Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight is being hailed as one of the most emotionally impactful films of the year, and not just by critics and audiences.
“Filming this project was super therapeutic to me,” star Ashton Sanders tells EW. “Seven months of therapy couldn’t do what the two weeks of filming did for me.”
The film, adapted from Tarell Alvin McCraney’s stage play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, follows a young, black boy named Chiron across three stages of his life as he struggles to come to terms with his sexuality on the streets of Miami.
Alex Hibbert plays Chrion as a child, while If Loving You Is Wrong‘s Trevante Rhodes tackles the character as an adult. In Jenkins’ sprawling tale it’s Sanders, however, who plays Chiron during his formative teenage years, which see the character developing his first same-sex crush on a childhood friend, Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), as he endures relentless bullying at school — the latter of which rang true to Sanders’ experience growing up.
“Chiron is very relatable to a part of my upbringing,” he says of mentally preparing for the part. “I was bullied from elementary to middle school… I wasn’t as tormented as Chiron was, but taking those experiences and heightening them up was definitely key for me, and allowed me to fully understand the character and drop into the lifestyle of Chiron.”
Jenkins’ script, his first feature credit since penning the screenplay for 2008’s Medicine for Melancholy, masterfully tackles additional issues of mass incarceration, drug abuse, and the often stifling implications of societally coded standards of masculinity; as a result, Moonlight — which also stars Mahershala Ali, Janelle Monáe, Naomie Harris, and André Holland — has taken the early awards season race by storm, thus far earning major notices from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, the New York Film Critics Circle, and the Broadcast Film Critics Association, which nominated it for 10 Critics Choice awards last week.
“I signed on to this project without knowing who was involved or who was producing it. It was just based off of the script and me wanting to grow and learn from playing this character,” Sanders admits, noting he, like the awards bodies that have honored it thus far, fell under Moonlight‘s hypnotic spell. “This project also taught me a lot about love, man, and a lot about vulnerability through art. It was a beautiful experience.”
Moonlight is now playing in theaters nationwide. Watch EW’s interview with Sanders above.