lives, we try to be someone else, or we don’t fully know who we are and why. So, I think Kevin is the epitome of that. On the inside, he has all of these different emotions and thoughts that conflict with who he is passing himself off as.

Growing up, I was a Latino kid from the Bronx, but I went to LaGuardia High School, where kids came from all over – Manhattan, Staten Island, the Lower East Side. All of these areas where it just wasn’t…the Bronx. You know what I mean? I always felt like I was the kid in the hood, with the sweatshirts, and the Spanish accent, who just didn’t fit into the circle of friends that I had there. I always felt like I was different from them. So I started to change my clothes – dress in this preppie style with the khakis and whatnot. It just wasn’t me, though. It wasn’t how I grew up. All of that went into Kevin – because Kevin is that times one hundred, as a boy who is just so conflicted and represents that feeling of disconnect who just needed someone who he could be real with. And that person is Chiron.

AS: I was definitely able to relate fully to Chiron, because I was bullied growing up. I wasn’t like the rest of the kids. I was an artist. Living in a black society, when you’re raised around a bunch of boys who plays sports and chase girls, there’s this perception of masculinity that’s super hard to fit into. I wasn’t the stereotype of that like a lot of my peers were. So I definitely was pulling some of those emotions out of the closet to try and fully realize Chiron. But doing that also helped me approach some older emotional trauma and confront it through my art. It become a healing process for me, which is beautiful.

BMD: Do you think the experience of viewing Moonlight can help others work through some of their own emotional baggage?

AS: Definitely, man. I know Moonlight has been doing that, because everyone has either gone through some of these experiences themselves, or known others who have had to grow up different than everyone else. I think it’s a film that makes you reflect on your own life, and you don’t leave the theater the same person who came in.

BMD: One of the main hooks around the movie is that it cast three actors for the roles of Chiron and Kevin at three different points in their life. Did you collaborate at all with the other actors to obtain a unified whole?

JJ: I didn’t meet Jaden Piner or André Holland until the festival circuit. I had a brief conversation with Barry about André and his work, but Barry didn’t want me to meet either actor. He didn’t even want me to know what they looked like. So I went to Miami with my Kevin in mind, and Barry trusted that we would bring so much life to each of the roles, and that the script would carry the rest. The way [Kevin] spoke and the way he acted was just straight off the page and into me. But then things would shine through that we did. Like, watch André and his little mannerisms – the lip-licking, and the smile. I watched it for the first time and thought it was mind-blowing. I thought: how did he do that like I did that without knowing I did it like that? But I think that came out due to the trust between the actors and Barry, because Barry just knew what he wanted with each character.

AS: We weren’t allowed to see each other on set, or see the other sections beforehand. Which, I understand, sounds a little crazy. But it allowed us focus on our own sections. For me, it allowed me to develop the mannerisms he had at the age I was playing. Because think about it: each section of the story shows Chiron as a different person, because things have either been given to him or snatched away.

BMD: So can you tell me a little more about your relationship with Barry? All of the performances are so naturalistic and lived-in. How did he help coax that out of you?

JJ: Barry was the father of the script, and what made up the entirety of that script was love. It was made up of a love for every character and a love for the relationships they share with each other. When I got to set, that’s all that Barry was about. Now, you’ve gotta remember, this is my first professional movie out of high school, and I’m flying down to Miami to be in this thing. My nerves were just wracked. But when I got there, all of that just went away, because Barry just gave me a hug when I got off my flight. He thanked me for being there when all I wanted to do was thank him. Right off the bat, there was this brotherhood. He wasn’t my director. He was my friend and my collaborator. He was about to share a story with the world, and I was there to share it as well.

I remember, the night that we did the beach scene, me and Barry were in two director’s chairs, looking up at the moon and talking about childhood. He asked me about my childhood and I asked him about his childhood. Then he told a joke and we just kinda laughed, staring up at the moon. Being able to have those moments are what allowed me to feel comfortable and give all I could give once he yelled “action!”

AS: Barry and I had a very unique relationship. The three Chirons worked with him more than any other actors on set. He gave us a lot of freedom to play, and to fill out the world. He would leave space for us to act, and be seen, and feel the clothes that I was wearing. I became Chiron, and he would let me tweak certain elements, which was really respectable. We came to a lot of compromises regarding the character, and there was a lot of talking before we even went to set, casually molding it before fully gifting Chiron a soul.

BMD: Now, we’ve been told by a million different people a million different reasons why Moonlight is so special. But I want to hear it from you guys. Why do you think this movie has struck such a deep, personal chord with so many people?

JJ: Moonlight isn’t just for one person, it’s for everyone. It’s not just about one person, it’s about everyone. It’s not just a story about a gay man. It’s not just a story about a black man. It’s not just a story about a drug addicted mother or a drug dealer. It’s a story about love, and identity, and trying to find yourself through these two concepts. Everyone has those moments in their lives, where they’re trying to just figure out who they are, who they should love, and why they should be loved back. Even if they’re not thinking about it, it’s this thing inside of you that’s trying to help you figure out just why you’re here. Every character in Moonlight experiences it, and every human being goes through it. No matter how much hate is currently in the world, we’re all just needing something, and needing that love to get us through. And that’s what Moonlight is – it gives you that hope to get through to the end.

AS: I knew when we were creating this, we were making something really important. I think that’s why we were all there. It was a story that had never been told before and needed to be told. There were nights where Jharrel and I would just sit up and talk about the possibilities of what we were doing. But none of us could’ve imagined the heights we would reach, and it truly is a beautiful thing. If we can make social change through our art, and bring acceptance for others, then that’s all we could ever ask for.

Moonlight is available now on Blu-ray, DVD and VOD.