Ashton Sanders is, if not one of, maybe the most electric and captivating young actors working today. You probably first noticed him in Moonlight, playing the teenage version of Chiron, always being bullied at school until one day he retaliates in a scene that I still think about all the time. He then starred opposite Denzel Washington in The Equalizer 2, a role that came about after Sanders met Denzel at the SAG awards and told him, “I want to work with you,” to which Denzel replied, “See you on set.”
It’s kind of weird when Sanders talks about the roles he doesn’t take, simply saying he doesn’t want to do anything that’s not interesting. But here’s an actor who has the ability to make anything interesting. Sanders says he’s looking for challenges, which also explains why he’s playing one of the 20th century’s most important literary characters, Bigger Thomas, in HBO’s upcoming adaptation of Native Son.
This weekend Sanders is in Captive State, a movie that is, frankly, a lot better and more interesting than you probably think it is at first glance. It’s a tough movie to market. Yes, it’s, ostensibly, about aliens who have taken over the world and how humankind has adapted and aligned themselves to our new leadership, but it’s not really about aliens. It’s a movie that explores what “normalcy” can become over time and the people who decide to fight against oppression.
And, look, the fact Ashton Sanders plays the lead in this movie makes it even more interesting. Sanders has a hectic shooting schedule right now, but he found some time early on Friday morning to talk with us.
This movie really surprised me. It wasn’t what I was expecting. It’s a really smart alien movie.
Yeah, you’re right on the money by saying that.
Is that what you liked about it?
I thought it was definitely something different about the film. Definitely a really smart film and a film with a lot of underlying messages that can be considered reflective of our situation in America right now.
I have no idea how it will do in theaters this weekend, but I think it’s one of those movies that people are going to keep discovering down the line.
I mean, that’s good, right? I mean hopefully people are coming out and resonating with it, but I definitely think I understand what you’re saying. It is one of those films that, yeah, like one of those realizations that you have, “Wow, this is on to something.” Because it definitely is on to something. It definitely isn’t your average sci-fi, alien film, thriller – if you even want to label it, or box it in as that.
Right, it’s obviously got a lot of themes to things that are happening today. How important is that to you? Because it does feel like you are in a lot of movies that have social themes.
I think it’s important for me as an artist. I think it’s important to do films that kind of teach. I feel like I’m supposed to be doing something with this opportunity that I have to be in the forefront. Yeah, I do kind of feel like it’s a responsibility. I’m not always looking for them, but that is something that I’m really interested in — social change. I think it’s important to showcase the complexities of what actually can be, or shit is. It’s kind of cool going against the grain, making people talk, doing my controversial shit. I think that’s really cool.
You mentioned the word responsibility. That’s a heavy word.
Well, let’s take that word off of it. I wouldn’t say that it’s a “responsibility”…
That just seems like a lot of pressure to put on yourself.
No, I mean, there’s no pressure at all. If I didn’t want to do something that I didn’t want to do, that I felt was pressuring me, I just wouldn’t do it. I’m definitely aware of all of my film choices, and aware of all of the films that I’m not doing, and that I am turning down. But this is a film that I really wanted to do because of the social conscience element that I thought was involved. I thought it was really rad.
You just said you’re aware of the stuff you’re turning down, what kind of stuff are you turning down though?
Vaguely, the uninteresting shit. To keep it vague.
What do you find uninteresting? Because you’re an actor who can make a lot of stuff interesting.
That’s, wow. Thanks. I don’t know! It just has to resonate with me. I don’t know what to put in the category of a “stupid” film. I guess I’d say you’d never see me in anything too absurd. I like a challenge. I like being challenged as an actor, so I’m going to just leave it there. I like to be challenged. I like to grow through my characters and, so, I’m looking for that.
Speaking of a challenge, with Native Son you’re playing one of the most notable literary characters ever.
Yeah, exactly. I mean everything that you’ve seen me in basically, from Native Son to Moonlight – I have All Day and a Night coming out which is another complex character study of nature versus nurture – I like to dig. I think that people and complicated and I like to take that and get familiar with that and showcase that in the most authentic way, while still being able to showcase the complexities. You understand what I’m saying?
It’s like, it’s complex but simple. That’s, I guess, just where I’m at right now. I’m constantly about it as an artist and as a person, but right now that is where it’s at, this is where it’s at.
When I interviewed Antoine Fuqua for Equalizer 2, he said that you met Denzel Washington on the red carpet of SAG awards and you told him, “I want to work with you one day.” And Denzel just said, “Okay, see you on set.” Is that really what happened?
Yeah, yeah. So it was supposed to be in Roman J. Israel, but I was filming Captive State and there was no way I was able to get out of my shooting schedule to film that. I get a call for Equalizer 2, “dah, dah, dah, come in.” Things happened, and I’m in a room with D and Antoine and we’re just like shooting the shit and collaborating.
There’s one really intense scene with you and Denzel in that movie. Where’s he’s giving a full-on Denzel monologue…
I’m in character, so I take myself out of it. But that scene in particular, I can say was definitely one of the most connected scenes I felt with Denzel in that movie. I think we were both just really excited to shoot that. I was ready to go, and I think he was ready to go, and we just went. I just went with it, and he gave what he gave, and I was just taking that and giving back. It felt great. It felt great. I’m really proud of that movie and that scene in particular.
Moonlight connected with so many people. I think each section connected with different people differently. Your section was the one that hit me the hardest. I still think about it all the time. How often do you still hear that?
I really appreciate that, man. Honestly, those reactions are what keep me going. I think that type of reaction is, again, what separates a great film choice from a good film choice, and a great film from a good film, when it resonates in that way. So thank you for that again. Yeah, I mean, it’s always around. Moonlight is definitely one of those films that people are still watching or getting their hands on for the first time. People are always showing love in regards to the movie and talking about how much it touched them and changed them. That really moves me and makes me feel like, alright, I’m doing something right. I was able to make you feel this certain way or move you or change your perspective or perception on something that’s so important. As people – like self-discovery and dealing with self – being human. Yeah, it’s just definitely still around me, and I’m happy that it’s still resonating with people the way it is.
‘Captive State’ opens in theaters this weekend. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.
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