It’s an ambitious proposition, setting out to unearth something fresh in the modern experience, but anyone who has seen Moonlight, the new film adapted by acclaimed director Barry Jenkins from a play by Tarell Alvin McCraney, would agree that “fresh” doesn’t even begin to cover it. The film tells the story of Chiron, a young black man growing up in Miami, and dealing with the realization of his homosexuality in a hyper-masculine universe. Set at three distinct points in Chiron’s life, from childhood to high school and finally adulthood, Moonlight traces the contours of personal growth in all its forms.

Not only is its story, that of a gay black man, a woefully underexamined subject in mainstream American cinema, the film’s empathy bleeds through in every frame, and every edit, and every musical cue, and every sound effect. Chiron’s silent internal struggle breaks through his tough exterior, sometimes with violent force, but always in a way that's balanced by Jenkins’ aesthetic warmth. Moonlight is a film about understanding others and oneself.

At the center of that understanding is newcomer Trevante Rhodes’ deft and deeply felt portrayal of the adult Chiron. Bringing together the development done by the two younger actors who play Chiron earlier in the film, Rhodes’s first appearance serves up an immediate shock. His large, athletic build, and eyes that convey a world of hard experience, don’t immediately square with those lankier, softer young actors. But slowly, over the course of his performance, Rhodes peels back layer after layer until his external hardness reveals, at the character's core, a tender desire for love. It’s a remarkable work of acting in an equally remarkable film. I spoke with Rhodes over the phone this week about his attraction to the role, working with Barry Jenkins, and using acting as an experiment in empathy.

Corey Atad: You're obviously fairly new on the scene, though even up to now you've done some really interesting work with some interesting people, but I wanted to know what attracted you specifically to Moonlight.

Trevante Rhodes: Initially, when I got the script for the first time, my manager called me, she stopped, she's like, 'Yo, whatever you're doing, drop it right now because this is the most incredible thing I've ever read.' So I did, and man, it was legitimately the best thing that I ever read. You could literally see the blood, sweat, and tears that Barry put into the script. And that character was so vibrant. He was so, so vibrant, that I saw everything about him, even stuff that wasn't in the script. In the film, you would never notice it, but I have a scar on the back of my neck that I had my barber put in, just because I saw that one day someone threw a bottle at the back of Chiron's head, and now he has this scar. And it wasn't written in the script, but it was something that I saw. And I felt like the fact that I saw this person so vibrantly, I loved him, and I knew that I had to do anything and everything I could to grab this role and be a part of it.

Atad: Is that something that you're generally looking for, a vibrancy in the characters?

Rhodes: Honestly, this is the first time I've felt it. Now I have. Obviously when you have that connection to the person, I think you can do him better than anyone else. Whenever I read a script, I know whether I'd be the best at it, period, better than anyone, I know when I can do it just as well as someone else, and I know if someone else should probably do it. I feel like the more I have that feeling of 'I'm the best person for this particular role,' that's what I'm after. And I've seen it probably once since then. It is definitely something that I'm looking for, but I know that that's not always going to be the case, because the main thing people are telling me now is just like: Moonlight is an anomaly. You won't always have the luxury of, one, reading a script that touches you in such a way; two, reading a script that resonates with you; and three, having this incredible team that we had to do the movie with.

Atad: One of the interesting things about the movie is that you're really only in the last act. What was it like prepping for a role where two other actors are playing the majority of the film? Did you work with the child actors?

Rhodes: Not at all. Not at all. That was one of the interesting things that Barry did. André [Holland] and I both, we really wanted to see at least some semblance of what the younger guys were doing, to at least find a walk or a look to seamlessly make it look good. But Barry was really adamant about not allowing us to do that, because he wanted to focus on the fact that throughout your life you change so drastically depending on what happens to you. In the film he picks three distinct moments to show who this person was, is, and ultimately will be. So I think for me, to approach it, it was more about really trusting in Barry, trusting that he obviously had this idea in his mind, and trusted me with the script. The script was written in such a way that the beats in the script, there was space in between the lines that let you know that this person, he really internalizes certain things, but he didn't have the verbiage or the words to express himself. It was more in the looks that he gave.

Atad: And working with Barry, what was that like? What kind of direction does he give you?

Rhodes: Obviously I'm relatively new, so I don't know so much about directors, but in my experience, he's the best director that I've ever had, and he's such an intelligent person. I'm a very inquisitive person, and if I don't know something, I'm going to ask, and I need to know what everything does. He was just so intelligent and so caring that he literally had an answer for every question I had. Even things that weren't pertaining to the character, but moreso just the environment that Chiron lived in—he had an answer for everything. To me that was incredible. It's a unique thing, because he's very loose in his direction, but he's very concise at the same time. He knows exactly what he wants, and he gets it out of you. But as an actor he gives you space to find it yourself, which is very unique.

Trevante Rhodes in Moonlight

Atad: The majority of your time is spent on a couple of scenes with André Holland. What was that process like? Did you guys rehearse together a lot?

Rhodes: Not at all, man. You know, the unique thing about that particular relationship is that the first time I ever heard André's voice was in the call that he made in one of the first scenes that I have. That was the unique thing that Barry did, because at first he didn't even tell me who was cast in the role. He was like, 'Don't look at any of the media,' and then he tells me on the day of shooting that scene, 'I'm going to have André Holland make the call.' And André wasn't scheduled to work for like another two or three days, and André had flown himself out to Miami, and he was literally on the beach sipping o.j., but he made this call. I heard his voice for the first time, and that was the first time that Chiron had heard the adult version of Kevin, so that sensation was the same in that regard. That showed me André's heart as a person, the fact that he devoted his time to me when obviously he didn't need to, because he could've just been out enjoying Miami. And I instantly developed a love for him, for that. The first scene that we had together was the car scene, driving back from the diner, and we literally met ten minutes prior to that. So the rapport we had was just something that was natural. The dynamic we had in person, in real life, was the same as the dynamic between Chiron and Kevin. You know, André is a person who was classically trained, and he's been acting for quite some time, and I'm relatively new to it. So the person that Kevin is, Kevin is really sure of himself and his life, he knows who he is and what he wants out of life. Chiron is still trying to find that out, is trying to create that. He sees that Kevin has these things, he sees the parts of Kevin that he wants, and he sees the person that Kevin is. So that relationship that they have is kind of analogous to the relationship that I have with André, because I respect and I love the person that André is, and I want to be that kind of person.

Atad: Chiron is an interesting character, especially in that part of the film, where there's a lot that’s extremely internalized, trying to break through. How did you develop that? How did you find that internal emotion?

Rhodes: One of my best friends is homosexual, and he recently came out, so for me it was really about understanding and noticing his struggle the entire time, my entire life, and I saw the internal struggle and shame that he had in his eyes, and I could see it. And at the time I said, obviously, 'I love you,' and all these things. And also it was really walking around L.A., embodying this idea that I had to hide from everyone, so I couldn't connect with anyone. I never made eye contact with anyone, because I felt that if I did make eye contact, or if I did connect with someone they would see the insecurities within me. They would see the little boy that I was trying to hide beneath this hulking figure, this hulking masculinity, this hyper-masculinity. It's not being able to find happiness within myself, and not being able to love myself. I would see even little kids, who were just happy, and smiling, and spending time with their family, and I would hate them. I would have this disdain for them because I couldn't find that happiness within myself. I literally wanted to backhand so many little kids in L.A. because they were just so happy. It was like this heavy weight on my chest that I walked around with. It was kind of hard sometimes. I love walking around with an open heart and an open mind, really talking to people, and connecting with people. So this person was so different from that, and internalized everything. It was just a weird, unique sensation. The reason I think the movie resonates with so many people is because we all have a bit of Chiron in us, and I feel like I have five percent of Chiron. It's like Chiron is my foot, but I've got to make myself one hundred percent of that five percent, and in doing that I learned so much about myself. It was really about understanding that struggle about identity, that struggle about trying to find love, because we all want love, and then forcing myself to not have the verbiage or the means of expressing myself.

Atad: The way you describe it, it's kind of like a learning experience. Is that something that you've found, coming into acting? Not just bringing something to the character, but taking something away from the character as well?

Rhodes: That's the only reason I love doing it. I was working a little bit here and there before, but I was about to quit because it wasn't the sensation that I thought it would be. Life is a growing and learning process, and I feel being able to have the opportunity to learn more about yourself, as well as learning more about the people of the world, and society, and all these things, is just the most incredible sensation. That's one-hundred-million-thousand percent why I'm attracted to acting in the first place. I consider myself to be relatively empathetic, and I have this certain level of empathy and understanding for people that I feel like I need to live more in that. Obviously you can never be anyone but yourself, but I want to live the furthest extension of myself possible, so that I can grow as a human being, and grow as a loving human being, and try to understand people for who they are. So many of us do have this preconceived notion of who this person is just by looking at them.

Atad: So really it's an experiment in empathy.

Rhodes: One thousand percent. I don't want to do anything that doesn't give me that sensation...or, I never want to play myself. The guy that you're talking to right now? I don't want to ever do that, because I'm him everyday. And I love myself, but I've been him my entire life, so that's boring to me.

Atad: So you're looking for variety. Would you do an action movie?

Rhodes: I can't disclose it, but I'm circling one right now, and I'm sure it'll be out within the next couple of days, but yeah, I'm about to do one, I think. It's going to be great. Be ready for it, it's going to be super great.

Atad: Coming off of this film, what  kind of attention have you been getting within the industry?

Rhodes: It's respect. And that's the most incredible sensation. Doing the work at that time was the best sensation ever, but now it's like I'm living that sensation while watching other people do it. So that same sensation of doing the work is just magnified times ten, because other people are feeling what I felt, and I love to see people happy. I'm a people-pleaser, so the happiness that people are seeing, along with the respect that they're giving me for the performance—I mean, people that I respect—I can't think of anything better than that, do you know what I mean? I love my mom, but that's better than a hug from my mom, you know what I'm saying?