“We want people not from this world to empathize with these characters…” hmv.com talks to the cast, director of Moonlight
Its subject matter is the opposite of typical blockbuster fare. But new drama Moonlight is one of the year’s most poignant and ambitious movies and was deservedly rewarded with the Oscar for Best Picture, albeit in controversial circumstances...
Moonlight follows Chiron, a kid in inner-city Miami. Everything that could mark Chiron out for abuse does: he’s small, black, shy, poor, possibly gay and his otherwise devoted single mother is spiralling down into drugs.
Moonlight presents Chiron’s life in three distinct chapters – as a child, a teenager and a young man. But unlike Richard Linklater’s Boyhood – where the same actor is filmed growing up over many years – each Chiron is played by a different actor tasked with conveying the character’s essence over time.
The effect is startling and is mirrored by Chiron’s childhood friend Kevin who also ‘grows up’ in the same way. Other adult characters – played by (among others) fast-rising Briton Naomie Harris (Our Kind of Traitor), pop star-cum-movie star Janelle Monáe and Hunger Games star Mahershala Ali – fade in and out of Chiron’s life, further underscoring the verité feel of director/screenwriter Barry Jenkins’ remarkable film.
As the movie comes to DVD shelves (you can pre-order it on the right-hand side of the page), hmv.com sat down with director Barry Jenkins and stars Mahershala Ali and Janelle Monae to find out all about making this tough drama...
Barry, your film is based on a play by playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney. How did it get on your radar?
Barry Jenkins: “Tarell and I have a lot of friends in common and some of them saw enough of me in the play to start scheming of a way to get it in front of me and get me back to Miami to make a film. Once I read the play, that was it. I was struck.”
In the first chapter of the film, the character of Juan (played by Mahershala Ali) is so prominent then whoosh! He just disappears in the second chapter. What was the idea behind that?
Barry Jenkins: “It was always my intention to have Juan disappear that way. Ali’s performance is so strong, and you certainly miss his presence. But there are kids growing up who have people like Juan in their lives that are snatched away at a moment’s notice. I wanted the audience to feel that same lack these kids feel when these father figures are taken away. It’s very jarring, I know.”
Mahershala Ali: “It also would have distracted from the story, and made it about Juan getting shot or dying or whatever. It needed to stay focused on little Chiron.”
Janelle, you often speak of the importance of family. What did it mean to you to be part of this film?
Janelle Monae: “It meant the world to be part of this universal story. When I read the script, I cried because I knew these people in my neighbourhood. I knew a Juan and a Chiron and a Teresa and I was so struck by the fact that the script captured their layers and nuances. It made them human. Nurturing was the first thing that came to mind when I thought of Teresa (whom Monae plays). She was the one everyone went to. I grew up with over 50 first cousins, so lots of strong women for me to look up to.”
Barry, the film tackles masculinity both within the black community and the gay community. Speak to handling that.
Barry Jenkins: “All credit to Tarell who created the source material. These characters could not have come from me but with Tarell’s voice and blessing, I felt I could take them on and merge my worldview with Tarell’s. People keep saying we don’t see these types of characters in arts and letters. Well, I saw them every damn day when I was growing up. This film is about respecting the boys and the men in our neighbourhoods and reflecting the evolution they go through. We live in a world that brings the black boy up hard. My goal was to get that on-screen in a responsible and tactful way. That respect that built into the DNA of the project.”
The casting was so strong that it didn’t feel like it was three separate actors playing Chiron and Kevin at different ages but the same two people growing up all the way through...
Barry Jenkins: “We weren’t so concerned about making sure the actors looked alike so much as that they had the same essence, the same feeling. That’s what made it work. If you look at the movie poster and into the eyes of Trevante Rhodes (who plays adult Chiron) and Alex Hibbert (child Chiron), you see the same thing.”
Barry, are you hoping the film has a broader impact on storytelling?
Barry Jenkins: “I don’t know. Tarell wrote a piece that I loved about characters that scanned like actual people I knew growing up. And I wanted to get it right, tell that story in an authentic way. From there it works outward and the more people see the film, the more they take possession of it. If people see a lot of themselves in these characters, great. But if people from this world are the only ones seeing the film, then I’ve failed. The idea is that people who don’t see themselves in this film can still empathise with these characters. That would be amazing.”