After 'Moonlight,' Trevante Rhodes Wants to Control the Filter of Black Men on Screen

After his powerful performance as Black in 'Moonlight,' Trevante Rhodes stars alongside Chris Hemsworth in '12 Strong' and reflects on why his new war film is unifying for audiences, how he was inspired to act by The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, and addresses rumors of him playing Green Lantern.

Trevante Rhodes Portrait
Complex Original

Image via David Cabrera

Trevante Rhodes Portrait

Most actors in Trevante Rhodes’ position would handle this fame thing a bit differently. They’d want to ride the momentum of a star-making turn in the Oscar-winning Moonlight by staying top of mind. If they had the same Calvin Klein-adworthy features, they’d inundate timelines with shirtless selfies, or sweaty post-workout pics. But Rhodes, when he does appear online, opts only for modest work promo or the occasional self-penned sonnet.

“People don’t really vibe with that too much,” the 27-year-old laughingly tells Complex regarding his poetry posts. “I feel like social media is, at least for me, just a public diary. People don’t understand, bro. Your children, your grandchildren, everybody that’s in your family will be able to go back and see the craziness you wrote, and so I want there to be a positive depiction. Not to say that I’m censoring, but when I do feel like I have an idea that I want to put out there, I put it out there.”

In a roundabout way, though, rationing his public image creates a drought that produces more thirst. But in Rhodes’ eyes, he’s redirecting our gaze to his growing body of work.

“Move in silence,” he says. “You’ll see me when you see me, and you’ll appreciate it more.”

What Rhodes wants us to appreciate next is the newly released action film 12 Strong, which is the true story of the elite Special Forces unit that was first on the ground in Afghanistan after 9/11. The Jerry Bruckheimer-produced war movie is a 180 from the intimate revelation that is Moonlight, but Rhodes says, for him, an underpinning of emotional gravity remains.

i hope to be gifted the opportunity to try everything, but i try to be the same person in everything, in the sense of bringing the same heart. it's something that i want people to receive.

“I hope to be gifted the opportunity to try everything, but I try to be the same person in everything, in a way, in the sense of bringing the same heart,” says Rhodes. “Because in all honesty, when I was younger, my two biggest inspirations—or, the two most accurate inspirations, rather—were that one episode of Fresh Prince, with his dad, and then John Q. Those were the ones that I remember being strong, but also vulnerable, true depictions of black men. And so I’m going to carry that essence in everything I do, no matter what it is.”

In 12 Strong, Rhodes plays Sgt. First Class Ben Milo, a weapons man who forms a special bond with one of the native children in Afghanistan and renders some of the film’s more heartwarming moments. As Milo is white in real life, Rhodes’ casting is a further testament to his capability as an actor, and perhaps to incremental progress in Hollywood as a whole. Trevante hopes showing the way Americans worked with the people of Afghanistan to fight terror will be an inspiring message given the current climate.

“Obviously, I was familiar with 9/11, but not this story. Just the fact that it’s a story about connectivity and the brotherhood between us and the Afghanistan people,” he says. “When I was younger, my understanding was that everyone in the Middle East was bad during the time. After 9/11, that was just the general consensus. And then to read a book and then read a script that depicted this story of us working with the indigenous people to overcome the negativity that’s in the country, it’s important, I think. Especially for us right now—perpetually—but right now specifically, you know?”

Trevante Rhodes Smile

What also meant a lot to Rhodes was getting to sit down for dinner with the actual Ben Milo, as the cast met their counterparts just ahead of the film’s New York premiere.

“Obviously he’s a white guy, but his eyes, man—he was so appreciative of the depiction. For me, that was everything,” Rhodes explains. “Whenever you tell a story about anybody, whoever you’re trying to depict if they appreciate it and they receive it, that’s everything.”

Much of this humility was instilled in Rhodes by his late grandmother, Gail McKay. Growing up, he bounced back and forth between her home in Ponchatoula, Louisiana, and being raised by his mother in Little Elm, Texas. “She would always call me King Trevante, and she would say, ‘Change the world,’” he says.

In order to start carrying that mission out, the first thing Rhodes spent his first big Hollywood check on was creating a scholarship in his grandmother's honor at his alma mater. It's only fitting as it was on the University of Texas campus that a casting director first saw Rhodes, an All-American track runner one semester from graduation, and put the bug in his ear that he should try acting. Rhodes booked the very first gig he auditioned for, and found steady work ever since, which led him to Moonlight, the upcoming Predator reboot, and Netflix’s post-apocalyptic thriller Bird Box. Given he’s staring in 12 Strong with Chris Hemsworth, aka Thor, it also opened the door for conversations about Rhodes making the all-important leap to comic book movies. At the top of the list are rumors about him being next in line to play Green Lantern.

“It’s an opportunity. It’s definitely an opportunity,” he says with measured consideration. “There are other opportunities, some in the Marvel Universe as well that I’m curious about. Obviously the script and the situation has to be right, the director has to be amazing, because no matter what it is you don’t wanna make a movie that isn’t incredible, or that you foresee being incredible. So I don’t know who I’ll be. We’ll see.”

It’s a deftly diplomatic answer from a rising actor who knows the world is his, at the moment, and doesn’t want to give anyone a reason to take it away.

“I’m learning,” he says with a wink.

Trevante Rhodes Thoughtful


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