Hollywood's Next Big Thing: 'Moonlight's' Trevante Rhodes Goes From Track Star to Toronto Film Fest
The actor, starring in Barry Jenkins' coming-of-age drama about a gay man in drug-addled Miami, says he wasn't intimidated by the role: "As an actor you want to do everything."
Raised just north of Dallas, Texas, where his mom worked as an accountant for an oil and gas company, Trevante Rhodes dreamed of being a petroleum landman, the middle man between the oil companies and the landowners. “They were the most successful people I was positioned around in Texas, and that’s the best possible thing I saw myself being,” he says.
Instead, while studying at UT Austin on a track and field scholarship, Rhodes was working out on campus when he was discovered by a casting agent. He moved to L.A. three years ago, booking roles on Tyler Perry’s OWN series If Loving You Is Wrong and Terrence Malick’s Weightless before landing the lead in Barry Jenkins’ Toronto entry Moonlight, A24's coming-of-age drama about Chiron, a gay man growing up in drug-addled Miami. Told from three points in the man’s life, Rhodes plays the oldest version of Chiron, a man trying to come out after years of struggle and torment.
Rhodes, 26, who worked as a waiter at the commissary at The Lot in West Hollywood until recently, initially auditioned for the role of Kevin, Chiron’s childhood friend who develops into a love interest. “Not even half way through the audition, Barry stops me and he says, ‘I want you to read for the other role,’” says Rhodes. “That was the role I had initially had gravitated toward.” Ahead of the film's Telluride and Toronto debuts, Rhodes spoke to THR about what resonated with him in Moonlight, the actors he admires and his secret talent.
Were films a part of your life growing up?
I always loved watching films. I’ve always been active, pretending I was a Power Ranger or a Ninja Turtle. I remember watching Toy Story, I think that was one of my first movies. I think the first time I cried watching a movie was [2001’s] Hardball when G-baby (DeWayne Warren) died. My brother’s name is G and he looked just like him.
What do you enjoy about acting?
I enjoy learning about other people. I really didn’t understand that until Moonlight. I was fortunate enough to do a few things here and there but I didn’t find acting to be something that I loved until moments in Moonlight. There would be moments where I felt like I was this person and I knew this person’s struggle.
What resonated to you about the story of Moonlight?
To me, it’s a true love story. And what resonated with me is that at a younger age I struggled with identity because I didn’t know myself. I knew who I wanted to be, and I knew what I wanted the world to think I was, but I didn’t know who I was. I think everybody at some point goes through that.
This film explores being gay in the black community. How did you approach playing a gay character?
For me, it’s part of the project, but the story is really about Chiron finding who he is, and finding love. The fact that he was homosexual just added to the beauty of the story for me. And a lot of the guys who I really look up to in the industry have done this, and as an actor you want to do everything. So, to have the opportunity to delve into that so early is really cool.
What actors do you admire?
Obviously there are the greats: Denzel [Washington], Robert De Niro, Leonardo DiCaprio. Right now, someone I’m paying attention to is Jake Gyllenhaal. I think he’s doing the best work — every little nuance that he brings to every character is incredible.
Rhodes, wearing a Brunello Cucinelli suit, was photographed Aug. 19 at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles.
Did you spend time with Andre Holland, who stars as Chiron’s main love interest, before shooting?
Not at all. I think that was the genius of what Barry did. I really didn’t know who was cast in the role for a while and then when I was told, I didn’t speak to him. I hadn’t even seen anything that Andre had been in. So then there was this great moment when we shot the first scene where we talk on the phone, and that was the first time I had heard his voice in real life. It was great because so much time had passed for those characters, and his voice would be different than when they [knew each other as] children. Andre is such a great person, and I found that he was truthful with himself. And we’re transparent people so it was easy to mesh and find that familiarity.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
When I was 8 years old, I saw the Olympics for the first time, and I said I wanted to be the fastest man in the world. My mother said, “You’ll never be the fastest man in the world because there’s people in Kenya, there’s people in Jamaica, there’s people in Africa running because they want to eat. Until you want something like you want to eat, you’ll never be incredibly proficient at it.” That’s something that’s stuck with me. Everything I want, I do it like it’s the last thing.
Diversity has been a big topic for the past year. How do you feel about the inclusion of more diversity in Hollywood?
I’m very optimistic. People are actively trying to seek out new talent of color. I think the past year specifically has been insane for not just people of color but women. Everything that I’m seeing is great. The last three projects that I’ve done have been by African-American directors, so it’s a great thing.
Have you had any very “Hollywood" moments in your career yet?
It’s just happening now. Every day someone comes up to me in the gym and says “You’re in that Moonlight trailer!” And they want to take pictures. I’m just working out and people who are affected by the work are showing their appreciation and their gratitude for it — and that’s just the trailer. They haven’t even seen the movie yet. It’s incredible; that’s awesome to me.
Do you have any secret talents?
I can eat a lot of pizza. And I can cook. I’m from New Orleans, so it’s just in my blood.
Do you have a signature dish?
Crawfish Etouffee. My grandmother taught me how to cook it.
What’s next for you?
I’m trying to find the next thing that strikes a chord like Moonlight did. Moonlight was something that I had to do. I’d never felt that before. That’s what I’m looking for.
Born: Ponchatoula, Louisiana
Big break: Tyler Perry series If Loving You Is Wrong
Reps: CAA, GSA Entertainment, Jackoway Tyerman
A version of this story first appeared in the Sept. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.