AS: It was like a magic trick. We are all different variations of each other—all kind of the same person. When I met everyone for the first time in Toronto, it was like we’d known each other for years. These are literally my brothers. 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.
Actor Mahershala Ali is known for his role as Juan in Moonlight, a drug dealer who helps Chiron as a child. He also holds recurring roles in House of Cards, Luke Cage and The Hunger Games films, and has appeared in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Predators, The Place Beyond the Pines and Free State of Jones.
BJ: Let’s talk about another Moonlight actor: Mahershala Ali [who plays Juan, a drug dealer who helps raise Chiron as a child]. Is he a mentor to you?
AS: He’s so dope. He is mentoring me right now, and I respect him a lot. We talk about negotiating scripts because I’m super picky. He tells me there is no rush, that it is important for me to stay true to my artistry and myself. I needed to hear that. He’s a man who I want to be like. I’m about to be an uncle to his baby.
BJ: You don’t know this, but I sat behind you at that screening in Toronto. At the end of the story, one of you reached over to the other and grabbed him. You were so happy for each other. Mahershala has spent 20 years in the industry to get to a film like this. You’ve been in the industry for six months, so how does that feel?
Kenyan actor Lupita Nyong’o is best known for her debut role in 12 Years a Slave (2013), for which she won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Since, she made her Broadway debut in Eclipsed (2015), receiving a Tony nomination for her performance.
AS: It’s a blessing to have relationships with artists like you and Naomie Harris, Andre Holland and Janelle Monaé. I remember us doing press in Toronto, and Lupita Nyong’o came up. I’m standing next to Mahershala and Lupita is right there, over my shoulder, and I didn’t say a word. Sometimes I feel like I just got lucky.
BJ: It wasn’t luck. You earned the part. And then what you did with it, that’s all up to you. There is always a series of events. When we were on set, did you ever think we’d be sitting at the Soho House having a conversation for a magazine feature?
AS: No, never man.
“What we do, I don’t like to think of it as special.
The acting you did was special.
The result right now is becoming very
fucking special. But what we did was not special;
we were just working.
It’s important to remember that.”
— Barry Jenkins
BJ: Whenever you have this feeling you have to really cherish and appreciate it. Because what we do, I don’t like to think of it as special. The acting you did was special. The result right now is becoming very fucking special. But what we did was not special; we were just working. It’s important to remember that.
AS: Totally man. That’s my biggest thing. I didn’t know what to expect from this project. I like creating art, and that is what it is. It is dope to have all of this for sure, but I’m an artist first.
American writer and theater critic Hilton Als is a regular contributor to The New Yorker and a former staff writer at the Village Voice and editor-at-large for Vibe magazine. Als was shortlisted for the 2013 National Book Critics Circle Award for White Girls (2013), and won the Windham-Campbell Literature Prize for White Girls and The Women (1996).
BJ: I want an honest answer: When you read the Hilton Als piece in The New Yorker, what was that like?
AS: I felt like the man. Damn, me? Pinch me. It gave me chills. I was honored.
BJ: What does the future hold for Ashton Sanders?
AS: Hard work. Dedication. Knowing myself, continuously being myself and not conforming for other people. I want to have my hands in everything: acting, fashion, cinematography, directing. So I’m just building myself up right now. I’ve been having some conversations with God and following my intuition. I want to leave a mark on this world. I want to inspire.
BJ: One thing I will say to you as a mentor is to be more in love with the process and not the result. Leaving a mark is much less important than building yourself.
“I’ll be calling shit out
so the universe will hear it.”
— Ashton Sanders
AS: That is what the future is: having my hands in everything, building myself up. Hopefully the result will leave a mark. I already know that I’m going to put in the work. It’s the law of attraction. I’m a strong believer in that. I’ll be calling shit out so the universe will hear it.