Interviewing a famous actor is a lot like a Tinder date. You start the process with an agenda (a great story), read up on the person beforehand, and then you turn up the charm so that sitting face-to-face with a stranger and asking personal questions doesn’t feel awkward. Usually, it still does. After all, both sides have their own reasons for the exchange.
Every now and then you sit down with an actor (or a Tinder date) and everything clicks. In those instances, your conversation flows naturally, your time together goes by in a snap, and you walk away seeing that person in a new light. Trevante Rhodes is one of those people. Thoughtful, charming, and soft-spoken (or just exhausted from his press tour), Rhodes made for an engaging interview subject. He passed through Toronto while promoting his new movie Bird Box, which premieres on Netflix on December 21.
Based on a book by Josh Malerman and directed by Susanne Bier, Bird Box is an apocalyptic horror/thriller about a mysterious force that kills off most of the world’s population. The survivors are only sure of one thing: the force can only hurt people if they look at it. Despite recently starring in the testosterone-fuelled alien gore-fest The Predator, Rhodes doesn’t count himself as a horror guy. He was drawn to the production by the cast great cast (Sandra Bullock, John Malkovich, Lil Rel Howery) and the intriguing script.
Rhodes and I sat down and discussed his process for choosing films, how he unwinds, and most importantly, what he keeps on his shelf.
Judging by the trailer, Bird Box looks like a scary-ass horror flick. And while I don’t agree with the comparisons, you can see why people are comparing it to A Quiet Place. Rhodes labels the movie a post-apocalyptic thriller and a suspenseful thrill ride. But what impressed him most are Bird Box’s humanist messages, “It’s got some love in there, it’s got some heart in there. It’s a good time,” he told me.
Bird Box isn’t your regular old horror flick. The story is more sentimental than the trailers would have you believe, and the script weaves in uplifting themes. I asked Rhodes what he wants the audience to take away from the film. “First of all, I want them to be entertained,” he replied with a big smile on his face. “I want them to enjoy a thrill ride that hopefully, they haven’t seen before.” He also stressed the movie’s earnest themes, “Connecting to people is important, love is important, things of that nature. Family is important.”
Rhodes shared two films that get his heart pumping; Bird Box being the first. The second, “Beale Street. Those are the two that I’ve seen most recently that get me.” I asked Rhodes what it means to “get him.” “It just makes me feel. Not everything makes you feel. I like to feel. I think great art, in general, that’s what it is. It makes people feel things regardless of what it is.”
Bird Box’s conceit is that the characters can’t even glimpse at whatever is preying on them, so they must wear blindfolds once they step outside. Unlike The Predator, who we all know is a scary MFer, Bird Box’s villain exists in our own imaginations. This applies to the cast as well. I asked Rhodes what it takes to get into that headspace and react to something that doesn’t exist. “Susanne [Bier] provided a really unique essence in the house,” he told me. Rhodes’ character Tom is holed up in a house with other survivors. The home/bunker, with its newspaper-lined windows and sleeping bags on the floor, feels like an isolated deathtrap. Rhodes says that environment made his performance feel, “Honest and present [which] is always the goal.”
Young, talented, and handsome, you can bet Rhodes has his pick of Hollywood’s juiciest roles. He told me he feels it in his gut when a part is right for him. “If it’s something that I would like to see and then go further, and if there’s a character within that world that’s really interesting to me. That’s something I feel like I need to be a part of,” said Rhodes. He added, “I’m really interested in unique worlds more than any specific character.”
Rhodes said he was drawn to Bird Box because, “It’s something I hadn’t done before and something that seemed interesting.” Having Susanne Bier and Sandra Bullock (who Rhodes affectionately refers to as Sandy) also helped. But at the end of the day, “[Bird Box] seemed like it was able to have bits of everything that made a good movie. So, I just thought it would be a good film.”
When working on challenging material, some actors find it hard to slip in and out of their character’s emotional state. Rhodes says that playing characters under duress isn’t a problem for him. He leaves the character behind before his drive home. “I think I’m OK with letting things go once you wipe off the makeup and wipe off all the work,” he told me. Rhodes makes a distinction between his home life and his time on set. “I do my self-building at home so that when I go to the set, I can be present.”
Moonlight rocked pop culture like an asteroid hit. The Oscar-winning picture had such a profound impact on pop culture that it feels like it has been around forever. It’s hard to believe that Rhodes still isn’t even 30. I asked him what its like to work with a couple of Hollywood legends like Bullock and Malkovich. He refers to “Sandy” as a beautiful person and someone he’s learned a lot from and lists Malkovich as one of his favourites of all time. He told me, “To be able to share space with them and to learn and grow with those people… it was awesome.”
No matter who he’s working with, Rhodes doesn’t stress out on set. He says part of that came from working with Barry Jenkins on Moonlight. “I would say Barry provided an understanding of what comfortability is in the space and in [having] your skin in the space, for me,” he said. Rhodes compares his focus and preparation to that of an athlete. “I just do my own thing on set,” he said. “Acting is like sports to me… When I’m in the game, I’m in the game. I’m just trying to play and have fun, try and develop this thing that we’re trying to do together.” Rhodes did share the main lesson he wants to take away from his legendary castmates. “I want to see how they maneuver life and see how they continue to be good people.”
Even someone as confident and successful as Rhodes requires some type of coping mechanism. Rhodes tells me he meditates in the morning and every evening before he goes to sleep. He said, “It helps me because I think a lot. It helps me organize my thoughts. And when my thoughts are organized, I’m confident in my skin.”
While we’re on the subject of keeping things organized, I asked him what he keeps on his shelf. At That Shelf, we’re always curious about the prized possession in people’s collection that they’re proud to show off. “We got a lot of vinyl, a lot of jazz. You could come check that out,” he replies without hesitation. I grill him a little bit further. His album of choice, “A Love Supreme by John Coltrane,” he tells me.
Rhodes sees my eyes light up as he gives his answer. And I let him now that I named my dog Coltrane. His eyes light up too and his voice goes up an octave as he reaches over to give me props. “That’s cool, that’s cool,” he tells me.
As I packed up my audio recorder and made my way down to the hotel lobby, I kept going over our final exchange in my mind. It wasn’t until I reached the front desk that I figured out why. That mutual connection created an authentic exchange where we both let down our guards. It’s the emotional transaction that we strive for but don’t often achieve; in interviews or on Tinder dates.
Bird Box arrives on Netflix on December 21, 2018.