Ashton Sanders feels like the next big thing. Many will remember him as Teen Chiron in the Oscar-winning Moonlight, his performance playing as one of the most emotional throughout a heart-wrenching film. He's helped update Richard Wright's very-necessary novel Native Son for a modern audience, giving us another amazing performance as Bigger Thomas. He's played alongside Denzel Washington (The Equalizer 2), John Goodman (Captive State), and most recently stepped into the 36 Chambers as a young RZA in Hulu's Wu-Tang: An American Saga. Throughout every performance, he's sunk his teeth deep into the material, transforming himself into the character; he's one of the actors today where you no doubt feel every movement, hang on every word, and are hungry for his next project.
Netflix's All Day and A Night, which is streaming now, finds Ashton once again serving us a strikingly real look into what life for some black men in America are like. In the film—which was written and directed by Black Panther co-writer Joe Robert Cole—has Sanders playing Jahkor, a young man who spends his prison bid reflecting on his life and all of the choices and decisions that landed him in that position. Featuring Westworld star Jeffrey Wright, Watchmen's Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, and Isaiah John (FX's Snowfall), Sanders' Jahkor is an aspiring rapper who's not known much but violence and the street life, and Ashton does what he does best: gives voice to the voiceless, further solidifying why he should be on the lips of anyone talking about who's really doing it in Hollywood today.
During a Zoom press junket for All Day and A Night (big up technology), we got to chat with Ashton Sanders about working with legends on-screen, him going two-for-two in playing rappers, and what he's watching during this quarantine.
How's the quarantine treating you?
It's all pretty weird. We're all living in a pretty weird time. But yeah, I'm thankful to be healthy and keeping it low key, keeping it secure. Doing good over here.
That's the best way to be.
Are you picking up any hobbies? Are you watching any movies or TV? How are you're spending your time?
I really just watch movies, dude, to be honest. I've been watching movies and bingeing shows, to be honest.
Yeah. I just got done watching Ozark. That's pretty cliche. Let me dig into my memory. Let's see. There's this show on HBO with Cynthia Erivo that's based on this Stephen King novel that was really fucking good. The Outsider. I think people should check that out. That was a really good watch.
Let's get into All Day and A Night, which really hit me. I've grown up seeing a lot of tales like this, especially in regards to the street life, but I was wondering for you, being someone from California, what was it about this film that drew you to the role specifically?
Initially, I feel like just with reading the script, I thought that it was a film project that a lot of people in our community were going to be able to relate to. Just the narrative and the character of Jahkor, whether it's us that we see in him or somebody that we know that we see in him, it's not too far away from us. So that was my initial draw to the role. I do think the film is kind of reminiscent to like a Baby Boy or like a Boyz n the Hood, and I feel like it's also very multi-layered and very different. It's very much a story of breaking generational curses and systematic oppression and a story of nature versus nurture. So I think all of those things collectively kind of drew me to the project, and then also this being my first central character that I've been able to portray within California, close to home. So all of those things kind of drew me to the character.
I'm going to assume you've known Jahkors in your life, right? Did you draw any personal interactions or experiences into this portrayal of the character?
Yes, totally. This character is definitely paying homage to all the Jahkors in my life. You know what I'm saying? Or just anybody who's in that predicament or who lives that type of lifestyle. Definitely.
You also got to work with people like Jeffrey Wright playing your father. What was it like working with him?
Man, it was amazing. Jeffrey is awesome. He's awesome. I have been a big fan of his work for a long time. Yeah, I was definitely excited to work with him. I think these are, for both of us as actors, just different types of roles for us. So it was cool to collaborate and kind of come together in the heavy moments that we do have in the movie.
Talk about some of the more challenging or most difficult scenes or moments in the film for you.
I would say all of the scenes with Jahkor's mother were definitely harder to shoot, just because they're so weighted. You know what I'm saying? Just so weighted in emotion and we see the transitioning where they were when Jah was a child to who he is when he's in prison. You know what I'm saying? So I think working with Kelly (Jenrette), those were some of the more challenging scenes to do, as well as the prison scenes. You know what I'm saying? The prison scenes were definitely tough. Maybe it was the weather conditions and just being in that prison, but you definitely feel like you're there. So collectively, it was all pretty challenging, but also very satisfying at the same time.
One thing that really stuck out to me while watching the film was that, prior to this role, we just saw you play the RZA on Hulu, and now you're in this film portraying Jahkor, who's also a rapper and producer. I've never seen you talk or heard you talk about wanting to make music, but is that something you really want to pursue in real life?
I can't say that. I'm honestly just focused on this acting right now, to be honest. I mean, maybe. Maybe one day, you know what I'm saying? People definitely vibe with the rap stuff that I have going on. Yeah, I guess I've never thought about being a rapper ever, even like tapping into RZA was something that was new to me. Although I do come from a musical background, you know what I'm saying? I grew up doing theater. That's there, but it's definitely not anything that I'm trying to pursue actively, at least right now.
What was that process like, getting into the rapping on this film? It felt like there were about two or three different songs that we hearing during the course of the film. Was that interesting for you? Was it difficult?
It's just new, but just like anything goes, when you do something over and over again, it becomes repetitive and you kind of get used to it. For me, it was just listening to the music and then I have somebody in the studio working with me and trusting that. You know what I'm saying? To be honest. Yeah, to be honest, I'm not looking at it as me being a rapper when I go into the studio. I'm looking at it as me being Jahkor and he's already a rapper, so let me put Jahkor on while I'm in the studio.
We spoke earlier about you working with a legend like Jeffrey, right? You've also worked on screen with Denzel Washington. Can you talk about some of the most important or memorable moments or things you've learned that you apply to you being an actor from two greats like that?
Yeah, these guys are just like so cool and so chill on set. So cool, calm, and collected. I remember shooting Equalizer 2 with Denzel and I was like so nervous and I tend to overthink my art, you know what I'm saying? Especially in that moment, I was just overthinking. He pulled me to the side and he was just like, "You know, you got it, man. Just trust yourself and just do less. You know what I'm saying? Just do less." And just that is something that has stuck with me. It's kind of like if you've done the work and if you trust yourself and if you know what you're doing, you don't have to second guess yourself, even in moments that are kind of heightened like that. Because when it comes down to it, it comes down to the work.
Are you finding it easier to be more at ease and more chill like they are on set?
Yeah. It's definitely comfortable, but every production is different. But this is definitely something that I'm going to be doing for the rest of my life. I come from a theater background, and so theater and television is definitely different. But as long as I'm in my character, you know what I'm saying, it's not too difficult because I know what I'm there to do.
Now a lot of people know you more for smaller things—I shouldn't call anything like Moonlight a small thing, but more like the art-house/indie side, with The Equalizer 2 probably being the biggest film you've been in thus far. Do you have aspirations for being in larger films as well or are you kind of just taking it as it goes?
I'm kind of just taking it as it goes, man. I know I'm being as true to my artistry as possible and as true to myself as possible when it comes to my film choices, and so I'm just taking it as it goes.