Moonlight is an Exquisite Game-Changer—and Trevante Rhodes is just Getting Started

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There’s a scene in the new film Moonlight in which the lead character, Chiron, played by 26-year-old newcomer Trevante Rhodes, arrives at a diner to reconnect with his young love, a man whom he hasn’t seen since a shattering teenage foray into lust and betrayal. The scene is expertly framed, patiently paced, and thick with the actors’ chemistry, but it also contains a moment that marks, unequivocally, Rhodes as a talent to watch. Sitting down to a meal before the object of his life-long affections, Chiron quickly pops out his gold fronts in an open, swaggering move, but his eyes are averted, like a kid taking out his retainer at a cafeteria lunch. In a coming of age story, that subtle reference — no matter how oblique — reverberates, and it’s performed with the kind of raw vulnerability and nuance that we can expect from this talented actor.

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Alex R. Hibbert in Moonlight (2016)

Moonlight, which charts a young man’s struggle to know and accept himself over the course of two formative decades, poses a unique challenge for its lead. The film is divided into three distinct chapters, with three different actors playing the protagonist, Chiron, at different stages in his life. The challenge, however, isn’t only that the first two actors to play Chiron, Alex Hibbert and Ashton Sanders in childhood and adolescence respectively, are stunning in their own right and therefore tough acts to follow, it’s that Rhodes comes last. He is the headliner, in a sense, and tasked with seeing the film’s narrative confrontations, resolutions, and redemptions to a satisfying end. Considering the height of that order, how did Rhodes approach playing the adult Chiron, a part that bears the culmination of two other performances, and, in a sense, of the entire film?

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Trevnate Rhodes, Photo: Joe Perri

“Almost like a short story, or a short film,” he said. I had met Rhodes at the Hudson Lofts in downtown Los Angeles. We spoke in an empty side room while the crew prepped for his shoot; our voices echoed against high ceilings and blank walls.

“[Writer-director] Barry [Jenkins] was really adamant about not wanting [the three Chirons] to meet and not allowing us to talk to one another, because he didn’t want us to mimic what the younger versions were doing. It’s so smart … He wanted to depict that throughout our lives, we change … Certain moments happen that are impactful. Chiron went through these changes that were so, so heavy, and the story picks these three particular moments.”

In Rhodes’ chapter, that moment entails not only reconnecting with a childhood crush, but also making a crushing revelation, the kind of cinematic climax that feels earned. Rhodes may not appear until the movie’s final third, but after an exquisite first two acts, his performance does not disappoint — it exceeds even this far-reaching film’s ambitious demands and expectations. Rhodes, who can convey the tension between self-preservation and subsumed longing with a mere flickering glance, is the crescendo.

But for me, it’s not a conscious thing … Living in [the character’s] skin, you do what they would do … I have no training, honestly … It’s less of a structured dance than a freestyle dance to me.”

As we spoke, Rhodes adjusted his seat to face me. He is present and engaging, an animated conversationalist who occasionally tapped out a little beat on the side of his chair, letting off nervous energy, or maybe just excess steam. (Before becoming an actor, Rhodes was a competitive sprinter at the University of Texas, Austin; a casting director spotted him on the field.) As the hour progressed, I began to get the sense of an actor stretching his craft, poised on the starting line of his career.

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André Holland and Trevante Rhodes in Moonlight (2016)

“I’ve always had some semblance of understanding of people and emotions, but filming [Moonlight] really turned that up to ten,” he said. “I’m always trying to figure out why we do what we do … I’ve read about how certain actors write in the margins of their script, which is cool, I respect that. But for me, it’s not a conscious thing … Living in [the character’s] skin, you do what they would do … I have no training, honestly … It’s less of a structured dance than a freestyle dance to me.”

Rhodes paused, aware even in that moment of his physicality. “I’m gesticulating right now,” he said, “but Chiron is much more subdued, more minimal.” He looked me over for a breath and then mirrored my exact posture, leaning forward over the recorder and into our conversation, the body language of a journalist. “You’re leaning in, like this,” he demonstrated. “At what point in your life did someone do this when they were listening to you, and that made you feel comfortable, so that now you can relay that to other people?”

Rhodes may work by instinct, but he gives due credit to writer-director Barry Jenkins (Medicine for Melancholy) for creating a world to animate. Of the script, he noted, “You just knew that this was something incredible, it was tugging at your heart from the jump …You can feel the weight of it from page one: the way that it’s written, the beats in between, and the pacing that lets you know that a character is really contemplating …that let’s you know who this person is.”

Indeed, Moonlight, which is based on the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by MacArthur fellow Tarell McCraney, is a patient film, interested in the weight of silences as well as capturing the space that contains them. (The cinematography is breathtaking: filmed in Miami, humidity practically seeps from the celluloid.) Moonlight, and perhaps Chiron in particular, resides in the tension between the unspoken — and what needs to be said. Its themes include the intersection of masculinity, race, identity, and sexuality; it tells the particular story of one human being’s longing to connect. The climactic scenes of Moonlight depend on Rhodes to embody all of that particularity — as well as the universal experience of a slow-burn romance, and a heartbreaking reconciliation with his character’s mother — almost entirely through looks and gestures. It is the ultimate undertaking for a screen actor. In fact, Rhodes cites a scene with Chiron’s mother, played by Naomie Harris (Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom), as “the moment [he] fell in love with acting.”

“Naomie is so beautiful as an actress — she’s incredible — and I felt for the first time that this person, my mother, who I’ve loved my entire life, genuinely told me that she loved me … I was crying every take. Barry was like, “Bro, save it, save it … [But] when you allow yourself to be in the moment and really receive, it becomes the truth. That was my truth. It was the most amazing moment.”

“I get asked that a lot. I think it’s disrespectful to assume there’s a difference… If you can strip away sexual orientation, gender, race, we’re all looking for connection, love, acceptance, and understanding. We’re all the same … to play a gay man was so liberating. The best part about our job is showing people that you’re not alone. Period. There are a million cats out there like Chiron who really think, ‘I can’t be this person that I want to be …’ To shine a light on that in a film, in a medium that people see — it’s the best fucking thing… To have the opportunity to be a voice for people …understanding is everything.”

Similarly, Rhodes’ romantic chemistry opposite actor André Holland simmers and swoons. Jenkins employed a similar method — limiting their interaction while filming — as he did with the actors playing their younger counterparts. “The scene where we did the phone call was the first time I’d ever heard [André’s] voice… Ten minutes before we shoot the scene, Barry comes up and whispers in my ear, “André is gonna make the call.” The wait was well worth it: on screen, the actors cycle between intimacy and longing, between two men who have grown apart and a bonded pair who know each other deeply. “This is an epic, true love story,” said Rhodes. As for the notion that playing a gay character may have posed its own challenge, Rhodes is unconvinced.

“I get asked that a lot. I think it’s disrespectful to assume there’s a difference… If you can strip away sexual orientation, gender, race, we’re all looking for connection, love, acceptance, and understanding. We’re all the same … to play a gay man was so liberating. The best part about our job is showing people that you’re not alone. Period. There are a million cats out there like Chiron who really think, ‘I can’t be this person that I want to be …’ To shine a light on that in a film, in a medium that people see — it’s the best fucking thing… To have the opportunity to be a voice for people …understanding is everything.”

There have been some obvious parallels drawn between Moonlight and films like Carol or Brokeback Mountain, simply because those are the mainstream queer films that most people have seen. (I will cop to detecting a whisper-faint echo of Heath Ledger’s performance in Rhodes’ Chiron — that broad physique and muffled emotion, that utterly heartbreaking furtiveness.) But to reduce Moonlight to mere comparisons is to do it a disservice. Moonlight stakes its claim at the intersection of so much more, and for Rhodes, it provided the opportunity to explore a complex, engrossing role as an actor.

“Especially at that stage of my career,” he said, “It was like, ‘He’s relatively fit. He’s gonna be the cop, or the guy who can whoop somebody’s ass, or the thug’… But I find myself to be a sensitive person … So to be able to show that emotion and range while still having this physicality was an exciting opportunity is what you want as an actor …I think, a lot of times in the black community, and it’s something you see in the film, being sensitive is taboo. There’s this idea that you’re supposed to be this hulking, hyper-masculine person because you have to be that much better than your counterparts to get equal opportunity … Unfortunately, we don’t always see black men of all builds going after more emotional roles because it can be perceived as weakness, so it was important to play against that perception.

Much of Moonlight was filmed on location in the Liberty City housing projects in Miami, where both McCraney and Jenkins were raised, adding an extra element of veracity and texture to scenes. “The reason why Moonlight is so great,” said Rhodes, “Is that it’s Barry and Tarell’s story.” Experiencing the community’s reception of filming was important to Rhodes, and having had a part in making a truly meaningful movie has impacted the way he perceives filmmaking. “The people of the community were really taking charge,” he said of Liberty City. “It was really cool to see little black kids looking up to Barry and looking up to us like, ‘Yo, I could do this. They look like me.’”

Rhodes is cogent that “nothing is gonna be like Moonlight,” and that, at the end of the day, he is a “people pleaser” who understands that Hollywood will have its demands, but he hopes this film has set the tone for the kinds of projects he’ll be involved in. “I had a taste of making art,” he said, “I want to be a part of something that’s socially progressive, something’s that’s moving the conversation of blackness, gayness, all the things that unify us, because we’re all the same.”

Rhodes can also be seen in the recently completed Terrence Malick film Weightless, as well as HBO’s Westworld, and is looking forward to landing his next inspired role. “I’ve been having this struggle, trying to find the right thing. I know the sensation I felt being a part of this,” he said, noting that he wants to work with filmmakers who are embarking on a “project because it means something to them.” Considering that, I wonder, might there be a project — some harbored passion — that means something to him? Rhodes, it turns out, not only performs poetry locally every Tuesday, he also loves jazz. “Every morning I wake up and go to the gym, I come home, I play my vinyl, my John Coltrane. That’s just how I start my day … I’ve been doing it for years,” Rhodes said. “And in six years I’m going to do a John Coltrane biopic. I have to.”

“Why in six years,” I asked him, “why wait?”

Rhodes was ready with a genuine answer: “Because I haven’t lived enough,” he said. “I love the music and I love jazz. I want to do it justice. I need to do it justice. That’s the dream.”

You can check out Cinema Thread Magazine, Issue No. 1  here.

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