Q&A: A year after the ‘Moonlight’ Oscar win, Trevante Rhodes is standing ’12 Strong’

Chris Hemsworth stars in the trailer for “12 Strong.”

Share via

On Feb. 26, it seemed like Trevante Rhodes’ heart stopped for a moment.

After embracing his costar Mahershala Ali when it was announced that “Moonlight” — not “La La Land” — had won the best picture Oscar, he grabbed his chest in disbelief. Stumbling past Isabelle Huppert and Shirley MacLaine, who both were visibly shocked, he hugged a similarly stunned Jaden Piner and emotional Ashton Sanders. Rhodes then regained control of himself, helped escort Naomie Harris and Janelle Monae up the stage stairs and walked into a phase of his career every budding actor dreams of.

“The car was moving [before ‘Moonlight’], but I was in the 10 miles per hour lane, which is fine because I’m moving and I’m appreciative,” he said. “But for so many reasons, this movie put me in the fast lane. Doing ‘Moonlight’ has informed everything that I think about this industry and the people I get to work with, the conversations I get to have and hopefully who I get to impact.”

“‘Moonlight’ didn’t just change the work, it changed everything.”

In the year or so since, Rhodes has been in (or will be in soon) about eight projects including a “music movie” for Jay-Z and Beyonce directed by Ava DuVernay and “12 Strong,” his latest picture, which is out Friday. In August he will star in a reboot of the 1987 sci-fi film "Predator,” and he was also cast in the Netflix thriller “Bird Box” opposite Sandra Bullock and Sarah Paulson.

The Times checked in with Rhodes a few weeks shy of the anniversary of the “Moonlight” Oscar triumph to find out about how his life has changed, being a sex symbol, working with DuVernay and his latest role as a horse-riding first responder.

From the outside looking in, seems like your last year has been eventful. How do you reflect on it?

People say all this stuff, but nothing has changed for me personally. Professionally, everything has changed, which is a blessing. People care to look at me a little bit. That’s awesome, and kind of addicting.

You’re a legitimate celebrity now.

I don’t understand it. I’m just listening to whatever they say in that regard. If they say I’m somebody who people say they care to look at, I’m like, “Thank you people. Thanks for saying this. I love you and please keep saying it.” [laughs]

Trevante Rhodes' latest film is, "12 Strong." He starred in last year's Academy Award-winning "Moonlight."
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

What did you do the day after the Oscars?

I went back to work. I was in the middle of shooting “The Predator.” It’s a wonderful moment to be in but you can’t harp on everything, good or bad.

You’ve been in a couple of projects since “Moonlight,” but what attracted to you to “12 Strong” as your next big role?

I felt it was, in many ways, the best next step. It was the next movie that really pulled on me. Having the opportunity to work with [producer] Jerry Bruckheimer — who is someone I’ve watched — and then when I met with [director] Nicolai [Fuglsig], he was so passionate. I’m willing to follow anyone who’s that passionate.

The film tells the story of the first Special Forces team deployed to Afghanistan after Sept. 11, who must work with an Afghan warlord to take down the Taliban.

It’s about a moment in time that I lived. I have a very clear perspective of that day and to have the opportunity to live, in some sense, the life of someone who was a first responder. … In my mind, it's the most interesting thing because now I have two perspectives of the same event in some way.

One of the interesting things about that mission is that they had to fight on horses. Did you know how to ride a horse before the film?

No, and it was tough. And it’s very tough on your lower regions, if you know what I mean. [laughs] It was not fun. But I got to the point where I was relatively proficient and that was fun. I feel like it’s like being on a motorcycle — I’ve never been on one, so I don’t know — but it’s a living being. I want to have a horse now.

And you were filming this while doing the award season and promotional tour for “Moonlight,” right?

We did it for three months in New Mexico during the “Moonlight” hubbub. It was like a crash course in being a successful actor, having to fly back and forth.

Did you get a chance to meet the real responder you portray?

Not mine. I had the opportunity to meet the guys who Chris [Hemsworth] and Michael [Shannon] play. I hope to get to meet some of the other guys and see how they feel about the film.

How, then, did you go about preparing?

The lucky part about this story is that it's classified information so nobody knows too much. There wasn’t a black guy, so there wasn’t pressure with my character specifically. But there was pressure to be accurate on a global scale. I just wanted to encapsulate the essence and heart and mind and resilience — that warrior aspect — of what it is to be a honest soldier, a real hero.

I have to admit that one of the things that stood out to me in the film was your teeth. As a military brat, I don’t know anyone in the services with teeth that white.

[laughs] It’s because I’m dark. That contrast is so beautiful and I'm so appreciative. Even when I’m grimacing in a movie, it looks like I’m smiling. I get in trouble so much when I’m on set. They're like “Tre, stop smiling.” I’m like, “This is my angry face.” [laughs] So, it’s a gift and a curse.

On that note, you are a sex symbol.

I do not understand that.

What do you mean? Last year you bared almost all for Calvin Klein, and your photo is now the background on people's cellphones. Some were saying you were a better choice for “Sexiest Man Alive” than Blake Shelton.

You have certain people who are emphatic about you, which is amazing. But you can’t let that get to you. I appreciate all of it, to everybody tuning in, but I don’t pay attention to all of that.

Are you sure?

In high school, I was the guy on the track team running really fast who’d run at the pace of the other guy, look at him and take off past him. But then you get whooped. So, you’re never the best at anything — it’s just valuable to keep that mental.

Let's talk Jay-Z’s “Family Feud” music video.

Ava [DuVernay] is amazing.

You went from Barry Jenkins to another industry powerhouse in less than a year.

She calls it a “music movie,” but I was in New York in Central Park reading [“I Wrote This For You” by Iain S. Thomas] when I get a call. I don’t answer and then my team tells me that Ava is going to call me. I’m like “[Shoot], I missed Ava’s call.” I call her back and she’s like “I have this opportunity … would you be interested?” I’m like, “Yes. Where? When?” Then she tells me it’s for Jay-Z and Beyonce.

A week, two weeks later, we were shooting it and it was awesome. We shot in one of these massive houses [in Los Angeles].

Did you ever think you would have a year that included both an Oscar-winning movie and working for Jay-Z and Beyonce?

I’m the type of person who sees every day as a gift and surprise and dope as hell. My job is now hanging out with people I have a genuine admiration for and getting to know them. I don’t really spend time being like, “This is amazing.” I know it is and appreciate it but I don't have time to do that.

But my life isn’t amazing because of that. It’s amazing because my mom told me she wanted to go to Hawaii and we went for her birthday. That’s amazing that I can do that. That’s what I work for.