Moonlight director Barry Jenkins, along with stars Trevante Rhodes and Mahershala Ali, attended a Q&A at The Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel as part of the AFI Fest.
The coming of age story, based on Tarell Alvin McCarney’s play, takes us through three chapters in the life of Chiron, as a boy discovering who he is, a teenager coming to grips with his sexuality, and as a young whose life has taken a wrong turn.
Below are some highlights from the conversation:
Jenkins on the first time he read McCarney’s play:
“I saw so much of myself in the character he first time I read it.” He says. He re-discovered the play a few years later after mutual friends suggested he read it again.
On what they saw in the script:
Ali says, “We don’t get to do a lot of films that push the envelope… as a fan of Jenkins and having read the script, I wanted to work on material of that ilk. To find a multi-dimensional character like that, I felt I had something to offer the role.” Ali went on to say, “It felt like a new truth that you rarely see onscreen, but it was something I grew up around and it was a gift to work on.” He ended by saying, “Barry Jenkins is about staying true to how it is and it was a wonderful experience.”
Rhodes says, “Typically, when we see gay characters onscreen they’re often flamboyant, and we don’t get to see who they are. Chiron is beautifully flawed, and I have 5% of Chiron in me. I learned so much about him, and I was in love by page 5 of the script.” Rhodes said the script became personal to him, because it was personal to Jenkins.
Jenkins says he wanted unfamiliar actors to play the roles, so he cast his film with relative unknowns. With the exception of Ali, who appeared in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Kicks, and House of Cards, the other actors are faces we didn’t recognize. Jenkins said he had read Walter Murch’s In The Blink of an Eye, and liked his “concrete approach to film making.”
Rhodes says he never met the other actors who played the younger version of his character while they were filming. When we see his character meet Naomie Harris’ character in the rehab center at the end, it was the first time they were introduced. Jenkins says there was no time for rehearsals because their budget didn’t allow that luxury, so Rhodes and Harris met for the first time, ten minutes before shooting that scene.
Letting the packed audience in on a secret, Jenkins said that Harris was not a smoker or drinker, so when he yelled action, what we see on screen was really Harris struggling to light the cigarette. He told Rhodes to reach over and light the cigarette before giving it back to her.
As he does that, we see her character start to shake and cry. “She says, ‘I’m so sorry,’ and that wasn’t scripted.” Jenkins says, adding that that’s the sort of emotion you can’t plan.
On Working with Barry Jenkins:
Ali compared working with Jenkins to landing a plane, saying, “He gives us 80% of the runway, and it’s your job to finish it.” Ali said that style of directing allows an actor to take control of the role and elevate the story, and the freedom that Jenkins encourages is something he really enjoyed while working on Moonlight.
Rhodes said working with Jenkins made him a better person and a better actor. He said that working on Moonlight set a bar, a new standard for him and for what he expects. His high bar is now Barry Jenkins. “He showed me what filmmaking can be in this world.”
On the film’s performance at the box office:
It was impossible not to talk about Trump. The morning after the election, Moonlight saw an increase of 40% at the box office. Jenkins said, “People felts this film was a place where they could go to, and feel at home with.” The film is resonating with critics and audiences around the country.
Moonlight is on general release. Below are some photos from the Q&A as well as videos: