Rapid Round: 'Moonlight's' Andre Holland on Black Masculinity and Diversity on Film

Andre Holland - Public Theater Gala - Getty - H - 2016
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"We don't need to build any more walls. We need to invite some more people to the table," says Holland, who stars in Barry Jenkins' coming-of-age drama.

Moonlight, part coming-of-age tale and part romantic drama, tells the story of Chiron, a young black boy navigating his destructive home life and his own sexuality against the backdrop of War on Drugs-era Miami.

Since the movie premiered at the Telluride Film Festival, it has been lauded as an awards season contender. Arriving in theaters in New York and Los Angeles today, a little over two weeks before the presidential election, Moonlight also speaks to topics like race and socioeconomic status that have been talking points in this election cycle.

Actor Andre Holland, who plays Kevin, Chiron's romantic interest, didn't need an introduction to Tarell McCraney, the playwright who's short play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue inspired the movie — the two have been friends since their drama school days in New York. And he'd heard of Moonlight's director Barry Jenkins from Steven Soderbergh, while he was acting in Soderbergh's The Knick.

Holland spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about what Moonlight means to him on a personal level, what it means for diverse storytelling and what the movie has to say about the larger political climate in America right now.

How did you initially get involved with Moonlight?

The playwright Tarell McCraney, who wrote the play that the movie is based on, is a very close friend of mine. We met probably 10 years ago when we both were in drama school and he sent me a copy of his script, saying, “This is a thing I wrote a long time ago. I don’t know if it’s any good." Cut to last year. I was on set for The Knick and Steven Soderbergh mentioned, "There’s this great director Barry Jenkins. You should really keep an eye on this guy." A couple of months later I got sent this script that was written by Barry, and Tarell and I thought, "Well, if that ain't a sign, I don't what is."

What set Moonlight apart from the other scripts you've been sent?

The big thing that set it apart was that the black characters of the story were front and center. They weren’t peripheral characters that were just there to deliver information. Also, being from a small town in an urban environment myself, I love that the story is set in a part of Miami that most people aren’t familiar with. Most people think of Miami as great shopping and fast cars, but this part of Miami is just a short ways off the beach, but it’s world apart.

What drew you to Kevin specifically? Did you draw from personal experience for your performance?

Well, so much of the story and especially the story about Kevin is about masculinity and the perceived ideas that we all have about what that is. Growing up in my town a lot of my friends grew up without fathers or without father figures. I felt first-hand all the ways in which we all tried to perform this masculinity, this idea of masculinity as a means of survival, really. What drew me to Kevin is that he’s got this idea that masculinity is about how many women he can sleep with or having a tough-guy attitude and being smooth-talking, but you always get a sense that underneath that there’s something broken about him.

Were you able to meet the two young actors who played the younger versions of Kevin?

Barry wouldn’t let us meet any of the younger people. I went down about a week early for that purpose. I wanted to go on set and watch the dailies and spend some time with the younger actors, but he really didn’t want us to do that.

Why was that?

I think in his mind he was worried that we would fall into mimicry. In actor terms he wanted us to work from the inside out to get really underneath what these characters experienced and just trust the writing and the directing. But it was super cool to watch the movie and, even though we didn’t spend a lot of time studying one another, it does feel like we are the same person.

You’ve worked with Soderbergh and Ava DuVernay. How do you think Jenkins compares as an up-and-coming voice?

I think he’s just a treasure. He hasn’t made a bunch of films, but you know I think that with Moonlight, he’s arrived now. The fact that it’s been seven years since he’s made a feature is almost criminal. He and Soderbergh actually remind me a lot of each other, in that they’re both very clear about what they want. They’re truly collaborators; they understand that actors have a process and they both give the actors space to do what they need to do. If I only work with Barry Jenkins for the rest of my career I would be just fine with that, that’s how strongly I feel about him. 

Moonlight is already getting early awards buzz — what do you think this means for the current push for diversity in the awards season?

At best, what [awards] do is provide a platform to amplify voices of people who haven't been heard before. So if this means that Barry gets to make more movies, then bring on the awards. As far as the diversity conversation, I think it is about opportunity. Companies like [Moonlight production company] Plan B and [distributor] A24, who are able to identify material like this and talent like Barry Jenkins and who are willing to make a movie like this, they have landed a huge blow to aid the side of more inclusion. The fact is, as Viola Davis said, the only thing separating us is opportunity. If people know that there are places and opportunities to tell these stories, then I don't think we'd even be having this conversation.

Moonlight is being released at the tail end of a presidential race that pushed LGBT and racial discrimination to the forefront. Where do you think the film fits into the larger culture?

While the movie is not overtly political, it has a lot to say. The performances of masculinity that we see in the film, we see a lot of that on a daily basis in this election cycle. Also, between this election and the Brexit vote and all of the things in the news, the motivation seems to be to further marginalize people who we don't think of as being integral to the society that we want to be a part of. I think this movie has a lot to say about that because it takes those people who have been marginalized — poor people, black people, gay people — and it puts them front and center. And I think we need more of that, frankly. We need more understanding of each other. We don't need to build any more walls. We need to invite some more people to the table.