Ashton Sanders’ performance in Barry Jenkins’ revelatory triptych Moonlight is all about risk. The 20-year old, best known for a small role in Straight Outta Compton, plays Chiron, a gay teenager experiencing his sexual awakening within the unaccepting, hyper-masculine world of Miami’s poverty-stricken Liberty City neighborhood.
To many young actors the precarious nature of such a role would be too much to rest a burgeoning career. To Sanders it was necessary, vital, magical even. The actor already knew the work of playwright Tarell McCraney, whose play In Moonlight, Black Boys Look Blue the film is based, from his time at DuPaul University’s theater program. More importantly, he knew Chiron.
Like him, Sanders grew up with a mother addicted to drugs. (He was raised almost entirely by his father and an uncle in South Los Angeles). He too battled neighborhood bullies who trashed his self-esteem, calling him out for being too skinny, too dark-skinned, too arty. It was in acting class and on the stage where Sanders found an escape. He just never expected his childhood to be such a key informant to his career.
“Being bullied and dealing with a parent addicted to drugs, I went through that my entire life,” says Sanders. “This part [in Moonlight] was like God telling me, you need to do this. No one else can play this part but you.”
That didn’t make filming Moonlight easy. In the film, Chiron kisses another man for the first time, gets beaten up at school and then falls apart in a devastating scene in the principal’s office. His mother, meanwhile, is vanishing into a cloud of crack smoke. Despite the support from Jenkins and his costars, including Luke Cage’s Mahershala Ali, it still took a toll.
“There wasn’t a day on set when I didn’t feel uncomfortable,” he said. “I had to relive these experiences that I’ve buried in the back of my mind all my life. That was hard.”
Jenkins, who auditioned Sanders first among his large, ensemble cast, says the biggest challenge in working with the young actor was regulating the intensity of his emotions. “Ashton is a giver,” he says. “The longer you go with him, the deeper he goes. I had to manage how deep we took him, because he’s a very raw, performer. Trained but raw.”
Sanders hopes that this performance will be the fuel that propels him to the next stage of his professional life. Moonlight’s Oscar buzz prompted him to exit DuPaul early to focus on his career. “I want to do projects that mean something to the world and challenge me,” he says.
Now Hollywood just needs to create roles to match those ambitions.
For more on Moonlight, check out the latest episode of Entertainment Weekly: The Show, available now, on the new People/Entertainment Weekly Network (PEN). Go to PEOPLE.com/PEN, or download the PEN app on Apple TV, Roku Players, Amazon Fire TV, Xumo, Chromecast, iOS and Android devices.