Moonlight is a special film.
It takes the audience on a journey that touches on a lot all while feeling very intimate. The movie, based on a play written by Tarell McCraney, is told through 3 segments: Chiron at 9, 16, and 23. The audience has an opportunity to see how a black male in Miami deals with his sexuality, a subject that’s treated with incredible sensitivity.
The scope of this movie creates a lot to take on as a filmmaker and a lot to unpack as an actor. so it was great to have an opportunity to sit down and get more insight into how the film was made with the director of the film, Barry Jenkins, as well as cast members Trevante Rhodes, André Holland, Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris, and Janelle Monáe.
How did the source material come your way?
Barry Jenkins: Tarell and I have a lot of mutual friends actually. They read [Moonlight] and without telling Tarell or myself they immediately thought of me. Both of these guys knew enough about our biographies and saw enough of me in the play and thought Barry should read this and they were scheming. These guys’ whole point was to get me back in Miami to make a film. I made a short film with them called Chlorophyl and they were like, “Well we want Barry to make a feature film in Miami.” They didn’t tell me that, they just said, “Hey, here’s this thing by this playwright, we want you to read it.” Once I read it, I was struck.
André, you’ve already worked with Tarell, what do you connect with most in his work?
André Holland: Tarell and I go back a long way. He went to Yale for playwriting while I was at NYU for acting so we were introduced through a mutual professor. [Tarell] has a bunch of plays and I’ve been lucky enough to be in pretty much all of them. One of them he did was called Wig Out which is a play about drag culture in New York City which is kind of an incredible examination of these people who are living kind of on the margins. That’s one of the things, I feel like, it traffics throughout all of his plays, is that he’s always interested in the people who are just left of center and that’s one of the things that drew me to the script. Tarell does a thing which is really cool which, obviously, Barry does as well which is, you know, looking at the way in which people change and also the way in which people take care of each other. Which is something that we don’t often see.
The film tackles masculinity in both the black community and the gay community, how did you tackle those sensitive subjects?
BJ: I have to give most of the credit to Tarell, you know, it was in the source material. The way I describe this movie is, these characters could not have originated with me, but with Tarell’s voice and blessing, I felt comfortable taking those characters and expanding them and putting them into my voice merging my world view with Tarell’s.
How was it shooting the diner scene?
BJ: Everyone calls it a scene! That would be a long ass scene! That’s amazing, I didn’t mean to cut you off, brother.
That’s ok. The “Hello Stranger” song choice was so strong; did you play it on set?
BJ: So we get to set so we shoot the movie in sequence more or less. So André is the last actor to show up and we start filming the scene where he’s cooking and the sound guy comes to me. He goes, “Hey, Barry, I think André is singing the song. Is he supposed to be singing the song?” I’m like, “André you cannot sing the “Hello Stranger,” we can’t afford to license it two or three times!” But, it had gotten into, you know, into his body that the song meant so much to the two of them. When you watch the movie, that’s actually the song being played on set.
Trevante Rhodes: Barry had sent us all, I think, this soundtrack, pretty much, of what he was listening to when he was writing the script. It kind of just got us into the mode and tone of what the film was. That was just something I continuously played in the gym and the lyrics to the song were in the script, so I don’t know, it was just in my skin.
Naomie, how important do you think Chiron’s mother, Paula, was to the story?
Naomie Harris: I think her role was incredibly important because I think one of the big lessons of the movie is that none of us have perfect childhoods. Even if we thought our moms and dads were absolutely perfect, life comes along and knocks us in a way that we don’t get the perfect start that we wanted and we deserve in life and we all end up slightly damaged. That’s the role Paula plays. She is hugely damaging and she certainly doesn’t give Chiron the start that he deserves.
Janelle, how did you feel taking on this maternal role with Teresa?
Janelle Monáe: It means the world to be a part of this amazing cast and tell this universal story. We know these people in an unforgettable way. Thanks to Barry and Tarell for having such an artistic mind. When I read the script I cried three times. Immediately nurturing came to mind when I thought of Teresa. She was the back bone. The young cool aunt. The young, uh, older cousin in the neighbourhood who you always go to just so they can listen to you.
Who’s your Teresa?
JM: My Teresa was my older cousin, who actually lives in Miami. I have over fifty first cousins so I grew up with a lot of strong women. When it was time to talk about boys, when it was time to talk about anything, I always had that and I just wanted to make sure that I was that figure to Chiron. I never wanted to be judgmental but I wanted to be a rock for him as he was trying to come into his own.
Naomie, was it hard to connect with your character?
NH: Umm, I think I talked last night about this difficulty of connecting with her and the difficulty was because of my judgment. I had this view that I wanted to make my career be about portraying black women, women in general, in a positive light. I wanted to do that because I think there are enough negative stereotypes, of women in particular, in TV and film. Here was this amazing script but with this role of a crack addict and I was immediately, you know, “Crack addict? Bad!” I had to overcome that judgement and I was also judging Paula as being a bad mother. I had to overcome that because ultimately a crack addict is just someone with an addiction who is choosing to escape their pain through drugs and we all choose to escape our pain in different ways. Underneath that addiction she still has a beating heart. She still absolutely loves her son. She’s still a compassionate, sensitive, traumatized woman. The joy for me was in having the privilege to try and convey all of those layers.
What was the casting process for the three Chirons like?
BJ: They were not allowed to meet each other. They might have met once or twice on set but never while performing. You know, it’s funny, Ashton [Chrion at 16] and Trevante [Chiron at 23] both read in L.A. and there was one day where they were both in but other than that they didn’t really sort of meet or cross paths. We cast Ashton first. We brought him in like six times. Then we cast Trevante second and then Alex Hibbert [Chiron at 9] was the last sort of person on the tree.
And what about with Kevin?
BJ: With the Kevins, André Holland was the first Kevin. We cast those in reverse order. Really with both sides of it, it was just about finding actors who didn’t look alike, you know? It was just about the feeling of the actors portraying the character. But, in both cases, these two dudes, [points at André and Trevante] to me, look a lot like the two kids in the first story.
BJ: Yeah! The poster begins and ends with those eyes and the rest of the face is just the feeling of character. At least that is what our approach was.
Did you ever talk about dealing with Juan’s exit from the story differently?
BJ: It was always my plan to have it be that way. There was a discussion about it being another way, but, it was always my plan. What I’m hearing in the question you’re asking is that Juan being gone… you miss that character, you know, you feel the lack.
BJ: The way I describe it for the audience is there are kids who grow up with people like Juan in their lives and those people are taken at a moment’s notice. For the audience, I wanted the same feeling of this character being snatched away. When it happens it’s jarring, I know, because he’s so damn good.
Mahershala Ali: But, can I add to that? It also would have distracted from the story. Then it would have become a moment about Juan having got shot when it needs to stay about Chiron.
Are you hoping to make an impact like Do the Right Thing?
BJ: Uhhh, no.
[Laughter from Crowd]
BJ: Let me explain. Hoping? No. For me, the only thing I hope is to get the characters right. I try to have a tunnel vision about all of this. You know, Tarell wrote a piece that I loved that reminded me of my childhood and so many people I grew up with. I want to get those characters right. From there it goes outward and outward. The more people see the film they, sort of, take possession of it. If they see a lot of themselves in it, that’s amazing! The thing for me is if only people from the world of these characters can see this film and empathize, then I failed.