Moonlight: Casting of Year’s Most Original and Powerful Film

The remarkable casting of MOONLIGHT was based on director Barry Jenkins’ bold decision to show Chiron’s progression during various stages of his young life beginning at age ten and extending into his early 30s, without aging a single actor through the film’s three chapters.

This challenge required the casting team to find three distinct actors who could convey the same inner feeling across multiple years without ever meeting during the course of filming.

To bring Chiron to life in triplicate, Jenkins turned to Los Angeles based casting director Yesi Ramirez (21 JUMP STREET, BLOOD DIAMOND, LORDS OF DOGTOWN), who also hails from Miami.

In a previous career, Ramirez was studying to be a juvenile public defender and worked frequently with at-risk children in California, lending her insight into troubled youth. “That’s what pulled me into the script,” Ramirez comments. “Chiron needed someone to help him along in life. I’ve known these kids. I’ve worked with them.”

The filmmakers knew that whoever played Little needed to be a Miami local.  Jenkins and Romanski combed the streets of the city posting casting notices and going into schools and neighborhoods in search of a young man who could embody this crucial role.

Hibbert

Ultimately they discovered Hibbert and put him on tape for others to see; when Ramirez viewed the audition she was immediately impressed by the quiet curiosity and intense vulnerability that manifested itself in his very eyes.  Everyone felt confident that he was the one.

Ashton Sanders

For Chiron at age 16, Ramirez scouted teenagers all over the country, reviewing audition tapes and headshots and scanning the Internet for video clips of students who were graduating from high school performing arts programs. In the end the filmmakers chose Ashton Sanders, who Ramirez first discovered during one of her numerous Los Angeles casting sessions.  Sanders had appeared in a previous independent film and had a brief role in STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON, but he stood out for his stillness and impassivity, crucial attributes for Chiron in the film’s second chapter.

Trevante Rhodes, a former track and field star from Louisiana who was discovered by a casting agent on his Texas college campus and immediately cast in a Nicolas Cage film, had originally read for the role of the adult Kevin in the film’s third chapter. But his reading was interrupted by the casting team, including Ramirez, Jenkins and Romanski, when it dawned on everyone at once that the muscular, intensely masculine Rhodes was more suited for the role of Black, Chiron’s street-savvy adult incarnation.

The relatively unknown actor shot into a lead role that required him to carry the weight of all three Chirons. “It’s not often as a casting director that I feel so strongly about an actor just by him walking in the room, but Trevante was special,” Ramirez recounts. “In addition to his masculinity, he possessed that vulnerability we needed so crucially for the audience to feel something for this character.”

The three Chirons connect seamlessly across the three
chapters despite the fact that Hibbert, Sanders and Rhodes don’t entirely resemble one another, and never met during filming.

“We got lucky because we found the best actors for each part,” Ramirez says. “But they also had the common thread that pulled the three different stages together, which was an intense vulnerability. Each actor could express it in his eyes, helping to create a complete picture of this character’s life.”

Jenkins says: “You don’t see black males on screen where they’re just allowed to emote instead of talking or being active all the time. All three actors were great at emoting.”

For Rhodes the biggest challenge inhabiting Chiron as an adult came in staying true to the character’s deeply concealed emotional core despite physical “armor” like muscles and grills, and a decidedly opaque street name.

“Black is an introverted, troubled man who is hiding his true self from the world because he’s frightened of letting people know who he really is,” explains Rhodes. “The title MOONLIGHT refers to shining light in the darkness or illuminating things you’re afraid to show. Everybody in life has had a struggle like Chiron’s at some point, whether it’s for a short period of time or an entire lifetime. Anyone who insists they haven’t put up a façade is living in some kind of darkness.”

MOONLIGHT is a story about masculinity and how it’s expressed in a specific community like the Liberty City housing project in Miami, where much of the movie was filmed.

In this milieu, criminal life routinely overlaps with everyday domestic life and paternal figures come to take on the ambiguous qualities of provider and supplier.

Juan: Local Drug Leader and Mentor

For Juan, the local drug dealer who takes Chiron under his wing while quietly supplying his mother with crack cocaine, the role required an actor who appeared ferocious on the surface but harbored kindness and nurturing underneath.

“There are so many different layers to a character like Juan,” Jenkins explains. “I’m examining black masculinity in this movie, but on a deeper level I’m exploring inner city impoverished black masculinity. We needed someone who could be menacing one moment and extremely caring the next.”

The filmmakers found their Juan in the Oakland-born stage and screen actor Mahershala
Ali, whose most visible role to date is playing the lobbyist and former press secretary Remy Danton on Netflix’s “House of Cards,” and whose other works include this year’s FREE STATE OF JONES, THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY and Netflix’s forthcoming “MARVEL’s Luke Cage” series.  Romanski had just finished working with Ali on another production, Justin Tipping’s KICKS, and had been deeply impressed with his work; while filming she thought of him for the role of Juan, and mentioned to him she had a project she was hoping to share with him as soon as it was ready.

In an astonishing performance, Ali in the guise of Juan imparts valuable information to Chiron that helps him survive inside and out through the years — until he comes to embody a version of Juan in his adult life. “He’s the father figure to Little, which is important because you want to feel like Little has someone guiding him through life,” Ramirez explains. “There’s also this dangerous level to Juan, which isn’t what you associate with paternal figures. Mahershala is a very intense, emotional actor, but he also has this ability to comfort.”

Andre Holland as Adult Kevin

Showing a different side of masculinity in the quietly explosive third chapter of MOONLIGHT is the actor André Holland (“The Knick,” SELMA, 42), whose luminous and serene performance as the adult Kevin brings a sense of comfort and ease that ultimately helps Chiron emerge from his shell. Early in the casting process Holland — who has appeared in several of McCraney’s plays, including the Brother/Sister trilogy — was considered for the role of Juan. But the multi-faceted stage and screen actor submitted an audition tape as Kevin that reduced the casting team to tears, making it instantly clear where the performer’s strengths were best utilized. “André is so comfortable in his skin as an actor, signaling a way out for Chiron through his openness and giving nature,” Jenkins explains. “Black is thrown a lifeline by the one person he’s allowed himself to be intimate with, and through André’s soulfulness, he attains a kind of freedom. Kevin is saying to his old friend, I’m not going to push you, I’m not going to force you, I’m just going to offer you this light…”

The last of the male actors to be cast in MOONLIGHT proved to be the most difficult, due to the frank sexuality depicted in the film’s second chapter between teenage friends Kevin–who is more experienced–and Chiron, who is only beginning to grapple with his sexuality.

Ramirez auditioned hundreds of actors for the promiscuous, freewheeling Kevin, rappers, musicians, up-and-coming actors and non-professionals . Nearing production, in a state of desperation, she turned to the Internet and found upstart actor Jharrel Jerome in the theater program of LaGuardia High School of the Performing Arts in New York City, where he was just graduating.

“A lot of great actors come out of that school and he had already turned 18,” Ramirez explains. “It was a relief to find someone we really liked instead of having to settle.”