The Equalizer 2 is filled with beatdowns and bloodletting, but some of the action sequel’s most potent sequences involve neither. Central to the plot this time around is the bond formed between retired CIA black-ops agent Robert McCall (Denzel Washington) and a neighborhood kid named Miles (Moonlight’s Ashton Sanders). As McCall squares off with new adversaries and hunts in the shadows to solve a friend’s murder, he faces few challenges more daunting than that of keeping Miles on the straight-and-narrow.
In approaching the Antoine Fuqua-directed project, Sanders says he quickly sensed the greater importance of Miles as a character, seeing him as symbolic of young black men across the country struggling to break vicious cycles of poverty and inner-city gang violence. “Miles represents hope in the hood,” says the actor, 22. “He’s this good kid who’s hanging around the wrong people, because of his lack of a father figure or a father force.”
As The Equalizer 2 hits theaters, EW spoke with Sanders about collaborating with Washington and Fuqua, why Miles matters, and whether he sees a future for the character beyond this entry.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What was your path to The Equalizer 2?
ASHTON SANDERS: It’s funny, I had initially met Denzel on a red carpet, doing press for Moonlight. When that happened, I was like, “Yo, I’m going to work with you one day.” I ended up getting cast in his last project, but I had a scheduling conflict, filming Captive State. So this opportunity came up, and I went in — Denzel and Antoine were interested in seeing me for the part, I went in and read, and got a call from Antoine that I got the role. Then we just started getting to work.
What was it like to work with both Denzel and Antoine, two very established talents?
Obviously, I had a lot of respect for both Antoine and Denzel before going into the project. Although it was work, it was also a learning experience. Being able to collaborate and play with both of these guys in that setting, it was a great experience. You can really psych yourself out when approaching something like this, but they were really comforting to me, just making sure I was good in the environment. I knew this character, so if anything, they just told me to really trust myself and follow my instincts and the relationship that me and Denzel had developed with the characters, to focus on that and play in that world.
When Miles meets McCall, he’s about to get caught up in this cycle of inner-city gang violence, torn between pursuing an education and linking up with those already affiliated with gangs. How did you approach that character and tension?
This relationship with Miles specifically wasn’t anything that was too unfamiliar for me. Miles is representative of a lot of boys in the black community, per se. I went in knowing what I was representing, knowing where he was coming from. Miles represents hope in the hood. He’s this good kid who’s hanging around the wrong people, because of his lack of a father figure or a father force. Denzel and I both knew that’s what we were trying to create, and so everything kind of happened authentically. Denzel and I, we both worked really well off each other, and there was a definite mentor relationship. That was there, and that’s how we fell into it.
Having that kind of repartee really bolsters your scenes with Denzel. There’s one at the midway mark when McCall storms into a housing project to pull Miles away from a gang initiation where he’s being asked to make an incredibly dark, life-altering choice. Can you talk about shooting that sequence?
That’s one of the most pivotal moments in Miles’ life. Miles wasn’t necessarily looking for a father figure in McCall, because he’s still dealing with his own emotional trauma, with his father and older brother not being there. And I think in that moment, it was the climax of Miles’ ordeal. It was definitely a very delicate thing. Antoine, Denzel, and I would do [the scene] a couple of times. We all understood the dialogue, the subtext, the underlying message and tone, what the scene was really about, so we were able to build off that collectively, as a trio, and make something important.
Denzel and I were definitely zoned into our character’s spaces. It was kind of like a dance between Robert and Miles, a dance of energy flow and trust. Every scene we shot, we started to realize more about these characters and their relationships in the film. We were building on that progressively, and I think that played a big part in that it made it more authentic, more real. Which is why I think it’ll be really relatable, because it is real.
Culturally, there are so many expectations around black masculinity that trap young men in these hyper-masculine molds and stifle genuine emotional expression. But in both The Equalizer 2 and Moonlight, your characters stand in opposition to that by openly showing vulnerability. Is it important to you as an actor to depict that?
We all have perceptions or boxes that we put each other in. The white-collar white guy is supposed to look and act like this, Miles is supposed to act and look like this, or you know, this straight black dude is supposed to act like this, this woman, this race, so on and so forth. We put each other in these boxes, but we’re all so human as well. Miles is trying to find himself and deal with himself, as we all are in our daily lives, and we all have moments of vulnerability, whether it’s that we can see the vulnerability on our sleeves or whether we catch a glimpse. It’s still kind of there in a sense. Not that I’m purposefully trying to push that, but that just is what the character is. That’s how people are. Sometimes people are vulnerable. And that’s fine. I think it’s important to try to change that narrative and change the representation of exactly what something is supposed to be.
Was there a sense when you were filming that you could bring your own ideas into this character?
Yeah. It was cool, you know. Antoine gave me a lot of freedom to explore in-scene. We would set things in play, then he’d give me the freedom to fill out the space, play with the words, so on and so forth. I would think he trusted me with the character, with Miles, and after a moment, just with Denzel, it was the flow, an understanding of like, “Yeah, okay. You get it. We get it. We’re there. We’re on the same page.”
What do you think is next for Miles, after the events of The Equalizer 2?
I see Miles following his dreams, not being influenced by anybody else at this point when the film ends, understanding who he is and what he’s going for. Miles is probably going to be in college in a year or two, and at the beginning of the film I’m not sure if he knew that was an option for him. Like I said, Miles represents hope in the hood, and McCall gives him that push with his guidance. Robert McCall is kind of like a modern-day Robin Hood. He’s for the people. He’s this badass modern-day superhero, and I think it’s pretty cool what he’s doing for the people, in the movie and in his life. He’s always fighting for the right thing.