Introducing: ‘Moonlight’ Actor Ashton Sanders
For Ashton Sanders, acting came as an escape from his “strange” reality.
In fact, it was actress Wendy Raquel Robinson’s all-Black Amazing Grace Conservatory in Los Angeles that provided the needed space that allowed Sanders to immerse himself in the land of imagination.
“I had a pretty strange childhood in terms of my mother being on drugs and I was bullied through elementary and middle school,” the 20-year-old L.A. native tells JET. “Studying personality types and being able to embody somebody else with similar or different circumstances and losing myself in character [helped me] to not focus on the things that were going on in my life at the time.”
Sanders’ ability to emote showed up in the much buzzed about box-office hit film, Moonlight, written and directed by Barry Jenkins and based on Tarell McCranny’s play. Though it’s already showing in select cities, it hits theaters nationwide on Nov. 4.
Set in Liberty City, a crime-ridden Miami neighborhood, the film centers on Chiron, a Black male struggling to understand his place in the world while also facing conflicts of sexuality. Jenkins is eloquent in his directorial technique, which adds a soothing and poetic layer to the complex storyline.
Told uniquely through three phases–each being pivotal to the development of Chiron’s identity played by Alex Hibbert, Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes–Jenkins uses his platform to address the vulnerable stages of childhood, adolescence and manhood along with ideals of what masculinity looks and feels like.
“We’re raised to believe that Black men have to be one specific way. I feel like a lot of Black men ‘put on’ because of what they see and because of what people tell them they have to be,” Sanders analyzes. “I felt like I was supposed to do this project. There’s levels to being masculine and this was a story that needed to be told.”
Chiron doesn’t speak much through out the film but his presence (in all three stages) says it all. He’s fatherless with a drug-addicted mother, executed amazingly by Naomie Harris, and is considered “different” within his neighborhood. As a child and teen, he’s bullied constantly and chased into drug-infested abandoned buildings because the other children suspect he’s gay. He has questions about his sexuality, but chooses to observe the scene and inspect his thoughts internally. At a young age, and on through adulthood, he is a gentle soul with extreme depth.
Sanders, who comes into the picture when Chiron hits high school, provides the instrumental transitional stage. It’s a period where, as a man, it becomes time to stand up for himself. But there’s also a moment where he gains his first intimate experience.
“This is very much a story about homosexuality but also identity and growing up without a father and with family members on drugs,” Sanders says. “I feel like I’ll be respected for the risk and vulnerability.”
On a personal note, the script came at a time when Sanders’ mother had relapsed and began using drugs again.
“It was a very hard time for me and the way Barry and Tarell wrote it, it was one of the most emotional reads that I’ve ever had,” he admits.
Jenkins’ film broadens the perspective from a male and human point-of-view. Women gain understanding of the inner conflicts of boys and men; men are given the opportunity to see that they are not alone in their coming-of-age journey to self-identity.
“Everything that I had gone through booking this role and filming it, [I realized that] what we kind of do as people is put things into the back of our minds and don’t revisit them. I had to revisit all these things and they were very uncomfortable,” he says. “It was one of the most vulnerable roles that I ever had to be in, but it was also very therapeutic.”
As for Sanders and his mother’s current relationship? They’re working on it.
“She’s in a much better place now. She’s totally clean so right now, we’re just building back what was broken,” he says. “She has not seen the film yet, but she kind of knows the story and the matters of the film. So it’s going to be very interesting to hear her reaction. I actually want to go and watch it with her.”
In the heart of it all, Moonlight is a needed body of cinema. At its core, the message is simply love.
“This is very much a universal story of love on all different levels, ” Sanders expresses. “I just really want people to connect and empathize with the film and to look at their lives and other people’s lives and just realize like damn, you never know what’s going on behind other people’s doors.”
Moonlight hits theaters nationwide on Nov. 4.
LaToya “Toi” Cross is the Senior Editor/ Entertainment and Culture for EBONY Magazine, EBONY.com and JETMag.com. You can catch this laughing creative sharing work, art and capturing life via her iPhone 6 via her handle of @ToizStory on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.