‘Moonlight’ actor ran right into opportunity of a lifetime

Andre Holland as Kevin and Trevante Rhodes as Chiron in ‘Moonlight’
Andre Holland as Kevin and Trevante Rhodes as Chiron in ‘Moonlight’

Trevante Rhodes is the second North Texan this movie season to be able to tell the ultimate Hollywood fantasy story of being discovered while just going about your daily life.

The first was Frisco’s Sasha Lane, the star of the acclaimed indie flick American Honey, who was found by director Andrea Arnold while partying in Panama City, Fla., during spring break. Rhodes, from Little Elm, was stopped by a casting agent while jogging when he was a student and track-and-field athlete at the University of Texas at Austin.

That turned into an audition for the 2014 Nicolas Cage drama Joe. He didn’t land the role, but it put him on the path to where he is today: starring in the indie hit Moonlight, one of the most ecstatically reviewed films of the year, with a Rotten Tomatoes score of 99 percent.

Divided into three chapters and based on screenwriter Tarell McCraney’s semiautobiographical play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, the film, directed by Barry Jenkins, follows the hardscrabble life of a quiet young black man, Chiron, in Miami’s rough Liberty City neighborhood as he wrestles with demons from outside (neighborhood bullies, his mom’s drug addiction) and within (his sexuality and concepts of masculinity).

It’s a part Rhodes, 26, says he immediately felt compelled to play after reading the script.

“I read it from start to finish three times the first day I got it,” Rhodes said during an interview at The Highland Hotel. “I said I need to be a part of this project, no matter what the role is, because it’s such an impactful thing.”

Originally, Rhodes tried out for the role of Chiron’s less outwardly troubled, more party-hearty best friend, Kevin.

“I was a terrible Kevin,” Rhodes said with a laugh. “Kevin is someone who played up what he thought masculinity was. He was this gregarious guy with [the women]. He was that kind of guy. I had a stage in my life when I was that guy. … I knew that. I lived that life. … I had never lived the life of Chiron. I had never been introverted. … But I knew him. … I loved this person on the page and I’d never felt that before. How is it possible to feel that attached to someone?”

The part of Kevin would go to Andre Holland (from the film Selma and the TV series The Knick). But Rhodes returned to audition for Chiron as an adult — two younger actors play the character as a child and teenager — and got it. One of the elements that he felt helped him with feeling empathy for Chiron was a close gay friend he has had since childhood.

“I felt a need to tell this story more because I knew this person,” said Rhodes, who is straight. “I was so happy he got to see it. After [he saw it], he was literally, ‘Thank you, man.’ That’s what I needed. I needed my mother to love it and I needed my best friend to love it.”

Yet the film is reverberating beyond Rhodes’ inner circle. Debuting in just four theaters (two in L.A., two in New York City) on Oct. 21, it raked in $414,740 that weekend, a big figure for a small film. Variety noted that “there were sellouts and standing ovations.”

The per-screen average of more than $103,000 is one of the highest of the decade. It rolled out to more than 30 theaters Oct. 28 and lands in North Texas on Nov. 4. Now, there’s Oscar buzz.

Moving to L.A.

Of course, none of this would have happened for the Little Elm High School grad if he hadn’t been running in the right place at the right time that day at UT. Even then, he almost passed on the opportunity.

“She gives me her card [but] I’m skeptical of a lot of people,” he said.

Rhodes mentioned the incident to his theater professor, who, upon hearing the agent’s name, vouched for her authenticity. And, though Rhodes blew the audition — “I completely pooped the bed” is how he puts it — it whet his appetite for acting.

“I remember thinking that if I could focus and really devote myself to this craft, just like sports, I think I could be relatively decent at it,” he said.

After graduation, he headed west to Hollywood.

“I gave myself two years,” he recalled. “If I book anything, I’ll stay out there. My first audition was a month after being out there.”

The part was for a now-canceled Fox series Gang Related in which Rhodes was mostly left on the cutting-room floor. “The show starts right after my character dies,” he said. “You see my dead body and I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh.’ … My mom was blasting it on Facebook and the next day she says, ‘I didn’t see you. What happened?’ 

Changing stereotypes

True to the series’ name, Rhodes played a gang member, a role that many young black actors find themselves being offered in Hollywood. It’s something that bugged him at the time, but he figured it was part of paying his dues.

“I was just like, ‘TV? Yes. Opportunities? Yes,’ ” he remembered. “Now that I’m more conscious about what this platform is and could possibly be, I’m really more conscious about the decisions I make. I’m in a position now, not to dictate, but have more input into what I want to do and what kind of image I want to project and the people I want to help.

“What we’re doing is not saving lives or anything but we have a unique platform in that we have the opportunity to shine a light on people who otherwise might not have it.”

That’s especially true with Moonlight, a film that focuses on black men in their full range of humanity, still a rarity in the world of Hollywood. Yet it comes along at a time when a number of projects — including such TV series as Issa Rae’s Insecure and Donald Glover’s Atlanta — are also painting a more complete, emotionally fulfilling portrait of what it’s like to be young and black in America in 2016.

“It’s us as black people getting the opportunity to tell really unique stories that are specific to us,” he said. “There are a lot of great directors of all colors who can really tell great stories about all people, but, unless you’ve lived it, you really can’t tell it as good as it could be told. … To have all these people telling really specific stories that are reaching everyone because of the specificity is a great thing.”

Rhodes, still living in Los Angeles, has several films coming up, including Terrence Malick’s Weightless, Burning Sands with Alfre Woodard and the Dallas-shot Lady Luck with veteran North Texas actress Irma P. Hall.

So don’t expect him to move back to Texas soon, though he still likes to visit.

“Everyone [in L.A.] is focusing on their thing, so it’s hard to connect,” he said. “People in the South are always so friendly and receptive. It’s good to connect and have genuine conversations.”

And, yes, he has briefly met his female counterpart, Sasha Lane. “Her story is a little bit different because American Honey was where she got discovered. Now she’s the indie girl,” he said with a laugh. “I’m excited for her.”

Cary Darling: 817-390-7571, @carydar