BJ: I want to talk to you about that because I didn’t know about your mom relapsing until we were shooting that scene with Naomi Harris, who plays your mom in the film. You didn’t tell me.
AS: I know.
BJ: What was that experience like, for art to be imitating life?
AS: I didn’t think it was necessary to explain my process to you in creating this character. It just didn’t cross my mind. I didn’t want to be that dude, to bring people down. Plus, when I’m going through shit, I shut everything out and deal with it myself. I would go back to the hotel and cry and write poetry.
BJ: I’ve had that experience too, and that is why I did the movie. Everything you just said is why I saw myself in Chiron. So why did you decide to tell me when you told me on set?
AS: We were inside the trailer. I talked to Naomie [Harris] about it, too. It was kind of like that beach scene: you know it’s coming but you don’t think about it until you’re really there. Seeing Naomi in costume, knowing how this plot also resonated with you and how much of my soul I was about to give in those moments, I thought, “Alright Barry, I just want to let you know.”
That day was some of the most vulnerable acting I’ve ever done. There were people on set crying. It was so emotional. I remember you coming up to me and asking if I was all good. I just kept pushing. I read that Hollywood Reporter piece where you talked about how this project was therapy for you. It was therapy for me too. I feel like everything happens for a reason, and everyone involved in this project was involved for a reason. No one else could have played these parts.
BJ: Other people could have played these parts, but the characters would have been different. The place where we ended up is very unique because you all brought your true selves into the film. But let’s take a step a back—how did you get into acting? Take me as far back as you want, knowing that you are a young ass dude.
AS: Just like Chiron, I was bullied from elementary school to middle school. I felt like everyone had an outlet, whether it was playing basketball or whatever. I needed an escape, so in the summer of sixth grade, I started talking to my dad about acting classes. I had been watching TV and I thought I could do it. I was this crazy kid with a big imagination. So I enrolled in Amazing Grace Conservatory, which is Wendy Raquel Robinson’s acting program in Central Los Angeles. I initially started acting to escape my family situation and tap into other people’s lives. When I was on stage in character I wasn’t worried about anything. I was that character. So that’s how I approached the craft. I felt in love and was surrounded by so many like-minded artists. I was the weird kid growing up, and acting allowed me to be free, escape my reality and be surrounded by so much love.
BJ: Let me jump forward: When you booked The Retrieval how did that happen?
AS: Savage Agency scouted me at a play in high school in ninth grade. I was super pre-pubescent, but they saw something in me. The audition for The Retrieval was intense, even though it was super low budget. It was my first Hollywood movie, so I’m expecting everything “Hollywood,” but it wasn’t like that. I was in Texas filming for two months and they didn’t have trailers. It was the coldest winter in Texas, and I had to wear these slave clothes. In one scene, I’m walking in a frozen river and fall over, and the water freezes around my hand. I wasn’t expecting anything to happen with the film, but it got a little bit of support, so that was rad. I was fifteen when I shot it.
“I’ve seen the film five times, and I notice
something different about everybody’s
performances each time.
It’s amazing how everything matched up.
It was so spot-on and perfect—
great direction, great artists and a great script.”
— Ashton Sanders
BJ: Your next credit was Straight Outta Compton. So what happened between those two?
AS: I was working on my craft, doing plays and auditioning, but I was auditioning for the wrong stuff, like Disney Channel, which clearly isn’t my vibe. The crazy part is that it took three years for The Retrieval to actually get distribution and go to theatres—until my freshmen year of college. So The Retrieval was coming out in theatres when I auditioned for Straight Outta Compton, which I booked that summer. The next summer, I auditioned for your project and had Compton playing in theaters.
BJ: It’s funny, I remember having no idea you were in Compton. We had already cast you and I remember watching it in the theatre like, “I think that’s Ashton.” Everyone was waiting for the credits. It was a small part, but you are the center of the frame for those two or three minutes. I was like, “This kid’s good.”
But [when you were auditioning] and we were casting [the character of] Kevin, at first we were trying to cast for chemistry. We brought in one Kevin who was not very good, and it made your performance bad. The first thing I said to you was, “You can’t let the person opposite you dictate the level you’re at.” But then you stood up and basically said, “I’m tired of this.” I respected you for that. I was telling a class at AFI (American Film Institute), that the experience did two things for me: One, I did realize that I was putting you through the ringer; two, it helped me solidify what to look for. It’s not about chemistry. Let me find the [series of actors playing] Chiron, who have the same feeling and the same soul, and get away from the chemistry.
What you, Alex Hibbert and Trevante Rhodes do in the film is interesting [playing Chiron at different ages]. The question I get most often is about the fact that you all never met each other. How does it feel to look at the screen and see somebody else basically playing you or your character?