"It's a revolutionary time for black art and black cinema," says Ashton Sanders, one of the breakout stars from Moonlight, the 2016 film that won (after a historic mixup) the Best Picture Oscar at the Academy Awards. The 21-year old-actor deserves credit for creating one of this decade's most indelible movie moments: As the high school-aged Chiron in Moonlight, he shared a kiss with his crush, Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), giving rapturous release to a lifetime of repressed longing and desire.
But Sanders, he reminds us, is not the same person as Chiron. "That's acting," he tells Rolling Stone, his smile practically audible over the telephone line. Chiron may have embodied teenage awkwardness, but the real-life Sanders is effusively gregarious, with an appealing deep-seated voice and an easy chuckle.
An extended conversation with the Southern California native reveals that he's heavily involved in the mechanics of his craft. He spends a lot of time doing what he calls "bookwork," or analyzing his scripts, as well as research on the era in which his characters live. "I try to get a full understanding of my character – what their life is, how they feel on the day-to-day," he says. He'll send images and songs to his phone that he can look at to get himself in the right mood. Since every character is different, he adds, "It's a different process every time, not one and the same." He admires the work ethic and passion that Will Smith, Denzel Washington, Don Cheadle, Sidney Poitier and his Moonlight co-star Mahershala Ali bring to their performances.
Sanders recently completed work on Captive State, a sci-fi thriller scheduled for next summer. Executive-produced by Steven Spielberg and directed by Rupert Wyatt (Rise of the Planet of the Apes), it finds him battling an extraterrestrial occupying force in Chicago alongside an ensemble that includes veterans John Goodman and Vera Farmiga plus relative newcomers like Madeline Brewer (Orange is the New Black) and rapper/actor Machine Gun Kelly (Beyond the Lights). Captive State, says Sanders, "is a metaphor and a reflection on the Trump administration right now." When asked to elaborate, Sanders politely declines, saying simply, "I want to use my art and do films that reflect what's going on, and that influence change and inspire people to stand up for what's right in our country."
To that end, he proudly recounts his impressive career so far, including his first major role in the well-received 2013 indie film The Retrieval; and a small but pivotal scene in last year's acclaimed Straight Outta Compton as a high school jokester who carelessly throws up Crip signs, resulting in near-tragic consequences. "My first film was The Retrieval, which took place in 1864. It was a story of how slaves would trick other slaves to be sold back into slavery. Compton was a pivotal part of hip-hop culture. Moonlight was a pivotal part of breaking boundaries in the black community, and in the world of sexuality. And Captive State is a reflection on our current administration."
But Sanders' interests aren't strictly limited to acting. He's also into fashion, and hopes to produce and direct films in the future. "My Instagram is pretty popping," he adds, although he ultimately doesn't have much time for social media.
"There's so much going on," says Sanders of the whirlwind generated by Moonlight and beyond. "It's been so crazy. This has all been such a blessing and so surreal. I literally have everything I always wanted or worked for, man. It's coming into fruition."