The free-spirited breakout star of Moonlight explains how he owned his ‘otherness’
There’s no ashtray for Ashton Sanders to cast off his cigarette into, probably because, actually, you’re not allowed to smoke here in the marbled-walled garden of an east London luxury hotel. After the fifth drag, which has rendered the cigarette frail, he gives a gentle shrug and watches the ash blow across the expensive, definitely-polished-this-morning floor. “What were you saying?” he asks, looking back to make sure the tiny specks of white don’t drift into his orange juice.
Sanders’ considered drawl is a canyon-deep baritone that hits you right in the sternum. He’s been spending much of his trip taking in east London graffiti, having dinner with friends and sometimes just enjoying his own company. Today the 22-year-old actor’s wearing a miniature fisherman’s beanie that must be held on to his head by a powerful adhesive, and black cut-off jeans whose hems are so distressed they could be described as ‘suffering’.
He presents me his hand, the way a king might, to observe the rings on his long, elegant fingers. On his middle digit is Alessandro Michele Gucci – a thick, gothic ring gripping a walnut-sized black gem. On his pinky finger he wears a flat silver thing with an etching of what looks to be a bull’s head on it, given to him on his birthday last year while he was filming The Equalizer 2. I tell him I really like the one on his index finger; not showy, but not discreet either. “This? This was like… two dollars at a thrift store,” he murmurs, and I recoil at my own ignorance. “But you’ve got good taste.”
In Moonlight, Barry Jenkins’ 2017 Oscar-winning film about the journey of one queer man from childhood through to adolescence, Sanders’ grace and poise was on full display. As he played Chiron through his turbulent high-school years – sometimes still and considered, others inflamed and volatile – his emotions seemed conjured by something otherworldly. Sanders says he has always felt “weird”, but that he learned to embrace it after enrolling at the Amazing Grace Conservatory, a performing arts school. “I was this weird-ass black artistic kid, and I was surrounded by other cool-ass black artistic kids. And it was OK to be that. It allowed me to grow; it was my first taste of artistic freedom.”
He was given space to be weird, which nobody had really encouraged him to be until then. Did he think he was going to have to compromise? He nods eagerly. Does he feel like men aren’t encouraged to be themselves? More nodding. “They aren’t. It’s really boring. I mean, I’m just being myself and I don’t think a lot of people are doing that. Society puts us in boxes, you’re either this or you’re that. Never both.”
Sanders’ inner-confidence and self-assurance makes him eminently watchable. His follow-up to Moonlight, the critically acclaimed indie-film-that-could, is The Equalizer 2, itself the follow-up to 2014’s ultra-violent vigilante bloodbath starring Denzel Washington.
If anyone can bring poise and nuance to a franchise where corkscrews occasionally collide with throats, it’s someone who has embraced their otherness to become a whole new kind of rising star; a man who raises the question of what masculinity is (and isn’t) with the nonchalance of someone flicking a cigarette.
Striking, blown-up billboards of Sanders in boxer briefs were everywhere last year: with Moonlight alumni Mahershala Ali and Trevante Rhodes, he was the face of a Calvin Klein campaign, lounging contentedly in stark black-and-white photos. I wonder how it feels, as someone who describes himself as insecure about his appearance, to see yourself hailed as effortlessly gorgeous (at Godzilla size, no less).
“I have been able to accept myself more comfortably since that,” he says. “I read an article about dudes like myself, and Timothée Chalamet and Tom Holland. It said we’re changing the archetype of what the leading male actor is supposed to be: the buff, shredded, handsome guy. I feel as though we’re living in a time where a lot of things that weren’t acceptable now are. There’s no one way to be.”
He thinks insecurities are, sadly, inevitable. During one of his long, thoughtful pauses, I tell him that as a teenager I used to hate my skinny little arms, particularly the jutting knuckle-like bone at the elbow, and he lights up.
“I got picked on for being skinny, too. Did you used to cover your arms?” Yup. “Same, same. I used to layer to try to add bulk.”
If you’re reading this and you thought you, too, were a genius for layering a short-sleeved T-shirt over a long-sleeved T-shirt, know this: Ashton Sanders was way ahead of you. He wouldn’t leave the house wearing anything less than three layers. “This is in Los Angeles; it would be 75 degrees and I’d be sweating bullets,” he says, shaking his head. “But I’d always have on those three f*cking layers. It’s ridiculous, though, that…” he thinks, “that I let it go so far. I was 15. I can say that high school was some of my best years. But I still felt sh*tty about the way I looked. Kids can be so mean.”
I’m most surprised when he says he used to hate his voice, because when did having a low voice become something to be ashamed of? “No, you’re right,” he says, bowing his head, an Eeyore of a nod. “I am my biggest critic, I’m extremely hard on myself. It’s a blessing and a curse to never be satisfied with anything I’m doing, where I’m at or who I am. I suppose there’s always room for improvement. As of late, I’m trying to love myself. I think I do.”
Sanders cites his father, a fashion designer who specialised in tailoring, as someone who sparked his interest in clothing and style. It was always around him; in their home, in the way his impeccably dressed dad was complimented every time they were out. “I can wear his old suits now, and I’ll definitely be pulling out some archive Rodney Sanders for some red-carpet sh*t, for sure. We bonded over fashion, but we have totally different tastes. I do a bunch of crazy sh*t and he’ll say, ‘Son, you look f*cking crazy’ – but he still loves that I express myself. A lot of kids don’t grow up with that freedom. I was blessed to have it.”
It was never forced upon him, though; fashion was just ‘there’, and the way he and his father’s tastes have diverged – see the head-to-toe leather look Sanders sported at the 2017 Met Gala – is a testament to that. Rodney doesn’t make suits anymore. His son explains, in his quietest voice, that, “He was working with a bunch of people that were supposed to help him grow,” but something happened. “They were actually hurting him. They ended up f*cking his sh*t over.”
On the subject of father figures, Denzel Washington personally got in touch with Sanders with the part for The Equalizer 2. Sanders’ character, Miles has a paternal bond with Washington’s good-natured score-settler Robert McCall in much the same way as Chloë Grace Moretz’s character did in the first film. It humbled Sanders – who initially passed on the role due to a scheduling clash – because he wanted more positive depictions of black fathers and sons on screen.
“Good parental relationships are rare [in cinema]. And honestly, especially in black communities, a lot of boys grow up without fathers in their lives. You need somebody to be a mentor – what if boys don’t have that? Who can they look up to and learn from?” Neither of us know the answer, and it hangs in the air for a moment. He lights another cigarette.
Due to a mishap this morning involving his passport temporarily disappearing, Sanders is extra cautious about his flight back to LA this afternoon. There is work and friends and, crucially, his dog waiting patiently for him (“They don’t understand that when you’re gone you’re not gone for ever. Every time I leave, it breaks my heart”). He says goodbye and that he hopes to come back soon. “The sky’s the limit now and there’s no danger of me being pigeonholed,” he says. “There’s so much being thrown at me and I have so much to show you. Maybe next time.”
The Equalizer 2 is at cinemas nationwide from 17 August