The new leading man isn't interested in fame. The breakout star from Moonlight prepares to navigate the changing waters of Hollywood.

The new leading man isn't interested in fame. The breakout star from Moonlight prepares to navigate the changing waters of Hollywood.

Photography: Richard Burbridge

Styling: Nicola Formichetti

Text: Raven Smith

Have you ever interviewed a Hollywood actor? If you haven’t, you might imagine organically breaking the ice with your most relatable anecdote, which the actor will reward with a Jackson Pollock-style barrage of confessional, easily quotable soundbites. You will laugh as the awkwardness melts away, heartily agreeing about the décor of the actor’s sprawling hotel suite. So beige! You will order room service and nosh over pay-per-view. You will both eventually nod off to sleep.

This may be a good time to admit I have never interviewed a Hollywood actor—or at least I hadn’t up to meeting Ashton Sanders. But since Sanders is not like most Hollywood actors, the above scenario—one I may or may not have held onto until my very final moments as a non-interviewer of actors—did not come to pass. When a press agent patches me through to Sanders, I am in London, on a sweltering Monday afternoon in July, and he is in Los Angeles. Besides being on opposite sides of the earth, the biggest obstacle to my imagined meet-cute may be that Sanders is spectacularly busy. He’s currently in a car at 8:00 am, squeezing in the interview before arriving to the set of his latest project—one beginning just as post production wraps on Wu Tang: An American Saga, premiering this September on Hulu. Plus the fact that, at first, possibly due to a case of early-morning grogginess, Sanders is reserved. But this first impression soon falls away to another: he’s reserved, perhaps, but not detached like Chiron, the character he played in Barry Jenkins’s 2016 Best Picture winner, Moonlight. In fact, he breezily humors my actual ice-breaker—something about the weather—which evolves into something more like an impromptu discourse on climate. We end up reflecting on the subject in rigorous detail—the weather in L.A. today, then the weather in New York, and then back to the weather in L.A.—not today, but while he was growing up there. His laidback tone telegraphs an image of the actor with his feet up, window down, casually obliging my mundane conversation-starter. It’s not quite lying on a hotel chaise lounge, but it’s enough to convince me of Sanders’s status as a new kind of celebrity—a point he underscores himself when I suggest his lack of typical starriness: “There is no set way to be an actor in Hollywood,” Sanders notes.

I come to appreciate the thoughtful, meandering nature of the conversation. Where some may have offered rehearsed McNuggets of information, or it-was-an-honor-to work-with-so-and-so’s, Sanders says this: “Acting is kind of like psychology: you’re trying to understand someone by putting on [the identity of that person.]” Listening back, later, he seems unflappable, unflustered, choosing his words carefully. He’s disarmingly polite, to a fault. He says “please come again” instead of “what.” He calls me sir, twice. He’s not a media-trained celebrity who’s learned the tango between private and public.

You can see this in the way he dresses. Actors can often look as if they’ve been carefully outfitted, to the point that you can see the strings of the fashion puppeteer as they parade the red carpet. But Sanders never looks giftwrapped. His clothes read as unrehearsed and are grafted onto him like a second skin. He was the marquis of the Met Ball, where he sported head-to-toe Raf Simons leather like it was prom night on the prairie or on the moon. He dresses like a Monet, all large, expressive strokes. He’s not another chiselled actor in a tux and a Rolex. Who, I wonder, is his fashion icon? “I reference myself.” Touché.

There’s a fearlessness in his self-representation and the roles he takes. Cast in Moonlight when he was still astudent at Chicago’s DePaul University, he stole a third of the film with his simmering secrecy, which propelled the standard coming-of-age story into stellar orbit. There’s a quietness to his performance as Chiron in the film, the placid surface of his face occasionally leaving tiny clues to the deep waters of his interior world, like the polished surface of Aladdin’s lamp secreting the multitudes of a genie inside. The performance heralded the arrival of a new type of leading man that nodded to the polymorphic masculinity we’re seeing in culture, more broody than brutish. Sanders holds himself with a sense of sophistication that touches on the sublime, at once relatable and yet wholly other.

Though not in the habit of liberally giving interivews, Sanders once told Vogue that, “to be different is a part of my life’s theme.” Two years on, he notes the way the rest of culture has followed suit, telling me, “I feel like we’re living in like an artistic Renaissance in every level of art. Shit is changing up, and there’s different rules and different levels being established. It’s progression. We’re breaking stereotypes, we’re breaking barriers, and I think we’re seeing other types of artists and people [as a result].”

We’re here to talk about the new Hulu series, based on the writings of Wu Tang member RZA. How did he feel about tackling such a huge slice of music history? “I didn’t know too much of the story of the Wu, not to the extent that the show goes into. None of us really know the Wu in the way that the show showcases it,” he says. Sanders plays a young Bobby Diggs, before he became RZA. How was it portraying a living person? “RZA and I have similar spirits, similar souls, similar drives in our history, but you still have to go into the archives and do your research. [RZA’s] here in the flesh, but I still have to revisit a chapter of his life. I had to find the 1990 RZA.”

Acting is a funny old profession. A system of complicit deceit between actor and viewer that only works if the real actor disappears. Sanders is an actor and a man who completely inhabits characters in the margins of mainstream life as effortlessly as slipping on a Gucci jacket. He lacks the posturing of old Hollywood and doesn’t care for it: “There is no superficial hierarchy of Hollywood actors anymore. All of the old Hollywood rules are being broken.” Ashton Sanders is the future of Hollywood’s leading men. He’s rubbish at being a celebrity because for him, being known isn’t the goal. He came here to be an actor. That’s where his longevity lies.


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