Chiron, the lead character in Moonlight, is an outcast. He grows up with a drug-addicted single mother, no consistent father figure or male role model, and a bleak socioeconomic outlook.
But more than anything, his troubles stem from the fact that Chiron is gay. He’s also black, which — as the film argues without explicitly saying so — puts him at a further disadvantage because of hypersensitive notions of masculinity and unspoken expectations within his own community.
Trevante Rhodes, the Little Elm native who plays the adult Chiron in the highly acclaimed project from director Barry Jenkins, was touched by the film’s heartfelt portrayal of unrequited love. As a straight man playing an openly gay role, he approached the subject matter with an open mind. And he hopes that moviegoers can do the same, regardless of cultural background.
“I was just raised differently. My mother has always emphasized loving everybody and everything for what it is and who they are. I never had the struggle of breaking down these walls or this notion that something is taboo,” Rhodes said during a recent stop in Dallas. “[The film] is a way to develop a certain understanding as a people. Love is the most important currency we have. We are individuals, but we are the same. Unifying us is what I think is most important about the film.”
Jenkins’ script — based on an autobiographical stage play by Tarell McCraney — explores Chiron’s journey of self-discovery in three chapters, each approximately 10 years apart, beginning with a youngster (Alex Hibbert) spending early formative years in the Miami projects during the 1990s, when he rebels against his mother (Naomie Harris) by befriending a drug dealer (Mahershala Ali).
As he transitions to high school, Chiron (Ashton Sanders) experiences a sexual awakening even as relentless bullying leaves him feeling more lonely and vulnerable. As a young adult, he’s developed a hardened macho exterior while retaining the same inner turmoil as he reluctantly reunites with a man (Andre Holland) from his past.
Since he appears only in the final segment of the film, Rhodes was on set for just a week. He never met with the two younger actors who played Chiron, which was intentional on Jenkins’ part. The filmmaker wasn’t as concerned with physical similarities among his three actors as he was with emotional continuity. And he urged each performer to interpret the character separately.
“The first time I saw it, it felt like a magic trick. You knew what was coming, but I didn’t know how fluid it would actually play out,” Rhodes said. “When I saw Alex, I felt like it was a reincarnation of myself. Barring some change in the nose, that’s how I looked when I was younger. I used to be the tall, skinny cat. It was kind of surreal to see it.”
Rhodes, 26, comes from an athletic background. In high school, he was a running back, and Cowboys receiver Cole Beasley was his quarterback. He also was an all-state sprinter and went to the University of Texas on a track scholarship, where he was part of a relay quartet that included future Olympic long jumper Marquise Goodwin.
At UT, Rhodes took a drama class to fulfill a theater requirement. He was approached by a casting director in Austin, which deepened his interest, and then moved to Los Angeles after graduation, eventually landing a recurring role on a Tyler Perry sitcom. Now he’s on track for a career breakthrough.
“Athletics and acting are so similar,” he said. “Track and field is the most individualized team sport, and if you think about it, so is acting. You put forth your best effort in your race so the team in its entirety can win.”