Ashton Sanders (Bigger Thomas)
James Kleinmann: How much of a draw was the fact that the screenplay had been written by Suzan-Lori Parks?
Ashton Sanders: “I come from a theatre background, so I’d been in school studying her work. She has a play called Topdog/Underdog that I was scene studying a couple of years ago while I was at school at DePaul University in Chicago. So I was definitely familiar with all of her work and her legacy before starting the project and she was definitely one of the reasons why I wanted to sign on, to work with her. I think she’s a genius. Another reason I signed on was because of the similarities with today. Although the book was written by Richard Wright in the 1930s I thought it was incredible that we’re still being faced with the same kind of racial issues in America and the world. I thought it was definitely important to showcase this story right now and also to do it in a modern depiction. It’s definitely important, these racial topics they’re confronting.”
You said at Sundance after the screening that this was a role that “commanded everything of you” and I wondered in what ways it was demanding?
Ashton Sanders: “This character Bigger is multilayered, he’s super complex, he’s kinda what could be seen as a representation of the black experience. That being so heavy, obviously as an actor you want to give yourself to the character, to the story. I think everybody in the cast and all the creatives involved, we all knew what we were collectively creating. I always want to do important work, work that can be challenging to myself as an actor. As of late I’ve been interested in complex characters, whether it’s Chiron in Moonlight or Bigger in Native Son.”
Can you expand on the idea of the representation of the black experience in the movie?
Ashton sanders: “I think that we are definitely living in artistic Renaissance right now, which is rare that we get to experience that. I feel that it’s important that we are doing work to showcase different types of experience. This character of Bigger is a representation of the black experience of the fear that we face with being in America. The anxieties that are put on us while living in America from white society or from whatever has been put on us. Also from the hope of wanting more as a black man in America, but feeling so isolated at the same time. All of this collectively is enough to drive you mad and I think this character is dealing with that in the script with also this other’s layer that in 2019 Bigger Thomas is an Afropunk so he’s further misunderstood and isolated from society and that was something that was really interesting to play, because rarely do we see representation of different types of black men on film. Everything about Bigger is important like his look and the way he’s representing a certain type of black experience.”
Can you talk a bit more about the artist renaissance you mentioned, especially that it’s happening in the current political climate, and how much a part of it you feel with the roles you’re being offered.
Ashton Sanders: “I think that chaos and art go hand in hand. Usually in a renaissance you have all this chaos that’s inspiring the art that’s happening in real time. So I feel that everything going on in the world is fucked up, but it’s kind of right on time with what’s going on in art. I think that art is a reflection of real life so I guess people of colour are able now to use their voices to showcase a specific type of black life. Maybe I could be more in demand because of the choices of my projects, but that’s strategic as well, I’m very aware of the type of films I’m doing. It’s just cool to be able to be doing this type of work in this time. I think that’s very rad.”
How much input did you have on the look of the character because you’re always very stylish yourself, as you are today.
Ashton Sanders: “Thank you. I’m not going to say that I had creative control, we had a really good costume department we had Elizabeth Birkett, better known as Beth Gibbs, who’s a really big name in street culture on the film. Her and her husband have this store called Union LA, it’s a big store in fashion street culture and she definitely knew what she was doing. When I went to the fitting she basically had everything figured out. If anything, I would like add my two cents and she would let me put a pin on a t-shirt or wear some Doc Martins or something.”
Were you into punk yourself before taking on the role?
Ashton Sanders: “Bigger is or was a part of me before I knew what his name was. Definitely at college I was going to house shows and punk shows and doing all of that. Being in the punk culture in LA, although I wasn’t “in it, in it” it was around me so I definitely was familiar with the territory of the script. With that I felt like I was able to understand the character and portray him more authentically, as opposed to putting on a character, an archetype.”
What did you take away from making the film?
Ashton Sanders: Realising how America can make a black man feel out of control, even when you feel like there is hope or there is some type of control it can be snatched from you, and for what? This story of Bigger Thomas is a tragedy, it’s a beautiful tragedy. I hope it’s not a common tragedy.”
You chose to read the book only after you’d completed filming, why did you decide to do it that way around?
Ashton Sanders: “I initially started reading the book, but I talked to Rashid and we agreed that although the story are one and the same, we’re living in a different time and he wouldn’t have wanted that Bigger Thomas to get in the way of developing the Bigger Thomas that I had to develop. The book is a lot darker than our version of the story, it’s a lot more violent, but again the times were different, although socially and racially the themes are the same within the screenplay. They are two totally different time periods, the 1930s and 2019, and so it just made sense to just focus on what I was creating and then to go back and be like ‘oh, ok cool, oh, that’s interesting.’ To be able to reflect on what I did and to look at what had already been done.
Thinking of the industry and diverse representation, are you optimistic about the future?
Ashton Sanders: “Optimistic? Sure, yeah. I want to say that this artistic Renaissance is definitely promising you know. I also feel like black people can be fetishised in entertainment, that happens often. So we’ll see. We have a lot of good work that’s been coming up from 2015 or 2016 up to now, a lot of black creatives, black artists, black actors being recognised for certain things individually that need to be recognised within our culture. So it’s promising, I have hope.”
You already knew your Native Son co-star Kiki Layne, you studied at the same college I believe and had acted together before?
Ashton Sanders: “Yeah, that’s my girl! Kiki and I both went to dePaul University in Chicago and studied at the theatre school and I was a Freshman when she was a Junior. I’d always seen her around school, but it’s not like we were hanging out. My first time working with Kiki was on a film that I did in Chicago called Captive State, the sci-fi that just came out with Rupert White. That was our first time linking on screen, being in a scene together. So this follow up was pretty crazy. At this point I feel like Kiki will be somebody that I’m probably going to be working with pretty frequently in my career. We work really well together. I have a lot of respect for her and really admire her as an actress and as a very strong black woman. She’s very dope. Yeah, that’s my girl.”
Margaret Qualley (Mary) and Nick Robinson (Jan)
Mary and Jan are both characters trying to find themselves to some degree aren’t they?
Margaret Qualley: “I definitely feel that Mary is trying to find herself, she’s definitely someone who’s been wildly privileged and I think blinded by her privilege to a certain degree and sort of out of touch with reality.”
Nick Robinson: “I think that the question of identity and place is definitely a theme in this, because everyone is tying to find how they fit into whatever situation they’re in and the ways that changes based off the people that you’re around. I think that in that sense all the characters are trying to find themselves in different ways.”
Ashton Sanders waited until after filming to read Richard Wright’s novel which this film is based upon, did you both do the same?
Margaret Qualley: “I didn’t read the book before starting either, in one of my first conversations with Rashid he actually discouraged me because he didn’t want me to become attached to something that was in the original.”
Nick Robinson: “Yeah, I had the same conversation with Rashid. I did end up reading it afterwards and I was taken aback by how hard it is to read even today, it’s brutal. So I can’t imagine what it was like when it came out in 1940. I can see how it would be completely groundbreaking. It was beautifully written, but I had a hard time getting through some of it because it was so disturbing.”
As you mentioned it was published in 1940, what makes it still relevant today?
Nick Robinson: “First of all we didn’t set the film in the 1930s like the book, our film is present day and that alone highlights just how relevant it is. This idea of systematic racism is still obviously very prevalent, it’s just little more subtle now than it was in ’30s, but it’s still there. I think what the film does effectively is highlight what the consequences are for everyone involved.”
Margaret Qualley: “I think something that’s great about Suzan-Lori Parks and Rashid Johnson is that they weren’t interested in creating characters that fit into stereotypes that we’re comfortable with. All these characters have really good intentions, they fail in certain ways, but they are all really well-intentioned and I think that’s something that people can relate to and hopefully that invites some level of introspection. There’s not good guys and bad guys in this film there’s just people trying hard and maybe in the case of my character Mary she’s trying so hard that it’s really frustrating.”
Without giving too much away there’s a death scene in the film that I found incredibly hard to watch. One of the most uncomfortable death sequences I’ve ever seen on film.
Margaret Qualley: “Great! I genuinely mean that, I think what is appealing about this movie is how uncomfortable it is for me. It was very uncomfortable for me to play Mary. It’s my job to love my character and she’s not maybe the easiest person to love; she is very frustrating, but I really enjoyed that experience.”
Nick, what can you tell us about working with Ashton Sanders?
Nick Robinson: “I think he’s exceptional in this movie. He has style, he has this really interesting perspective on acting and he came from theatre in Chicago and he has these real chops. You never know what he’s going to do next when he’s on screen and I think that’s perfect for this character. He’s great to work with and it just made for a great collaborative environment.”
Director Rashid Johnson and Sanaa Lathan (Trudy)
What did Richard Wright’s novel mean to each of you before you started work on the movie?
Sanaa Lathan: “I read it when I was fourteen or fifteen in Junior High School, I didn’t remember a lot, but I do remember the emotional impact that it had on me. There were just some striking scenes that never left my consciousness. There were some really earth shattering emotions that I had. Coming to it now I was blown away by how it translates to modern day society and that some of the issues that he’s going through still apply today, which is unfortunate. I was thrilled to be a part of this.”
Rashid Johnson: “I had never come across a protagonist that was negotiating fear in the way this character was. It was really an exploration of this existential journey of this young man. It was introduced to me by my mother when I was fifteen and she gave it to me with the caveat that it was a very challenging book and that the protagonist she found to be quite problematic. As a young teenager when your mother says ‘I’m not sure if I like this guy’ you’re like ‘who is this guy?!’ It becomes this question of is this an antihero? Who and how am I to respond to this character who is exposing his own dilemma to us in such an honest and challenging way. That led me to want to continue to have an investment in the story.”
Two film adaptations have already been made of Native Son, why did you want to make a third?
Rashid Johnson: “I think contemporising this story gives us an opportunity like very few things do, to think through the character that we were introduced to with the novel in 1939 and then to begin to animate that character and bring him to life in 2019. That forces us to imagine what has changed in this country as a result and so that opportunity is quite challenging. It leads to some quite tragic and frustrating returns. I wanted to tell this story because it’s unexpected in some respects, it talks about the fragility of the psyche, it talks about coming of age, it talks about masculinity, it talks about race, it talks about economic disparity. It touches on so many of the touchstones and concerns that we’re exploring today as a culture under the circumstances that we’re currently in both politically and socially. Any film, any story that’s able to explore all of those notions while giving us opportunities to think through their complexity is I think a worthwhile thing to tell.”
Having read the book as teenager, what was it like returning to the story years later?
Sanaa Lathan: “Well, coming to it as an actor is a different experience than being a reader of the whole story and being in the audience of the book. When I come to something as an actor I’m not worried about what happens outside of my character’s world, I have my expectations, I have my wants and my objectives. So for me that was exciting because I feel like Trudy is every woman, she’s every mother who wants her son to survive in this world. In this day and age for black boys in America it’s a real thing that happens when your kid leaves the house and you don’t know if they’re coming back. Violence is happening every day and I just identified with her love for her son and wanting the best for him and wanting him to survive.”
What can you tell us about collaborating with the Pulitzer Prize winning writer Suzan-Lori Parks on the screenplay and the freedom you felt to make changes to the book?
Rashid Johnson: “Suzan-Lori Parks is a really brilliant woman, a brilliant writer and our collaboration was a really thorough and fulfilling experience for me. I can’t speak to her experience, but since she’s not here, I will say it was fulfilling for her as well! What it gave us was a chance to sit down with a story that has a past of being challenged and that we were challenged by. It’s a story within the canon of American literature that has such an amplified voice and so there’s a responsibility that comes with interpreting it. Contemporising it gave us a window where we could really explore so many of what we think Richard Wright’s intentions were, as well as thinking through how those intentions would have evolved and changed with exposure to the world that we’re currently living in. So with great responsibility comes great challenge and great reward and so it was a fascinating process!”
I loved the visual style of the movie the recurring sequence where Bigger is standing still and the world is moving fast around him. Could you talk a bit about that recurring motif?
Rashid Johnson: “In an interesting way that came through the process of filming. The first time we shot a sequence like that was in the symphony hall. I saw this room and I said ‘this is a really beautiful room’ and I was thinking a lot about how Bigger’s this really sophisticated, thoughtful young guy who needs these moments to do this self-exploration. It’s almost as if he’s participating in a mindfulness exercise and thinking about issues of stillness. After I executed the first one there were a couple of other moments in the film where I thought it was a great opportunity to re-explore that motif of Bigger being kind of still as the world continues to move.”
It reminds me a bit of The Graduate at the beginning where Dustin Hoffman’s character is surrounded by people talking to him and he’s also a character trying to find his place in the world.
Rashid Johnson: “Yes. Absolutely that’s something I’m quite familiar with as well!”
What do you think your experience as an artist brought to the film?
Rashid Johnson: “A lot of the visual cues and the framing and the palette of the film and how we explore the landscape of Bigger’s world visually has a relation to my life as a visual artist.”
What can you tell us about the Dalton house set; the artwork choices for their collection we see displayed on the walls throughout their home?
Rashid Johnson: “The work is by a lot of my friends. It was an opportunity to explore the access that certain people have to culture and complex cultural investigations without necessarily committing to the presence of the characters who are represented in their homes through artwork. This family do come into the presence of Bigger, but it’s as if Bigger’s kinfolk are present prior to him ever stepping into the space. For that family to be the host of so many of these complicated stories of artists is another aspect to explore in how their psychology functions. You see the image of Malcom X, you see a painting of Henry Taylor’s, Amy Sherald, Kara Walker, one of my works Anxious Man…”
Sanaa Lathan: “Is that your cameo?”
Rashid Johnson: “That is my cameo! I’m also in several of the the fast motion sequences where Bigger is still. You see my wandering through those spaces.
The film premiered at Sundance but it will be aired on HBO rather than released theatrically, how do you feel about that?
Sanaa Lathan: “I love that HBO is doing it because I feel like it will reach more people and I think it’s an important story that needs to be talked about and debated and considered, and so the more people who see it the better.”
NATIVE SON debuts Saturday 6th April 10pm on HBO.
Synopsis: Based on the classic novel by Richard Wright, Native Son tells the story of Bigger Thomas (Ashton Sanders), a young African-American living in Chicago who is hired as a chauffeur for affluent businessman Will Dalton (Bill Camp). As Thomas enters this seductive new world of money and power — including a precarious relationship with Dalton’s daughter, Mary (Margaret Qualley) — he faces unforeseen choices and perilous circumstances that will alter the course of his life forever.
Native Son is directed by newcomer Rashid Johnson from a screenplay by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks. The cast also includes Nick Robinson, KiKi Layne, Elizabeth Marvel, David Alan Grier and Sanaa Lathan. Native Son is an HBO Films presentation in association with A24; produced by Matthew Perniciaro and Michael Sherman of Bow and Arrow.