“We’re living in an artistic renaissance where we are able to showcase these stories and they’re being respected in a way where it’s not going over people’s heads and they’re tuned into these stories and these conversations because they are very real. ” Moonlight’s Ashton Sanders says as he discusses his latest project – Native Son.
Airing on HBO this Saturday, the film is based on Richard Wright’s important 1939 novel of the same name. Sanders plays Bigger Thomas, a young Black teenager growing up in Chicago. Thomas wants to break the barriers society expects of him so he gets a job as a driver for a wealthy White family. He wants to rise above it all, the Dalton’s seem like the perfect family to work for after all, Will Dalton’s home is filled with Africa-American artwork and he’s “seriously woke” but Dalton is also obviously racist.
It’s not all smooth sailing for Bigger and it doesn’t all go according to plan. Kiki Layne stars as his girfriend – Bessie and together they deliver great performances, actors who we should be paying close attention to. I caught up with both to talk Native Son.
What’s your first memory of the book?
Ashton: I’m going to tell you, I didn’t read the book in its entirety until I actually completed this film. This book is the classic novel and I was aware of how controversial it is and what it could have been and that’s initially why I was drawn to the project. I thought it was something that was so important as it was reflective of what was happening racially in society right now. I thought it was something so interesting and now we’re here.
Our retelling is a bit different from the original version but there are a lot of similarities still there.
What’s up Kiki. Kiki is here!
You were just in LA at the NAACP Image Awards the other day.
Ashton: She time travels.
Kiki: The first time I read it was in high school, and honestly, I felt like a lot of it went over my head. [laughs]. I don’t think I was ready to receive what Richard Wright was giving us. Coming back to it as an adult with more experience and awareness of what was going on in the world is powerful. I think our adaptation leans into the things that shine even more from the book.
What is it like as artists to take on something that is such a classic and make it your own in 2019 when we’re still talking about these very issues that are as relevant today as they were in 1939 when Wright wrote them?
Kiki: It’s a scary thing how timely the issues from the book and in the adaptation almost eighty years later are still very much so real and that’s what makes it even more important to tell these types of stories because it shines a light on how much hasn’t changed and it forces us to ask those questions about what needs to happen. We’ve seen some progress, but what really needs to change so that these same stories don’t hold that same amount of realness after this much time has passed.
Ashton: I totally agree with everything Kiki just said 100%. I think we’re living in the right time. We’re living in an artistic renaissance where we are able to showcase these stories and they’re being respected in a way where it’s not going over people’s heads and they’re tuned into these stories and these conversations because they are very real. These are black experiences. This is a black experience for a lot of black men that needed to be showcased in this way. Hopefully, I feel we did this at the right time.
What’s that like playing a character who is masculine, but also someone who has fears and that’s not something we get to see on screen very often even though it’s very real.
Ashton: I think for me, fear and anxiety play a big part in the script. I think that’s not a character that’s not being played, it’s part of a situation where you’re living as a black man in America. We are faced with these fears and anxieties that pile up that feel overwhelming and that’s exactly what you’re experiencing in this story. You’re experiencing the authentic life of a black man living in modern-day America. It’s definitely something we have to deal with whether it’s early 1800s, early 1900’s, 2015, 2018, or 2019 or even 2020. It’s very much a part of our reality. It’s not that I was trying to play that, I was trying to be as authentic as possible. I was trying to draw from my experiences as a black man living in America and able to incorporate that in my character.
How did the role come your way? Kiki, when we spoke about Beale Street, you were helping a friend read. How did this come your way?
Kiki: I got the opportunity to sit down and talk with Rashid. It actually happened while we were still doing Beale Street. It was one of the things where I thought I had to do it. I was there in this place that made so much sense that this would be the next story. There are some similarities and it’s so relevant. It’s another story of love between two young people. Once I heard Rashid’s vision for it, it definitely felt right. Then I heard Ashton was doing it, I said, “Are you doing it? We’re doing it.”
Ashton: It was the same thing for me. I actually met Rashid a year earlier while the script was being developed and Suzann was working on the screenplay. I’d been a fan of her work for a long time. We’d actually been studying her. Knowing that Kiki was doing it, having the chance to work with Matthew and to do a script by Suzann, it was all intriguing.
I loved the dynamics between you and Sanaa where she played your mother.
Ashton: The mother and son relationship for the black man is so important. I think we were definitely so giving to each other and we fully understood what we were creating and that mutual respect and understanding allowed us to fully collaborate and merge this relationship in the most natural way.
With everything we did, we tried to make it as natural as possible. She’s a brilliant actress and someone I’ve been watching all my life.
Was there a particularly challenging scene to shoot?
Ashton: I remember being on the set that day and it was an intimate moment. It was definitely a moment and a scene that needed to be handled with care.
The furnace scene was emotional to shoot for sure.
What’s next for both of you?
Ashton: We’re going to produce a movie together and star in it.
This needs to happen.
Kiki: Oh, it’s going to happen. Before that, my next project is with Netflix. I’m starring opposite Charlize Theron in The Old Guard. That’s an action flick and very different.
Ashton: I’m currently shooting this series with Hulu based on the Wu Tang Clan. I’m playing RZA and I’ve been filming that and it’s out hopefully later this year.