The three Chirons of Barry Jenkins' "Moonlight' are sitting around a table, examining each other's eyes.
Trevante Rhodes, 26, Ashton Sanders, 20, and Alex R. Hibbert, 12, play the same character across three distant chapters in his life, growing up black, gay, and confused with his drug-addicted mother (Naomie Harris) in Miami. The three actors didn't properly meet until well after the film was finished.
Yet they somehow add up to one of the fullest coming-of-age portraits in years. Tenderly lyrical, exhilaratingly intimate, "Moonlight" and its trio of Chirons capture the tidal swells and recesses of an identity in the midst of discovery, one warped by pain and lifted by fleeting moments of transcendence.
The only link between the three actors, Jenkins says, was their eyes. "I really wanted them to be different people. Same character, different people," says Jenkins. "But there was this spiritual, cosmic connection through the eyes."
Rhodes, Sanders and Hibbert gathered together for one of the first times recently in Manhattan. They are excited – man, are they excited – about collectively sharing a singular character and splitting "Moonlight" (one of the year's most acclaimed films, now in theaters) in thirds between themselves.
Tenuous though their connection may be, Rhodes, Sanders, and Hibbert could hardly feel more related. Even though they didn't film one scene together, sharing Chiron has made them something like brothers. They see bits of themselves in each other, even if they don't all agree with Jenkins about their eyes.
"I get it," says Sanders, a college student.
"I don't," says Hibbert while munching on gummy bears.
They laugh. Rhodes tries to explain it. "It's the essence, man," he says. "Chiron is a very truthful person. He's putting up this facade, but can't hide the eyeballs."
Rhodes and Sanders met briefly as Sanders was finishing his shoot and Rhodes was starting his. But they didn't all get together until the film played at the Toronto International Film Festival.
"I heard about them and I was like, 'Oh my gosh, bro, they're dope!' says Hibbert.
Each was plucked from auditions. Sanders, an aspiring actor in Los Angeles who had a small role in "Straight Outta Compton," was the first to be cast. Hibbert, encouraged to go out for it by his drama teacher, came out of local auditions in Miami. Rhodes, a New Orleans native transplanted to Texas, is the most established of the trio, with a number of credits including Terrence Malick's upcoming "Weightless" and the HBO series "Westworld."
As if making up for lost time, they're exceptionally supportive of one another, playfully cheering each other on during a photo session and complimenting each other's answers. Hibbert, who speaks with a confidence and maturity beyond his years, utters a wise pronouncement and Rhodes exclaims, "This guy!"
They're a talkative bunch, in contrast with their quietly powerful performances in "Moonlight," each of which bubbles with inner turbulence.
"There's a lot of scenes where I'm watching, just reacting," says Hibbert. "When I saw the movie, I was all like: 'I don't talk.' My mom was all like: 'Don't you get it? You talk with your face.'"
Jenkins didn't allow them to share notes, so each came to embody Chiron in his own way.
"At the time when I got this part, my mother had just relapsed on drugs," says Sanders. "She's been on and off drugs for my entire life. I do this thing often where I bury things in the back of my mind until I have to be confronted with them. So this film, in the scenes with Naomie Harris, allowed me to deal with that. It was like therapy for me."
"This is the movie where I fell in love with acting," says Rhodes. "I felt like I was becoming an artist because I wasn't putting on a coat, I was inhabiting another skin."
"I had to move so my dad wasn't there in my life a lot," says Hibbert. "And Chiron, he didn't have a dad. It's OK now because I'm here in New York and I'm going to see him today."
The three breakout stars of "Moonlight" may have filmed separately, but they're together experiencing the film's rapturous response and the spotlight of an international publicity tour.
"The response we got from the trailer alone, I feel as if I really underestimated America in regards to how people would receive the project," says Rhodes. "You'd think the black community would really shun something like this because it is perceived as taboo to be effeminate and black because we have to be the physical, most imposing guy in the movie. For people to receive a film that shows so many different layers to people – not just black people – and really receiving that with open heart and open eyes, that shows me where we are as a world."
"Even if they go to the movie and they think, 'Aw, it's going to be about these black people or these gay people,'" says Hibbert. "When you watch the movie, your mind's going to be changed."
"Straight up," agrees Sanders.