In Moonlight, One Part Leads to 3 Breakout Performances

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Left to right, Moonlight’s Ashton Sanders, Alex Hibbert, and Trevante Rhodes. Photo: Ryan Pfluger

Director Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight tells the story of Chiron, a young black man grappling with his sexuality while growing up poor in Miami, at pivotal points in his life. That subject matter would be tough for a single actor to handle. But Jenkins needed three for his film to work: one to play the role as a withdrawn child; another as a simmering teen; and another as a hardened 20-something. In an effort to find performers who could provide the necessary emotional coherence, he looked for similarities beyond the physical, ultimately finding “spiritual connectivity” among the trio of relative unknowns who appear in the film, which has enjoyed a triumphant festival season. Their magic, Jenkins says, “was all in the eyes.” 

Those eyes belong to 12-year-old Alex Hibbert, 20-year-old DePaul theater student Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes, 26. Jenkins deliberately kept the actors blind to one another’s performances, so they had to find their own way into Chiron, which wasn’t always easy. Hibbert was confused when he read further into the screenplay and learned about Chiron’s homosexuality. “I was like, ‘Mom, I don’t understand the other two,’ ” he recalls, “and she said, ‘When you get older, you will.’ ” Rhodes, a former college track star, related to the eldest Chiron’s intimidating physique. “I feel that black men are programmed,” he says, “to think we have to be stronger than anyone else.” Sanders had the most painful path. Like the character, he has a mother who struggled with drug addiction. “I was forced to bring that from memory,” he says. “It hurt, but it was therapeutic.” Amazingly, the first time the actors were all in the same room together was at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. It was only then, according to Hibbert, that they discovered that, to their surprise, “we all look the same.”

*This article appears in the October 17, 2016, issue of New York Magazine.