Oscar Watch: Picking Three Actors for One Role in Moonlight

Yesi Ramirez knew she wanted to pick the actors for Moonlight as soon as she read the script — twice. "The first time I read the script I cried," she says. "The second time, I cried again." The Los Angeles-based casting director had never worked with Moonlight writer-director Barry Jenkins before, but she liked what she heard when they sat down for breakfasts to discuss the gay-themed Oscar contender that called for three actors to portray the forlorn "Chiron" character as child, teenager and adult. "Barry said he wanted to find the best actors for the part," Ramirez recalls. "That's music to a casting director's ears, as opposed to being told that you have to find a name actor or someone with international acclaim."

Ramirez took Jenkins at his word and picked relatively unknown Trevante Rhodes to play the adult Chiron, nicknamed Black. The 25-year old actor initially came in to read for the role of Black's best friend Kevin. "As soon as Trevante walked in, I saw something in his eyes and thought 'Uh oh, I made a mistake. This guy is not Kevin. He’s Black.' Jenkins agreed and abruptly ended the audition. "Trevante thought he'd done something wrong but Barry basically said 'Its all good bro, it's all good.'"

A few days later, Trevante read again for Ramirez, this time auditioning as the grown up Chiron as he struggles to process his long-dormant feelings for Kevin. "Trevante blew me away in the room," Ramirez recalls. "He showed the vulnerability of a guy who's lived a very tough life and still, he's wounded. There was so much left unspoken with Trevante and I've always been attracted to the idea that less is more. I loved how he said so much  just through the way he looked at me."

With Trevante in place as adult Chiron, Ramirez quickly zeroed in on Los Angeles actor Ashton Sanders to portray teen Chiron. "I'd seen Ashton in an indie film where he didn't say much, yet spoke volumes. I knew he’d be able to show Chiron's pain without having to overtly express himself."

The most difficult Moonlight role to cast turned out to be the teen version of Chiron's bisexual best friend Kevin. Ramirez says "It was really hard to find actors who were willing to delve into the subject matter, because most of them had hesitation about playing the character's sexuality and everything that comes with it."

Numerous "chemistry reads" paired Sanders with Los Angeles actors but failed to produce a good match. Ramirez pored over hundreds of self-taped auditions submitted from New York and London. Nothing. Then she turned to the Internet and started doing searches for high school drama departments. "I came across Jharrel Jerome's picture in a play that he did at LaGuardia High School. I Googled his name, saw he had representation and reached out to his reps."

When Jerome sent Ramirez a tape of himself reading an intimate scene between Chiron and Kevin, she realized he filled the bill. "At this point, we knew Andrew Holland would be our adult Kevin and I saw similarities in their faces," she says. Just as importantly, Jerome delivered the erotic charge required for the role. "If you can't do the beach scene with Chiron, there's no point," says Ramirez. "I immediately called Barry and said you have to check out this kid."

While Ramirez stayed behind in Los Angeles arranging Skype audition/conversations with Naomi Harris (crack addict mother) and Janelle Monáe (Chrion's surrogate mom) Jenkins himself cast 11-year old magnet school student Alex Hibbert as young Chiron in Miami during pre-production.

Like his older counterparts, Hibbert impressed Jenkins with his ability emote non-verbally. "Casting Moonlight was really about finding the essence for this character," Ramirez says. "We weren't too concerned that the three Chiron actors look exactly like each other, although we did guide auditions so they were all in the same skin tone range. We didn't want the audience to spend five minutes thinking 'I don't believe this person grew up to become that person.' But really the common thread is the eyes. Barry and I both felt this real vulnerability that Trevante, Ashton and Alex were able to convey through their eyes."



Hugh Hart

Hugh Hart has covered movies, television and design for the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Wired and Fast Company. Formerly a Chicago musician, he now lives in Los Angeles with his dog-rescuing wife Marla and their Afghan Hound.