An interview with Naomie Harris and Trevante Rhodes.
Naomie Harris was reluctant, initially. She had never wanted to play a crack addict, instead preferring to focus her career on positive black women roles. And now she’s receiving Oscar buzz for her performance as a junkie mom in the Barry Jenkins film Moonlight, which seems especially troubling. The Academy has a history of recognizing black actresses mainly in parts representing the most demeaning of racial stereotypes.
“I decided to ultimately do it, despite my reservations, because Barry told me the story is semi-autobiographical,” Harris explains of the drama, which is based on Tarell McCraney’s personal play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue.” Her character is fictional but an amalgamation based on the mothers of Jenkins and McCraney, and both women were in fact drug addicts. The film needed someone who could embody the reality, not the cliche.
“What I wanted to show is her full humanity,” she says, “that she’s a mother who is really struggling to love and take care of her child and that she can only give the resources that she has at that particular point in time. When she’s able to get more support and she goes into rehab she learns to do better. But we are all doing the very best we can, and that’s what I wanted to show in particular.”
Moonlight is all about the breaking of stereotypes, from its humanization of crack addicts and drug dealers to the way it challenges outmoded notions of black identity, gay identity, and masculine identity. “To have an opportunity to play someone who is so multifaceted and three-dimensional, who has all these aspects, was incredibly liberating.” says actor Trevante Rhodes regarding his own interest in working on the coming-of-age film.
He is one of three actors who plays Chiron, Moonlight’s gay, African-American protagonist, and the son of Harris’s character, at different points of his life. “In most films homosexual men [are] depicted as this flamboyant being, and that’s the only dimension they have. They’re just that,” he says of the norm for such a role. “The drug dealer, the same situation, he’s just the drug dealer. You don’t know anything else about him. It was really cool to slap that whole stereotype in the mouth.”
Rhodes wasn’t allowed to meet or watch the other, younger actors who share the role, because Jenkins wanted each of their performances to be unique and for the film to be like a triptych of related vignettes. But Rhodes wasn’t lost as far as the first two-thirds of backstory was concerned. “The great thing about the script is it was there,” he says. “There obviously are holes, but you fill that in with your imagination and go from there.”
Meanwhile, Harris researched extensively to figure out who Paula, her character, was and really get under her skin. She watched YouTube documentaries about drug addicts and even met with one personally, all of which alleviated the additional challenges of the production. She filmed all of her scenes, which are spread throughout the film, in just three days during a break from promoting the James Bond movie Spectre.
“It wasn’t shot sequentially,” she reveals. “It was shot dependent on the locations and what was available at the time. I was jumping around from older Paula to younger Paula to rehab Paula to throes of addiction Paula, but the thing that helped was all the research I had done beforehand so at any point Barry could say we’re going to this particular age and I knew exactly where she was at. That’s just about really knowing your character’s arc and making sure you’ve analyzed and understood where you are in the script.”
Rhodes researched, too, but he couldn’t just go online and look up “gay black men.” Instead, for a character as singular yet as widely identifiable as Chiron is, he combined broad and intimate inspirations. “I’m a very empathic person,” he says, “and I literally put myself in everyone’s shoes. I’m looking out the window and watching this person walk by and wonder why they walk like that or how their day is going. I don’t know why I do that, but I do that. I do that with literally everyone I come in contact with. I’ve seen Chiron so many times. I see him a couple times every day, someone who is so insecure about themselves and about their physicality and who they are.”
For the more personal element, he partly based Chiron on his best friend growing up. “[He] was someone who struggled with that for years,” he says, describing a boy who didn’t love himself and whom Rhodes had trouble in turn expressing his love to. “I saw that struggle. I’ve lived Chiron’s story from outside in. For so long. This was so much more than just this role to me. This was like a tribute to this person I love and will forever love. And have for a very long time. I’ve studied my entire life for this role.”
As in many cases where a gay character is played by a straight actor, though, the casting of Rhodes in the film has been questioned. But he says, “You just have to find the humanity in everyone. We’re all human. It’s really about embodying the essence of the person regardless of sexual orientation or race ‐ we’re all the same.” He says obviously a white man can’t portray Martin Luther King Jr., but “unless you’re doing a biopic, we can all be anything.”
Harris agrees. “You may get a homosexual man, but that doesn’t mean he can bring the depth and emotional connection that Trevante was able to,” she says. “Ultimately wouldn’t you rather have someone that the audience is able to connect with their story, be moved by their story, believe in their story, rather than someone who just happens to be homosexual in real life? What’s most important is we have actors who are truly able to inhabit and convey what they’re supposed to on screen. Not everyone can do that.”
She can relate to playing characters who aren’t anything like her, especially with this film, being an English woman who has never done drugs playing an American mother and addict. And in the Bond movies, she portrays a literary character who has traditionally been played by white actresses. Surprisingly, on whether there’s ever been objections to her taking over the part of Miss Moneypenny she says, “Not at all, actually.”
And in fact she objects to the outcry from fans who claim Bond himself can’t be anything but a white, British, heterosexual man. “I just think the most important thing is to be the right person for the role, and that has nothing to do with your skin color. It has to do with your emotional experiences. How much you have lived and how much you have been able to open yourself up to humanity, to connect with other people. How good you are at observing other people to pick up their mannerisms.”
So Bond can be a gay, black, American man? “Yes!” Rhodes exclaims. “Why the hell not?”
“I personally just don’t like those kinds of questions because I don’t think that’s what we should be focusing on,” Harris adds. “I think it’s what are the amazing qualities that Bond is supposed to represent for all of us. Let’s find someone who has all of those kinds of qualities, and let’s stop putting people in boxes and labeling people and try in 2016 to step away from all that narrow-minded way of looking at things.”