Q&A with André Holland, Mahershala Ali, Janelle Monáe, Naomie Harris, Trevante Rhodes, and Barry Jenkins

The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of Moonlight. 

The film has gorgeous cinematography and a beautiful score rooted in classical music. Can you talk about conceiving the look and sound of the film?
Barry Jenkins: When you grow up in a certain kind of place, you contextualize it. So to me, Miami is this very beautiful place. The grass is green, there’s a big sky, and open sun. The neighborhood that we shot in had these beautiful pastel colors that were faded, but they took on this new meaning with this aged look. The score was composed by Nicholas Britell in his private studio near Lincoln Center. One of the beautiful things that Nick did was take my note of not wanting this beautiful classical score to be placed on top of the hood. I wanted to fuse the two things, so he started “chopping and screwing” the orchestra, which is what you hear.

Can you talk about what drew you to your roles?
Trevante Rhodes: The script is first and foremost incredible. I didn’t really have any reservation about the character, but in reading I loved how afraid of himself he was. We all have that at one point or another. I love how he hated himself because he couldn’t find the happiness that he saw in other people, so he hated them as well.

Naomie Harris: I didn’t want to play the part initially because I made a decision to represent women, black women in particular, in a positive light. I initially had difficulty relating to Paula, but then it became a way for me to overcome any judgments of her. Paula is actually a beautiful person who is damaged and she is full of incredible love. The journey of being able to learn how to express love to her son was great. I wanted to portray all of the layers to her, so despite that she’s overcome by this demon of drugs there is still this sensitive, caring, and loving woman underneath her.

Janelle Monáe: I read the script and had a visceral reaction to it. I cried because I knew all of these characters from people I knew. I wanted to make sure that I got on board to be an ally to the LGBT community. Teresa is very near and dear to my heart because she reminded me of my older cousins who would never judge me. They were that constant shoulder that was leaned on. I wanted to make sure that Chiron could come to my house and whatever state he was in he could talk to me.

Mahershala Ali: I hadn’t seen this story before that’s had the camera pointed at these people. What was surprising for me is that there were people that I knew and grew up with in the Bay Area. Filling the shoes and stepping into the role of the mentor was great. Juan sees Chiron as an outsider and takes it upon himself to help him because he recognizes what that is and means.

Andre Holland: I was friends with Tarell McCraney [writer] before and had already done a bunch of his plays. With this script, I found that he does a great job of marrying the everyday of his life with this classical elegance.

What is your process with cinematography? Do you storyboard?
Jenkins: I don’t storyboard. I don’t like to control everything. I do prepare a shot list though, which I then throw out the window once I get to location. I’m not making the script. I’m making what’s in front of me. If I try to force what’s in front of me to become the script, then we have a problem especially with this schedule and budget. When we got to the diner it really does feel different and it’s not that it’s more choreographed. I think the way that we were revealing time at that point has changed and the two longest shots of the film are when he pulls up to the diner, gets out, puts on his shirt, and walks in. When he gets inside, we are just with him until he and Andre have those close-ups. At this point we watch a man reveal himself in real time.

Q&A with Justin Chadwick, Anant Singh, Idris Elba, and Naomie Harris

The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.

Would you have made the film any other way, looking back?

Singh: Having been in this industry for a long time, trying to get movies made is very challenging under any circumstances. It’s difficult trying to tell stories from South Africa, to get those stories distributed, and to get people to see them. In my past experiences, whenever studios and organizations get involved in the production, whether it’s in the US or in Europe, they want to be involved in every aspect, which is understandable. But as a South African, and as a producer who wanted to tell this story, I always felt it was very important that we were able to keep that creative integrity, which is a commitment I made to Mr. Mandela. And you can’t really do that if you have outside partners involved at every stage. So in this film the challenge was even more immense, because to do justice to the story you had to have an even more epic scale. The budget of the film was 35 million dollars, but if a studio were doing the exact same film it would cost over 100 million. We shot the film, and I think it’s great that people responded to it. People like Harvey Weinstein and the Weinstein Company have embraced it, and now our partners here and all throughout the world are helping us deliver a film that we are proud of.

“We were completely free to make the movie in the way that we chose.”

Chadwick: We were completely free to make the movie in the way that we chose. For Naomie and Idris and myself, knowing that Mandela and his family and comrades were actually part of the development, we thought they might want us to do certain things. The Mandela Foundation looks after the legacy of Mandela, maybe they want certain things, but it was absolutely the opposite. They said, “Show him as the man, flaws and all, and show her as the woman, flaws and all; be truthful. The archive is open to you, we’ll help you in whatever way.” They never asked to look at a script or said we couldn’t do something, as long as it was coming from a place of truth. I’ve been on the other side of that in Hollywood. So this was completely liberating for us, because we could tell the story we wanted to tell.

Is there anything you found incredible or remarkable when doing your research for the role of Winnie Mandela?

Harris: It was all massively surprising for me, because I didn’t actually know who Winnie was when I actually signed up to do the part. When Anant asked me to be part of this film about Mandela, I thought, how amazing, a celebration of Mandela’s life. He’s such an extraordinary individual and it’s so important that the world never forgets this man. So I thought that Winnie was a supporter, the wife who stood by and supported him. I didn’t realize she was an integral part of the anti-apartheid movement, and ultimately Mandela may never have become the Mandela that we know without Winnie. She was so important to the Free Nelson Mandela campaign, and she is an activist in her own right, and all of that was a complete revelation to me. It just made it even more important to me that her story be told, because I think so often when we remember these great men, we forget the women.

Did you ever feel like it was too much of a burden to try to portray these characters, because they are so polarizing and large?

Harris: Definitely in the beginning. It was without a doubt the biggest challenge I’d ever taken on as an actor. It felt like a huge sense of responsibility, and I’d never played a role where people had been so opinionated about it. One of the joys of acting for me is to be free, to create, and I felt very straitjacketed in the beginning. The greatest and most liberating thing about meeting Winnie was that she said, “You’re the right person for this, go for it. You can do this.” That’s ultimately what you want. So it’s mammoth, but in that sense of responsibility as well comes the joy, because we have the honor of representing these incredibly iconic figures who influenced not just the history of South Africa, but the history of the world.

Elba: I never really felt burdened. I felt that we shared the responsibility, but the responsibility became the drive to get it right. We used that responsibility and took care of it like a baby, like somebody had handed us their child and said, “Look after this child.” It informed every decision we made, even though we had a very particular lens and point of view, we took on everyone’s point of view, because it was our responsibility to at least have it in our palette.

Chadwick: It was energizing. We all were aware of it, but when you start a project like that you just have to make it true, and real. That was every day – make sure we catch the detail and the truth in every scene. I was driving everybody mad, because I was going, “This is the most important scene of the movie, this one now that we’re doing.” “But you said that about the other scene we did this morning!” “Yeah, but this is REALLY the most important…” There was no scene we could leave behind without nailing.