Ashton Sanders speaks about his rise from Moonlight into the spotlight

Glass Man speaks to US actor ASHTON SANDERS about the stage musical that sparked his love of acting, his breakthrough performance in Moonlight, and his upcoming role in the Whitney Houston biopic, I Wanna Dance with Somebody.

Every decision Ashton Sanders makes is strategic. His inquisitive mindset has made each project a deliberate move, pursuing a cause greater than just undertaking his theatrical occupation. Erupting onto the global stage in 2016 for his critically-acclaimed performance as the teenaged Chiron in the Academy-award winning, Moonlight, the US actor has managed to penetrate through the all-encompassing noise of that moment to lay the foundations of a career enriched in thought- provoking storylines.

Born in Carson, California, Sanders knew from an early age that performing was an intrinsic part of who he is. Finding it a therapeutic outlet to express his emotions, he made his film debut in Chris Eska’s The Retrieval in 2013, finding himself two years later in a minor role in Straight Outta Compton before landing the lead in Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight.

Since then, he’s explored US race relations in Native Son (2019), how the system fails to help those at the bottom of society in All Day and a Night (2020), and shines a light on the Black Panther movement in Judas and the Black Messiah (2021).

Now the 27-year-old will be taking on the role as Houston’s husband, Bobby Brown, in the film that will explore the life and career of one the world’s best selling artists. Playing alongside Naomi Ackie as Whitney Houston and Stanley Tucci as record producer Clive Davis, Sanders’ decision to step into a new genre will present still more confirmation of his acting capabilities, further cementing his position in the spotlight.

Photographer: Ssam Kim

What initially attracted you to performing?

I went to go see a play, a musical actually [The Lion King], when I was a boy and I think that’s what initially sparked my interest in acting, and performing in general. I saw kids my age [playing Young Simba and Nala] on stage killing it and was in awe – I wanted to do what they were doing, performing/acting for the masses. That’s where the drive first got sparked.

You learned acting at the Amazing Grace Conservatory arts programme in South Central Los Angeles. How do you think acting helped you and what did you learn about yourself in the process of playing different characters?

Acting has always been an outlet for me to leave myself at the door and put on new set of skin, a new set of circumstances. It gave me the opportunity to put myself aside and explore another person, another life. The older I get and the more I explore these different characters in my career, I am reminded that not much has changed in regards to my relationship of playing characters.

Photographer: Ssam Kim

Getting your break in the Academy award- winning Moonlight, what do you think director Barry Jenkins saw in you?

That’s a good question. I would hope he saw me, Ashton, and saw my talent and what I was able to bring to the character of Chiron. I would assume Barry was very particular about the casting choices for every character in the film at every point of their lives.

What did you take from that experience of playing Chiron?

I was able to take away so much. Chiron is such a staple for a particular experience for a Black queer boy growing up in rural areas. I think I was totally able to live in Chiron while we filmed, and the experience was one where you can’t really find exact words to explain how the character made you feel. But I’d assume the viewers were able to feel the connection and fully dive into the character and story.

How were you first introduced to I Wanna Dance With Somebody?

I was first appointed by the then director [Stella Meghie] early on to play Bobby, which I wasn’t too sure about. In fact, there was a point early on where I thought I wouldn’t do it, but happy it all worked out. I did a chemistry read with Naomi Ackie and it was dynamic and had a natural, authentic vibe on what the director was looking for. It felt seamless and made me more excited to work on the project.

In preparation for the role of Bobby Brown, what source material have you leaned on? Where have you drawn inspiration from?

I sourced out a lot of interviews and pictures at different points of their lives while Whitney and Bobby were together. I also had specific appointed conversations with [the director] Kasi Lemmons about the portrayal of Bobby. We saw a lot of what Bobby and Whitney were in the media and that has shaped a lot of the narrative on who they were. But I wanted to be as true as possible – I didn’t want to show just a negative interpretation of this man and his love of this woman because that’s just simply not all it was. Life is more complex than that. And acting is re-creating life. So I did my best to keep him as human and grounded and true as possible.

Photographer: Ssam Kim

Brown and Houston had a notoriously turbulent relationship, how did you approach this with Naomi Ackie?

Naomi and I approached the scenes with a conscious effort to be authentic. There was a lot of communication surrounding our portrayal of these scenes and how we’d like to convey their story. Like anything else that is sensitive, we were cautious and focused on immersing ourselves in the characters completely.

Do you feel more pressure with this role as you’re playing someone that is still alive?

I would naturally say yes – a little bit. There was a bit of pressure at the beginning. But just like everything else, you have to trust the process. This wasn’t my first time playing someone who is still alive [RZA in Wu Tang: An American Saga TV series]. So I tried to relieve the pressure while filming to make it smoother for my experience.

You once said that your Moonlight co-star Mahershala Ali told you to stay true to your craft and artistry. How would you define this?

I think I’m still trying to figure that out. The way in which it is developing at this point in time feels exactly like it’s supposed to feel.

Photographer: Ssam Kim

To date, the majority of films you have been a part of have weighed heavily on contemporary matters such as race, class and addiction. Is this what attracts you to a project?

Not necessarily. I think I’ve been attracted to deep works of art with a narrative and story. Ironically, the films I have done touch on those issues but I wouldn’t say that’s what I’m creating my entire career to be.

Founding 1237 Production, what caused you to take yourself from the front of the screen to behind it?

I always wanted to start my own production company so I can have a little control of what it is I want to see being created and pushed out into the cinematic universe. Whether you’re in the front of the screen or behind it, all parts are equally important.

Photographer: Ssam Kim

Despite acting being at the core of who you are, the fashion industry hails you as a style trailblazer. From walking Prada and sitting front row to attending the Met Gala on numerous occasions, what has been your favourite moment?

The fashion industry is so different from the acting world but, even so, every moment so far has been an experience within it; not one moment is like the one before it. It’s an honour to be seen and respected in such a space where most aren’t. Men especially.

Fronting a Louis Vuitton campaign in 2019, what was the experience like working with Virgil Abloh?

I first met Virgil a couple months before doing the actual campaign. He was a creative genius and it was special to have fronted that campaign for him at the time, and even now.

Photographer: Ssam Kim

Photographer: Ssam Kim

Finally, what has been the best piece of advice you have been given?

The best piece of advice I have been given to date would still be to stay true to myself and my art as I progress in my career and in this world. It’s a great reminder to stay centred and not to lose yourself.

by Imogen Clark


Photographer: Ssam Kim

Stylist: Christopher Campbell

Groomer: Euni Jl using RCMA and CHARLOTTE TILBURY

Art Director: Evan Woods

Producer: Windy Lee

Styling assistant: Chris Florentino

Talent: Ashton Sanders

All clothing LOUIS VUITTON Menswear Pre-Spring 2023 Collection