Moonlight: Masculinity and Maternal Figures–Biological and Surrogate

Balancing out the exploration of masculinity in Moonlight is a pair of roles by women that are disparate yet similar.

They encompass different sides of motherhood and brought to life with unifying passion by a big-screen newcomer and a seasoned professional.

Naomie Harris as Biological Mother

British actress Naomie Harris plays Chiron’s mother Paula during three stages in a frenzied life ravaged by drug addiction. In the first chapter, Paula is a seemingly overprotective single mother who tries to shield her son from the local drug dealer Juan. In the second chapter, she is a full-fledged addict, neglecting Chiron’s needs in the service of her next fix. In the final chapter, she reconciles with the adult Chiron after years of estrangement.

Harris had hovered on Ramirez’s casting radar since the early 2000’s, when the actress drew raves for her visceral work in Danny Boyle’s 28 DAYS LATER, a role that required both physical and emotional expression.

“I’ve never watched any of her movies thinking that’s Naomie simply playing a role,” Ramirez comments. “She truly embodies every character she plays, whether it’s a detective in AFTER THE SUNSET or a seafaring goddess in the PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN movies. That quality was important for Paula because you have to believe this woman is going through these struggles — and at the same time sympathize with her because she’s a single working mother with a young son.”

For Harris, a Cambridge-educated actress who doesn’t drink, smoke or use drugs, it was an emotionally wrenching experience to immerse herself into such a troubled and complex character. “I had to make up a lot of her story in my mind to bring her to life,” Harris says. “Paula is a working woman who isn’t just dabbling in drugs. She’s severely addicted and over time becomes a crack addict. She constantly chooses her addiction over her own son. One of the most important things in playing any character is learning to empathize with her. You have to find a deep connection and understanding for the choices made by someone like Paula in order to bring her thoroughly and effectively to life.”

Harris prepared for the role by studying the lives and mannerisms of drug addicts from the era of Jenkins’ and McCraney’s childhood, when crack use in the United States was at its apex. Many of the addicts were women who also dabbled in prostitution or had experienced sexual abuse. “They used drugs to numb themselves against the deep emotional wounds and trauma they’d been through,” Harris explains. “You could see how much the drugs transformed them, and how the real person inside became deeply hidden. I found it much easier to empathize with Paula when I could see her as someone locked deep within herself.”

Janelle Monae as Surrogate Mother

In contrast to Paula’s frequently agitated state is the quietly serene, almost saintly Teresa, Juan’s live-in girlfriend who becomes a surrogate mother to Chiron during his formative years. Casting Teresa was another challenge for Ramirez, who adhered to the script and began looking for Latina actors to fill what was originally written to be a CubanAmerican character. “We also thought this would be a great opportunity for someone to come in and play a role that was unexpected,” Ramirez explains. Producer Jeremy Kleiner urged the casting team to consider someone outside the box, in keeping with the film’s defiantly uncategorizable nature. Ramirez put together an extensive list of unconventional choices, and having looked to the music world to fill other roles thought of Janelle Monáe.

An incandescent R&B performer who is frequently compared to James Brown, Monáe showed a different side of her kinetic stage persona after she read for Ramirez on another project. “She surprised me,” Ramirez says. “She was so emotional, and had this terrific range.” The casting team was impressed by the chameleonic singer’s ability to convey quiet and subdued — not to mention nurturing. “It was so important for Teresa to feel maternal and calming,” Ramirez adds. “Because Paula doesn’t fulfill that role for Chiron.”