Barry Jenkins and his cast tell EW about working on the emotional film, due out Oct. 21

Moonlight is generating a substantial amount of awards season buzz ahead of its Oct. 21 release date, and the film’s cast tells EW it’s all for good reason.

“When I read the Moonlight script I was moved,” singer Janelle Monáe, who plays Teresa in the Barry Jenkins-directed film, reveals. “Usually, whenever I take on any project, I have to be moved. I cried two times because I really empathize with the lead character in particular, Chiron. He reminded me of a little cousin, my nephew, he reminded me of my future son. When I read the role to read as Teresa, I saw myself in her.”

The second major film from Jenkins, whose only other feature directorial credit is the 2008 drama Medicine for Melancholy, follows Chiron as he ages into adulthood. Played by three different actors (Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes) across three different time periods throughout the film, Chiron struggles with issues of identity, sexuality, and family while navigating the tumultuous streets of a rough Miami neighborhood.

Holland, who plays Kevin in the film, says the project “explores masculinity and what that is specifically in the African-American community.” He continues: “I felt like my character is one who, at a young age, acted out this idea of what he thought masculinity was, but when we meet him when I’m playing him, he’s come to a slightly different place, a more vulnerable place.”

Following its world premiere at the 2016 Telluride Film Festival, Moonlight traveled the festival circuit to glowing reviews through stops in Toronto and New York. Later this month, it heads to awards season precursor festivals in London, the Hamptons, and Mill Valley. Naomie Harris, who plays Kevin’s drug-addled mother, is widely seen as a major threat in the Best Supporting Actress Oscar race, and admits tackling her role required a great deal of preparation, though she ultimately only spent three days on the film’s set.

“I don’t smoke, I don’t drink, and I’ve certainly never done any alcohol, and I’m playing a crack addict,” she says. “I knew I had to get her backstory. I had to have done all the research. I had to know how to handle a crack pipe, which, actually, I got lessons off YouTube for and Google, which is kind of crazy.”

While Jenkins has been directing short films since 2003, he says he was nervous to shoot a particular sex scene that occurs between two adolescents in Moonlight.

“It’s the first time I filmed a sex scene. It’s the first time these actors had performed a sex scene,” he says. “It’s not gratuitous. It’s very delicate in keeping with most of the film, but it kept me up at night. I really wanted to get the feelings of that first sort of sexual expression, and I wanted to get it right… but then, when we got to shoot it, it rolled off like butter.”

Watch more of EW’s interview with the cast and crew of Moonlight, including Monáe, Harris, Jenkins, Holland, Mahershala Ali, and Trevante Rhodes, in the video above.

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