Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight is one of the heavyweights in this year’s Academy Awards race, racking up eight nominations. The film was the first movie for Jenkins in eight years, and provided particular challenges due to limited funding and time. One way he overcame those obstacles and made his movie unique was by casting non-actors alongside actors, something he discussed with Ringer editor-in-chief Sean Fennessey.
Listen to the full podcast here. This transcript has been edited and condensed.
Using Non-Actors Creates Art You Couldn’t Have Anticipated Otherwise
Sean Fennessey: Every single person that I work with has asked me to ask you about the cast. They love every single person in your film. It’s obviously an interesting combination of professionals — people we’ve seen before — and people we’ve never seen before. I know you’ve talked a bit about how the first person that we see on camera is not a professional actor, it was somebody from Liberty City. How do you go about finding the people that are not Mahershala Ali or Janelle Monáe?
Barry Jenkins: You watch Fight Club and Brad Pitt is Tyler Durden but Tyler Durden is Brad Pitt. You can have suspension of disbelief but it only goes so far [and] at the end of the day you’re watching Brad Pitt.
When people saw [the character Chiron], I wanted them to legitimately walk a mile in his shoes and I thought the best way to do that was to have [them] see his face for the first time. Especially because we have these different iterations of our main character. I wanted every time you see this guy for it to feel like the first time you’re seeing him. So we knew we were going to cast, not non-actors, but less-known [actors] for those main parts.
One of my favorite filmmakers in film school … was this filmmaker named Lynne Ramsay, who made these movies Ratcatcher and Morvern Callar, and the Criterion DVD of Ratcatcher has her short films. So as a student filmmaker, you’re trying to watch as many great short films as possible, and she was very open about blending actors and non-actors and how sometimes a trained actor [has] this muscle memory. If I respond to this actor in a certain way I can anticipate he’s going to respond this way. When you pair an actor with a non-actor, that muscle memory goes out of the window, you can’t rely on those tricks.
Look. I’ve gone eight years without making a film — I didn’t want to play it safe. I wanted to actually push myself, and I thought there’s a version of blending actors and non-actors that does not work but then there’s a version that works when you get this thing that you can’t anticipate or create otherwise. And so you’re right, the opening of the film, the first face you see is Mahershala Ali, but then you’re watching two non-actors basically carry the whole scene.
How Jenkins Casts and Uses Non-Actors
Jenkins: We just went to Miami over and over again for about, I want to say 12, 16 months, and we would go to this community center and say, "Hey come on in, talk to us and to me." The casting process was as much just like I’m talking to you, I would talk to these people and then we give the scene and see how they did. I was looking for this feeling that they could be truthful in front of the camera.
Fennessey: Is the pretense of that conversation, "Do you want to be in a movie?"
Jenkins: No, what it usually started with was, "So what are you doing with your life?" And then we would build this idea of being in a movie. Because I didn’t want them to feel like they were going to be in a movie. I wanted them to feel like we were there to capture their life. If I take them out of their world and place them in the movie, then I’m getting something false, whereas if I bring [the movie] into their world now I’m getting something real.
That opening scene is a perfect example. There’s four or five lines that are in the script and then the guy … 80 percent of it is just him behaving as he would on the corner because he has spent time on the corner. If I’m trying to write these things … maybe that would be cool but it’s [not] going to be as lived in as allowing somebody to walk into the film and be themselves.
Fennessey: When you’re working with actors do you do line readings? Do you guys rehearse? Do you do a lot of that work, or is it a much more open environment?
Jenkins: On this film it had to be a much more open environment. The script is the script and so everybody ran their lines and prepared, but we literally could not afford to have rehearsals; we couldn’t afford to pay the actors to come out early for rehearsal, so this is a very present-tense film. Everything happened in the moment. Then I think the way the audience experiences the movie also is in the present tense. There’s no flashbacks or flash-forwards. If things happen offscreen, we don’t tell the audience those [things] happened offscreen. You have to feel, in the present tense, the performance of the actor that something happened offscreen. So it was a very method process of working with the actors and we tried to, whenever we could, bend those things to our will.
If you’ve seen the film, there’s a scene very late in the movie where Naomie Harris and Trevante Rhodes have their only scene together. Naomie plays this mom character who’s been to hell and back and then we have this scene where she’s kind of come out the other side. And Trevante Rhodes and Naomie Harris had never met but I have this character who hasn’t seen his mom in what feels like a quite a long time and they’re doing this scene. And Naomie Harris doesn’t smoke but the character she’s playing does. She’s trying to light this cigarette and she can’t get it lit. And it’s like maybe her hands are shaking, it’s windy and I tell Trevante offscreen without her hearing, "Hey, when she can’t light the cigarette, I want you to reach over, take it from her, light it and give it back." It’s the first time Trevante touches Naomie Harris and it’s with this gesture. He’s trying to take care of her and he gives her this thing that she needs to calm her nerves, and when he did it, she just started shaking, these tears came. The scene is meant to function as an apology, but the apology is not written into the screenplay and so she just opened up and she said, "I’m sorry."
The whole process of making the film was about trying to get these actors to know where the flash points were, where the raw sort of openness was, and then use their unfamiliarity with each other to sort of tap into that vulnerability. It goes back to the idea of blending actors and non-actors. You can’t anticipate what the response is going to be because we haven’t rehearsed. So let’s use that shit. Let’s surprise people.