North Texas native Trevante Rhodes on the making of Moonlight, the most acclaimed modern gay romance since Brokeback Mountain
Not to sound overconfident, but as soon as Trevante Rhodes was cast in the indie film Moonlight, he knew he was making a hit. Not that he could predict the box-office receipts — who could? — but a hit in the sense of an instant classic, a cinematic winner … oh, hell, just call it what it is: A great film.
“As [arrogant] as it may sound, when I read it for the first time, I knew [it would work] because it’s so personal,” says Rhodes. “From Page 7, I knew this was something I had to do. I thought, I have to tell this story! I’m a romantic, and it’s an epic love story, man!”
And a love story in many unexpected ways: Between African-American men living troubled lives in the inner city of Miami. Moonlight — adapted by writer-director Barry Jenkins, from a semi-autobiographical story by MacArthur “Genius” Grant laureate Tarell McCraney — is told in three chapters, all centered around the same kid. In the first chapter, Chiron (now called “Little”) is about 8 (played by Alex Hibbert), and comes under the protection of a local drug kingpin named Juan (Mahershala Ali), who shelters him from his drug-addled mother Paula (Naomie Harris). Chapter 2 meets Chiron (Ashton Sanders) about 10 years later, as a moody high school kid grabbling with issues of sexuality. By the third chapter, Chiron is known by the street name Black (Rhodes), a badass drug dealer, finally hoping to find a way toward self-acceptance. Throughout, it’s Chiron’s friend Kevin who anchors him… and stokes his sexual longing.
The challenge facing Rhodes — a native of Little Elm who admits to falling into acting “by happenstance at the end of college” — was “summarizing” Chiron’s journey at the end … and doing so with little guidance from the first two chapters. “We shot in sequence, but Barry was really adamant that Andre Holland [who plays the adult Kevin] and I not watch the [footage of the earlier chapters],” he says. “We wanted to look for similarities in what they were doing, but Barry really wanted us to focus how we changed so drastically. I think that was liberating for me as an actor” to do that.
He had to fill in a lot of blanks about what happened to Chiron in the intervening years between his chapters, but he plays it close to the vest (“I won’t go too deep because it’s like a magician telling you his secrets,” he says), but “In my mind, he spent some years in jail and after that he developed this life and adapted to what the world’s mold of him should be.”
That is a large part of the message of Moonlight — should you conform to expectations society has of you, or break free? Rhodes says embodying Chiron’s inner conflict was something he related to — but for different reasons than the character he played.
“We all have identity issues and we all struggle with insecurity and with trying to find out who we are and what love is,” Rhodes says. “Yes, it’s a very specific story about gayness and blackness, but it’s about humanity — a human life. And we use these very specific topics as a conduit for a universal story. I dealt with issues not so much in regard to sexuality or my relationship with my mother, but I was bullied some and that spoke to me, But the differences were really enticing to me [as an actor]. Back in middle school and high school, I felt that being a hyper-masculine, physical being was my way of projecting success out into the world. I thought if I had this physicality about me, as well as being able to articulate myself appropriately, [others would think], ‘Hey, that guy has it all figured out.’”
Rhodes didn’t, of course. And that’s where he found the core of his character.
“Chiron is someone trying to find out who he is, and has to fortify himself to project what masculinity was to him,” he says. “I look at love on a scale of 1 to 10, and most settle for 6 or 7. But Chiron found his 10 when he was like 8 years old! [He needs to realize], I can be tough and gay and happy with the guy I love. I need to live my truest life or at least attempt to experience it.”
Moonlight opens today in North Texas. For a review, see Page 41.