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Interview: Actor André Holland is Rising in ‘Moonlight’

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CHICAGO – While the name André Holland may not be familiar, the actor’s consummate approach to his craft is unforgettable. Specializing in character parts, Holland has raised his profile in such movie hits as “Selma” and “42,’ and on television recently with “The Knick” and “American Horror Story.” His latest film is “Moonlight.”

“Moonlight” is unusually structured – it tells the story of one boy-to-man in three chapters, with a different actor portraying him as a child, teenager and adult. The same is done for the boy’s best friend Kevin, and Holland takes on role as an adult in a crucial and expressly performed sequence, as the main character’s gay orientation is realized through Kevin’s past and present interaction with it. The film is the directorial debut of Barry Jenkins, and is a sensitive plea for understanding a difficult journey from a different type of soul.

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André Holland as Kevin in ‘Moonlight’
Photo credit: A24

André Holland was born in Alabama, and studied performance at Florida State University and New York University. After graduating in 2006, he made his television debut on “Law & Order.” He has worked his way up the ladder ever since, taking on a regular series role in “1600 Penn” in 2012, and scoring a triumph as reporter Wendell Smith, who was and advocate for baseball’s integration in the Jackie Robinson film, “42” (2013). He is also memorable as Andrew Young in “Selma” (2014), and has recently been seen in the pay cable series “The Knick” and in “American Horror Story.”

HollywoodChicago.com interview André Holland during a promotional tour for “Moonlight,” and the actor talked about the variations of a performer’s life.

HollywoodChicago.com: You are portraying Kevin at a crucial crossroads in his life. What did you understand about that character transition in the moment that connected you to him?

André Holland: The character, in the second chapter of the film, has a strong idea as to what masculinity is, and he’s performing this hyper-masculine attitude. He makes a switch between chapters two and three, where he lets that go, and becomes more authentic. I found that switch to be fascinating, that he could fashion a new life on his own, with assistance of a father or father figure. That resonated with me when I picked up the role in that phase.

HollywoodChicago.com: This is more than a friendship relationship between Kevin and Black [the main character]. What do you think defines their connection over and above their history with one another?

Holland: I feel like there is – like I heard in the churches when I was growing up in Alabama – that you have to see through one’s faults before you see their need. Those two saw that in each other. From the time they were boys, when Kevin saw that his friend needed help, and that friend had never had that. I think that feeling is something we don’t forget, that first person that helps us in that way.

HollywoodChicago.com: What clues did you get in the script about the childhood Kevin and the teenage Kevin that you brought into the adult Kevin?

Holland: Yes, I looked for those clues. We just talked about the good Kevin did as a child, and he does care about his friend. And in the teenage chapter, there is a point where is doing something to his friend that is against his spirit. For me, that was the thing. Here is a guy who has a good heart and wants to do the right thing. It’s the pressure of his environment that makes it difficult for him. But he’s a guy who knows what he wants, and is confident enough to go after it.

HollywoodChicago.com: You mentioned hyper-masculinity as a trait for Kevin. Given that he picked that up as a counterbalance to his own feelings of being gay, how did interpret that he came to terms with it by the time you portrayed him?

Holland: At the point where I take him on, after his life as a teenager, his fathering of a child and his commitment to his work, I believed he contained the multitudes of his life, and used them as stepping stones to the place he was by the end.

HollywoodChicago.com: The moment you get at the end of the film is almost like a one act play, and unfolds with a grace and timing that is unusual in feature films. How did Barry Jenkins want you to approach the material to make it work best?

Holland: He really just gave us room. He didn’t say much about how Trevante Rhodes and I were approaching the material, I think he trusted that he had hired the right people, and gave us the space to do it.

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André Holland as Wendell Smith in ‘42’
Photo credit: Warner Home Video

HollywoodChicago.com: You portrayed Wendell Smith in ’42,’ which was an amalgamation of the African American reporters who were instrumental in getting Jackie Robinson to integrate baseball. What did you admire about the courage of Smith, and his achievements behind the scenes as a sportswriter?

Holland: So many things, I think he is an American hero. One thing I didn’t know about his is that he’d been a baseball player, and a very good one. In fact, he wanted to play major league baseball, which was impossible for him at the time. That’s when he decided to become a sportswriter, and focus on the integration of baseball.

He covered the Negro Leagues so intently, that the names of Sachel Paige and Josh Gibson would have been lost in history if it wasn’t for him. And there is no doubt that Jackie Robinson would not had made it to the Brooklyn Dodgers, if it wasn’t for Wendell Smith. It was Smith that organized the initial tryouts with major league teams for African Americans, he was the one doing it.

HollywoodChicago.com: What was it like portraying a late 1940s African American like Smith, on the cusp of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr., trying to do his small part to clear the path for what was to come?

Holland: It made me proud and sad. Here was a guy who did so much for so many, and I didn’t know about him, most people don’t know about him. When you sit down and look at what this man did, it’s simply incredible. He did a lot of blocking and tackling, but he rarely got to carry the ball. But without him, throwing those key blocks, we would not be where we are today. I love him.

HollywoodChicago.com: In both ‘The Knick’ and ‘Selma’ you portray pioneers of sorts. What is different about Dr. Edwards and Andrew Young, and what connects them?

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André Holland in Chicago for ‘Moonlight’
Photo credit: Patrick McDonald for HollywoodChicago.com

Holland: What connects them is what you just said, they are pioneers in their own right. Obviously the time periods are different, and what makes Algernon Edwards unique is that he lived abroad in London and Paris, and comes back to post slavery America with a sense of rightful entitlement. He then has to be re-educated in a way about race attitudes in America back then. Men like Andrew Young and Wendell Smith already knew about it.

HollywoodChicago.com: You grew up around Birmingham, which was a vital cog in the mechanism of the civil rights movement. What do people who don’t know the city now not understand about it in the web of what happened in the past?

Holland: I think people generally don’t understand how potent all that history still is. The thinking is in 2016 is that we’re past it, we elected a black president, we’re ‘post racial.’ But if you go down South, around where I live, you’ll experience the people who are making this election year so scary. You’ll meet them, and there are a lot of old ideas down there.

The policies enacted during segregation are still being felt in Birmingham. There is a huge homeless population right around Kelly Ingram Park, the epicenter for the civil rights movement, where Dr. King marched and the hoses were used against the protestors. It’s populated with mostly black homeless people. And then a few blocks away is gentrification at its height, with trendy cafes and the like. In other words, the city is building on top of what it already there, rather than collaborating with the people who have always been there.

HollywoodChicago.com: What kind of hope do you want for empathy with Kevin and Black, for audiences who are willing to give a chance to understanding their journey?

Holland: I hope that when people see Black at the end, in the African American persona that everyone has been taught to be afraid of, that it challenges us to understand him. This is a person who has been led to this place, not all on his own, but within the circumstances that created him. If we all just give it a second, and not turn away, we might be surprised by the value that he possesses – to you and the world.

For the 4.5/5 star review of “Moonlight,” by Patrick McDonald of HollywoodChicago.com, CLICK HERE.

For an interview of director Barry Jenkins and writer Tarell McCraney of “Moonlight,” by Patrick McDonald of HollywoodChicago.com, CLICK HERE.

For an interview of actress Naomie Harris of “Moonlight,” by Patrick McDonald of HollywoodChicago.com, CLICK HERE.

”Moonlight” continues its release in theaters nationwide. See local listings for theaters and show times. Featuring André Holland, Naomie Harris, Mahershala Ali, Alex Hibbert, Janelle Monae, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes. Screenplay by Barry Jenkins, from a story by Tarell McCraney. Directed by Barry Jenkins. Rated “R”

HollywoodChicago.com senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

By PATRICK McDONALD
Writer, Editorial Coordinator
HollywoodChicago.com
pat@hollywoodchicago.com

© 2016 Patrick McDonald, HollywoodChicago.com

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