Oscar watch: Inside the magic of 'Moonlight'
LOS ANGELES — In the glow of Moonlight, a singular coming-of-age story found its way to the screen.
For the film's actors, "it’s about breaking down labels and boxes that people like to put each other in," says Naomie Harris, sitting with her co-stars Mahershala Ali and Trevante Rhodes. "We are all desperately searching for love and a sense of belonging."
Moonlight (in theaters Friday in New York and Los Angeles and adding cities throughout the month; opens nationwide Nov. 11) is the story of an African-American boy named Chiron whose formative years are spent in a tough neighborhood in Miami. Bullied in school and given little shelter by his crack-addicted mother Paula (Harris), Chiron's story is told in three chapters: at age 9 (played by Alex Hibbert), as a closeted gay teen (Ashton Sanders) and as an adult (Rhodes).
Rhodes, a Hollywood newcomer, calls Moonlight's resounding praise at film festivals "insane," adding that the quick success almost inspires paralysis. “It’s almost inevitable to have a bad film at some time, so I’m like, 'Man, I’m terrified (of what to do next),' ” the 26-year-old actor acknowledges.
The film is adapted from Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, and by adulthood, Chiron has remade himself in the image of one of the few kind faces he encountered in childhood: a formidable drug dealer named Juan (Ali).
Ali, 42, says he was relieved to find Chiron's mentor humanized.
In Hollywood, white-collar criminals are often "very three-dimensional, and you’ll even end up sympathizing with that character or connecting with him as he steals hordes of money from people," he says. "But I don’t feel like the same service has been done to characters who come from the urban communities.”
Playing Paula was a role Harris, 40, initially resisted. "I actually had a lot of judgment about addiction because I’m someone who doesn’t drink alcohol, doesn’t smoke — I don’t even drink coffee,” says the British actress. “I had to learn that everybody actually is doing their very best with the resources they have at that time.”
Like McCraney, director Barry Jenkins (Medicine for Melancholy) grew up with an addict mother in the Liberty City housing projects, and persuaded Harris to parachute in for a tight three-day shoot while promoting the Bond movie Spectre.
“There isn’t a single scene with Paula that didn’t happen to either myself or Tarell in some form,” says Jenkins. “It was probably the toughest thing I’ve ever had to do as a filmmaker.”
Hailed for shining a light on the often-unseen experience of gay black men, the film boasts a 98% positive rating from critics on RottenTomatoes.com. Glowing reviews have swiftly pushed the drama-turned-love story into this year's Oscar race.
According to awards website GoldDerby.com, Ali leads the pack in the best-supporting actor race, while Moonlight sits just behind La La Land, Manchester by the Sea and Fences for best picture.
Reception has taken the Moonlight director aback. "To have so many people identify with the character and see themselves in the piece was a pleasant surprise,” says Jenkins.
Rhodes, who is straight, identified with Chiron after watching a close pal struggle with his sexuality. "It was just seeing that growing up, seeing the pain constantly on one of my best friend's face for 10 years," he says. "To see this person on a page in the narrative that I’ve never seen before and to have the opportunity to bring that to life was incredible."