Ashton Sanders: The Brightest Moonlit Star

Maggie Kelly,

Moonlight star Ashton Sanders is one of young Hollywood’s brightest stars, with three new films in the making. From drawing passion from real-life experience to navigating masculinity in the 21st century, we want to know what makes Sanders tick.

A version of this exclusive interview first appeared in the pages of the 15th issue of ODDA Magazine.

Ashton, you were just 21 when Moonlight made you a household name. How has it been finding fame so young?
It has been a whirlwind of a journey so far. Everything has been new and kind of weird (but exciting). The best part is that I now have an opportunity to work on some really amazing projects with some really talented actors, that has been cool. I got to work with the legendary Denzel Washington on Equalizer 2, which was directed by Antoine Fuqua. And I recently got back from shooting Native Son.

Photograph by Dylan Coulter

You have discussed on numerous occasions the racist struggles in America, commenting that, “America isn’t made for the black man.” As an artist, how do you hope to change that landscape?
It is not. I don’t think there is too much I can do individually to change the landscape of race relations in America. That would take a village, but I can help to inspire change by being vocal, and by taking part in socially conscious narratives.

Becoming famous is a mix of hard work and really, really good luck. In your case, what was it more of? Lots of work, or lots of luck?
Hard work. Hard work and dedication for sure.

You’ve been busy, with three new movies coming up: Captive State, Native Son and Equalizer 2 with Denzel Washington. How does it feel to be so in demand?
It’s surreal, honestly. But I don’t take it for granted. Every film experience I get to have I cherish. When you are thinking about doing this job you hope for the best, but I’m not sure I would’ve imagined having the experiences I have had. Moonlight was a life-changing opportunity and I am just trying my best to use the opportunity that film gave me to be my best…

Hollywood is a funny beast, and sort of exists outside the realm of the “real world.” What’s your experience been like so far among the glitz and glamour? Yay or nay?
It’s chill. Hollywood is definitely a strange animal. It is not really what I am about and for the most part I do my best to stay outside of it. Most of my friends are not actively involved in the business, though some are, but they aren’t really “Hollywood” either…

What role did acting play in your upbringing? What did it mean to you growing up?
Acting played a major role in my upbringing. It allowed me to completely loose myself (in a character) and be completely free. Something we struggle with on a daily basis.

Has there been a character you’ve played to date that has really hit you in the feels? What has been the role that’s really got your juices flowing?
Ironically, all of my characters I have played up until the point have been somewhat of an extension of myself in one way or another. I think, as an actor, it is important to see yourself somewhere, somehow in every character you play, even if it is the smallest piece.

It is always fascinating to know what kind of acting actors enjoy in their spare time. Are you binge-watching anything on Netflix right now?
I’ve actually been watching a section of a lot of older films that have inspired me: Taxi Driver, American Psycho, The Color Purple, East of Eden, Requiem for a Dream, etc. I just saw Three Identical Strangers which was really good.

At the age of twelve you entered the Amazing Grace Conservatory (Los Angeles), a performing arts program for young people of color. What was that like for you?
It was liberating. Completely liberating to be surrounded by so much familiarity. To have a family of artists that looked like me and came from where I came from. AGC was very pivotal for my growth as an artist and all around human being.

Photograph by Andreas Laszlo Konrath

Moonlight explored notions of masculinity in heartbreaking fashion. As a 21-year-old, how do you think our concept of masculinity is changing, if at all?
I think we are starting to just see people for who they are and appreciating that. And I think that is the right direction to be heading. There are too many labels already, who is to say what being masculine even means.

What was the last vacation you took?
I actually just came back from Miami. I love it there. Similar to my character in Moonlight, I love the beach. I find it calming and they have great beaches there.


Being famous is an experience unlike anything else. What is the weirdest thing that’s happened to you since becoming a recognized face in Hollywood?
The weirdest thing is the perception people put on you. I’ve just had some awkward interactions with people because of who they think I should be vs. who I am. Not sure I will ever get used to that part of this job.

Who is your acting hero?
Sidney Poitier. For obvious reasons.

You’ve done a bit of modeling in the last year, appearing in a Calvin Klein underwear campaign and various magazine shoots including Dazed and Vogue. Do you find it quite similar to acting?
Not too similar. As my publicist likes to say, you are an actor who is having his picture taken, not a model. And that is nothing against models, it is just a different job that requires a different part of my personality.


Talk us through your decision to make acting your full-time career. Was that scary for you, or did you have a hunch you would be a big-time success?
It was a leap of faith. I had to follow my intuition and have faith that I was making the right decision in doing so. I think I made the right decision and it was something I was steering for since I was pretty young, but if something changes there are other passions of mine that I could follow and still make me happy I think. But this is where I am now and I’m happy to be here.

Let’s look into the crystal ball ten years from now. Where are you, and what are you doing?
Ha! Let’s see. You all are on the journey with me. I hope to still be making movies that make people feel something and maybe have an effect on how the world sees things.

Maggie Kelly is an Australian writer with a background in editorial, fashion, and lifestyle.
See more of her work on her website

the writer

Maggie Kelly

Maggie Kelly is an Australian writer with a background in editorial, fashion, and lifestyle. See more of her work on her website

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