SPRING 2017 MEN'S
Celebrating their revelatory performances in the film of the year, we take a closer look at Mahershala Ali, Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes. They tell us what it means to be a man of the moment.
“Even after the performance is over,” says Mahershala Ali a few days before he would receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture for his star turn in Moonlight, “I realize that you still have to service it. I’ll be in a coffee shop and someone will come up to me and just open a vein…telling me how this struck a nerve for them, what their experience was. And I really try to be present for that. I’m really thankful for that.”
How radical an act it is to reveal oneself to another so candidly, so clearly, that it strikes a nerve. When so much out in the world would threaten us—bodily, psychologically, scaring us inside of ourselves to seek shelter within—merely showing oneself, unguarded, can be heroic. For these four phenomenal actors—Mahershala, as well as breakout newcomers Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes—whose profoundly brave performances made Moonlight this year’s tour de force movie, finding their voice on-screen was just the beginning. With the attention and opportunities that will now come their way, Mahershala, Alex, Ashton, and Trevante can properly announce themselves to the world. This is their time to step into the light.
It is also time for them to step in front of Willy Vanderperre’s Calvin Klein camera…
To watch Mahershala Ali clown around with Alex and Trevante and Ashton on the set of their Calvin Klein campaign shoot is to see right away what makes him so incredibly special. Part wizened, avuncular sage, part goofball, he pleads with Alex to let him get a listen on his headphones. “How am I going to be cool in my old age,” he says, “if you don’t let me listen to what you’re listening to?” He is being somewhat ironic but earnestly flattering when he teases Ashton about the vintage-looking flight suit he’s wearing, calling him a “punk rocker,” and then asks him for some style tips.
But if he happens to render everyone around him both giggly and encouraged, Mahershala is equally comfortable getting really real. As anyone who witnessed his powerful speech after accepting the SAG award for Best Supporting Actor is aware, he is more than ready and able to lead the national conversation on matters of representation, diversity, and the experience of Muslim Americans like himself.
Mahershala was born and raised in Oakland, California, by his mother, an ordained minister; he converted to Islam as an adolescent. His father, Phillip Gilmore, was a prolific performer on Broadway, and Mahershala vividly remembers his visits to Manhattan as a kid, running around backstage. Here, he thinks back to the florid costumes and personalities he once observed, as well as the devastation wrought by AIDS among the theater community during the ’80s. While back home, in the jock-y corridors of his high school and then at St. Mary’s College, which he attended on a basketball scholarship, Mahershala says he had to project a more “buttoned up” masculinity. And, by now, after months of press around Moonlight, hearing myriad testimonials from those for whom his performance as the mentor figure, Juan, struck a nerve, Mahershala may be Hollywood’s leading expert on male role models.
“You get older and you think you have some things figured out, but [these younger guys] reminded me of the power of exploring. They reminded me that it’s okay to not know everything about life.”
For nearly 20 years Mahershala has toiled in television and film—or, as he put it, “working 16 years to be an overnight sensation”—so it is quite fitting that his breakout should come in a film about self-awareness, about finding the strength to declare oneself and to follow one’s bliss. In early 2017, as he and his wife were welcoming their first child, Mahershala received nominations for both the Golden Globe and Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. And the glow of that attention and fanfare holds to him like a halo—even his friends and colleagues defer to him, but he’s quick to point out that it was he who learned the most from the younger actors in the film.
A few weeks before the Oscars, in the New York atelier of Calvin Klein By Appointment, 12-year-old Alex Hibbert was being fitted for his tuxedo and contemplating the dizzying array of his many reflections in the wall of mirrors before him. “There’s just so much I want to do,” he says, watching himself multiply into infinity as he danced and dabbed and posed.
Only a few weeks earlier, confronted with a calendar full of awards shows and auditions—travel and professional commitments that would keep him away from his friends (“The cool kids,” he says) and his home in southern Florida for many months—Alex seemed somewhat deflated, beyond tired. Or, as he says, “not tired, just bored.” Now, though, after seeing his reflection in the eyes of his heroes—“They were coming up to me like I was the celebrity,” he says—the future has begun to open up for him and reveal its infinite possibilities. Everything is now on the table. The science classes of which he’s so fond, could, it occurs to him, be a glimpse at a future career path—curing cancer, possibly. Or maybe he’ll go into design. Or video games. “Games are really everything,” he says. Well, games and his favorite zombie TV show.
It was Alex’s drama teacher in Miami who convinced him, along with his entire class, to audition for the role of Little in Moonlight, but now, he says, he doesn’t think he’ll study acting going further. “I pick up what the director wants pretty easily, so…”
As the future opens up before him, Alex slips into silence. He can regularly seem far away, deep in his own thoughts. Or maybe he’s just entranced by his all-denim outfit. He cocks his hat to the side and does a little dance, bringing about a groan of amusement from his mom, Donna. “Oh, don’t get him started,” she says. “He loves this.”
When asked who among his very stylish castmates is the most stylish, Alex shrugs. “I am.”
This makes Mahershala laugh out loud. “He is; it’s true.”
“Well, it’s just like the attitude,” Alex says of his love of clothes, “the personality. Like, it can be like me—dark inside and bright outside.”
It’s all happening for 21-year-old Ashton Sanders—magazine covers, hype, fans—and he’s not entirely sure how to handle it just yet. “I’m a very spiritual person,” he says, still smiling after receiving congratulations from strangers who just happened to recognize him on the street, “but I’m realizing I have to be careful what I put out there…because everything I’ve wished for is happening.”
That “everything” would, of course, include the movie parts rolling in after his performance in the runaway success Moonlight—but it would also cover his experience of working with Calvin Klein’s Raf Simons as part of the Spring underwear campaign. “I just met Raf and I almost fainted, man,” Ashton says. “Really. I’ve been a fan of his since I was in the 10th grade.”
Even in street clothes, Ashton, who is comfortably fluent in fashion and the work of his favorite designers, looks like he might have just stepped out of Simons’s archives or off the runway of his first collection for Calvin Klein. “He just looked me up and down,” says Ashton of Simons, “and then he nodded, like, ‘I like your look.’ I almost passed out.” At that precise moment, while he was receiving a compliment from one of his heroes, Ashton’s manager was getting word that he had booked a plum role in an upcoming movie.
And if all of this—sitting front row at a fashion show in New York, holding a ticket to the Oscars, making movies—seems a long way from the Carson neighborhood of South Los Angeles where Ashton grew up and still lives, it is all part of the plan. “Carson was cool, but I never felt like I fit in there,” Ashton says in his raspy Cali drawl. Like his Moonlight character, Chiron, Ashton too faced some bullying as a kid, and he says it was the acting classes he took as a teenager that helped introduce him to a new world of possibilities, along with the kooky characters with whom he feels most at home. “It was like, whoa, you are not alone,” he says. “That meant so much to me.”
Clearly, this is only the beginning of what’s to come, but Ashton, like Chiron, seems to have come out of the experience with some incredible self-awareness.
“I’m an artist,” Ashton says. “All my friends are about raising our artistic consciousness. I just wanna do dope stuff with dope people, man.”
“I want to win,” says Trevante Rhodes, “like an athlete.”
But then of course, Trevante has been an athlete all his life—an all-district high school football player in Dallas, and then a member of the gold medal–winning U.S. Junior National 4x100 relay team. According to Hollywood lore, Trevante was even “discovered” while running on the track at his alma mater, the University of Texas at Austin. All he has done since then is work with his fellow Texan Terrence Malick and anchor a world-class team of actors in Moonlight, helping them to a Screen Actors Guild nomination for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture. And still he trains for his career the way one might for the Olympics. Like, actually trains—he’s gone up a neck size during awards season because of all the weight lifting—but he’s also applying the same rigor to his performance, rehearsing the way he used to run drills, absorbing a character on a cellular level, “so that you can’t help but be great,” he explains.
An interesting aspect of Trevante’s rise is that, despite his athletic bona fides, and the profoundly masculine image he cuts—or, perhaps, precisely because of it—his breakout performance was a superbly nuanced study of the weight of American machismo. And it is that eloquence, that breadth of ability that has Trevante primed to be a major studio star.
Not that he’s sweating the details. “It’s not so long ago I was waiting tables down the street from here, and now…” Now, Trevante marvels silently to himself, now he’s a regular on the awards circuit and hobnobbing with the best and brightest of Hollywood. Not that they can tell him anything. “Everyone I talk to is like, ‘I can’t give you any advice. I’ve never seen anything like this,’” he says. The trajectory of Moonlight, his colleagues tell him, as well as that of Trevante’s subsequent career, is so steep, so utterly unprecedented—straight from the campaign shoot he’s shooting two big-budget action films back-to-back—that even the greats are flummoxed. “It’s…unique,” he says.
But that’s all right with Trevante. As someone who’s always been quick and steady with advice for his younger brother, he says that, even at 27, he’s not terribly in need of guidance himself. “I’m an old soul,” he says, smiling.
“I want to win—like an athlete.”
In front of the camera, and up on the big screen, Mahershala, Alex, Ashton, and Trevante are, each of them, entirely luminescent. Now, in real life, they are all catching the light they deserve. On the set of the campaign shoot, as a day was coming to an end, and knowing that his group of friends and colleagues were soon to part, Mahershala looked around and said, “It’s only a shame that this isn’t a franchise. It would be so great to get everyone back together.” They all laughed. But he went on. “I did have the idea that we do a prequel, though,” he said. “It’d be called Sunlight.”