Trevante Rhodes could not seem less like Chiron (pronounced shy-RONE), the conflicted man he plays in “Moonlight.” Directed by Barry Jenkins, the story of a young man’s struggle with his sexuality is one of the year’s very best movies.
Instead of quiet and internal and reserved, the 26-year-old Rhodes strides — almost bounds — into the room at the Hotel Van Zandt where he is conducting interviews. The University of Texas graduate moves like the athlete he was in high school and college, all warm, charismatic energy.
Rhodes was born in Louisiana but grew up around the Dallas area before heading to UT. Perhaps like many Texans who head to Los Angeles to seek their fortune in the entertainment industry, Rhodes said he misses Austin’s food the most.
“Nothing’s better than Tex-Mex,” Rhodes said. “I’m in L.A., and it is not the same. We do not have Juan in a Million, which is where we would go after (track) practice on Sunday. We don’t have a Kolache Factory, either. I loved that place.”
Rhodes didn’t get into acting until his second-to-last semester in college. “I took Intro to Theater to exhaust a degree requirement,” he said.
While he was in the middle of the course, he was noticed by a casting director looking to populate a film.
“I am someone who will do anything twice,” Rhodes said. “So I took her card.” He showed it to his theater professor, who urged him to follow through.
“I went to the audition,” Rhodes said. “And I was terrible. But I knew that at some point I wanted the opportunity to be good at it.”
He got involved with the Austin film community and headed to Los Angeles as soon as he graduated in 2013, landing small roles in the TV show “Gang Related,” Terrence Malick’s “Weightless” and a larger part in “If Loving You is Wrong,” a Tyler Perry production on OWN.
But the part of Chiron is by far his largest role to date. Rhodes auditioned like any other actor.
“My manager called me and said, ‘This is the best thing I’ve ever read, stop what you are doing and read it,’” he said. “So I did, and it was legitimately the best thing I have ever read.”
Rhodes originally auditioned for the role of Kevin, Chiron’s one-time high school friend (we see both characters at various stages of life.) A few minutes into Rhodes’ reading, Jenkins got other ideas.
“Barry was in the room and said, ‘I’m gonna bring you back tomorrow and let you read for the other role.’” Two auditions later, Rhodes was Chiron.
“When I booked the role,” Rhodes said, “I called Barry and asked him a bit about the character, and he said ‘I wrote him and I wash my hands of him; he’s yours. Whatever you see, bring that to life, and obviously I will help you, but he’s yours.’ Barry would let you know if you were within the strike zone but would also give you the freedom to really inhabit the role.”
Rhodes paused and laughed. “And we also had to do it within four or five takes, because we were moving fast. You shoot in Miami, you never know when it is going to suddenly pour.”
So Rhodes started adding little details. He had the makeup folks shave a small scar into the back of his neck. “I (thought of) this scar on him, where Paula (Chiron’s mother, played by Naomi Harris) threw a bottle,” he said. “It wasn’t in the script, but I saw that about him. He is this beautifully flawed individual, so insecure. I’ve felt those same emotions. The context was different, but I’ve felt the way he does. I loved everything about him.”
And Rhodes wants to make it clear he and the two other actors playing Chiron as a child and a teen (Alex Hibbert and Ashton Sanders) had no contact with one another.
“I mean, zero time together,” Rhodes said. “Barry didn’t want us to mimic what they were doing. Because throughout out lives, we do change so much. And regarding Chiron, Barry wanted to show how this person specifically, given what happened to him, molded himself into someone completely different from what he was as a kid.”
Nor did he spend any time with André Holland, who plays Kevin as an adult. “The first time I ever heard André’s voice was when he calls Chiron for the first time in 20 years, and even then I didn’t know that was happening until Barry told me about 10 minutes before we shot the scene,” he said.
Rhodes didn’t meet Holland in person until a few minutes before they shot their first scene together.
“I think Barry wanted to keep all those sensations real,” Rhodes said.
Throughout “Moonlight,” they absolutely are.